This Family Business Owner Is Driven to Succeed
Damon Cartelli was clicking his way to the Boston College football Web site to see which opponents would be coming to the Heights, as the Chestnut Hill campus is called, for games this fall.
Years ago, he probably would have known the schedule by heart, and the fact that this alum and long-time season-ticket holder didn’t on this occasion — not to mention the hard truth that most of this year’s tickets will be used by friends, family members (his father likes to go), and very good customers — speaks volumes about the changes that have taken place in his life since he was a diehard regular at Alumni Stadium.
For starters, his two children are now 5 and 8, and both will be playing soccer this fall, and on Saturdays, which will take care of some of those Eagles’ games. Also, there are the two titles on his business card — president and general manager of Fathers & Sons Collection, as well as the one you don’t see: he’s also general sales manager until he hires a new one. All that keeps him quite busy. And then, there’s the fishing boat he intends to keep on the water and, more specifically, a favorite spot about 30 miles off Block Island, for as long as the weather permits.
Add it all up, and there probably won’t be much time for football this autumn. But Cartelli has accepted this as part of his progression as husband, father, and business owner. In short, priorities have changed, if not his loyalty to his alma mater.
Change has certainly come to the family business. Indeed, Cartelli, who came to Fathers & Sons — or back to it, as the case may be — after aspirations to enter the legal profession failed to materialize nearly 20 years ago (more on that later), has moved out of the large shadow cast by his father, Bob, and is now presiding over the host of dealerships on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield, and is co-owner (with his father) of two dealerships in Greenfield as well.
He acquired Fathers & Sons in September 2008, and has managed to keep his sense of humor about that major acquisition coming just as the economy was going into freefall and the auto industry was just weeks away from the most disastrous period in its history.
“My timing was impeccable,” he joked, adding quickly that, while it’s been a long, hard slog, the family business has made what amounts to a nearly full recovery from the days when showrooms across the country were devoid of customers and inventories were mounting.
Indeed, as he talked about sales of Audi, the hottest of several brands the company sells, he looked at a list of cars slated for delivery in the coming weeks. “Let’s see … sold, sold, sold, sold,” he said, running his finger down a roster of various models and lamenting that he didn’t have more product to sell. “Sold, sold, sold … it’s a good problem to have — I guess.”
Other brands, including some Volvo models, are faring well also, he said, adding that, as the car industry continues to get healthier, change continues to come to the business. There are fewer dealerships overall, and greater consolidation, all of which make it more difficult to do what he’s done — rise in the ranks and own a small chain of dealerships — unless one has a great deal of luck or the kind of family-run operation he ascended within.
“The capital involved to get into this business is intensive,” he explained. “I don’t think it’s realistic for people to think they can come in out of college or even years after and say, ‘I want to own a dealership’ unless they’re in a family or have some family wealth, or hit it big somewhere, somehow to have the capital to get it going.
“The difference now is keeping it going once you get it started — that’s more challenging, and for a number of reasons,” he continued. “Anyone can own one if you have the money, but how do you keep it going, keep it profitable, and keep everyone employed?”
For this, the latest installment of its Profiles in Business series, BusinessWest talked at length with Cartelli about all that’s happening with his work and life, thus answering the question about why he’s been less visible at BC home games.
Not Idle Talk
For his talk with BusinessWest, Cartelli sat down behind the desk in the sales manager’s office, which is around the corner from the space with his own name on the door.
“This is where I’ve been spending a lot of my time lately,” he explained, adding that, while he continues his search for a new occupant for that office, he is carrying out most all of that job’s responsibilities — up to and including sitting in warm vehicles in the parking lot trying to figure out where noises, identified by concerned customers, might be originating.
“You can’t hear the noise if the air conditioner is on,” he explained. “So it gets pretty hot in those cars.”
Cartelli is certainly experienced in identifying noises, as he is with virtually every other aspect of the industry. Indeed, like many who are now managing second- or third-generation family operations, he grew up in the business, learning every nuance, from washing cars when he was in grade school to stacking parts during his adolescence, to learning how to sell when he was still a senior in high school.
He said some of the earliest memories are eating lunch with his grandfather, Domenic, at the counter in the Sears Roebuck store near the rotary on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield; the original Fathers & Sons was located across the street.
Actually, our story starts years earlier, when Domenic opened a gas station on High Street in Holyoke and eventually won a Pontiac franchise. The second generation of the family, Damon’s father, Bob, eventually joined the business and diversified it into foreign cars such as Jaguar and MG, before splitting off that segment of the operation and going into business on Memorial Avenue.
Damon Cartelli said that he did just about everything one can do at a dealership while growing up, from sweeping floors to cleaning cars; from tracking parts to basic work in the body shop. In his senior year in high school, he received from tutoring from long-time sales manager Vinny Fusaro in the art of the auto sale.
“I learned a lot from him about the psychology of selling and the ins and outs of taking care of customers,” he explained. “And those essentials haven’t changed, really, from the steps and process of meeting the customer, greeting the customer, finding common ground, and then listening to their needs and matching them with a vehicle that meets those needs.
“It’s funny — everything’s been changed and turned upside-down by the Internet,” he continued, “but the basic steps of selling haven’t changed a bit from when I started 22 years ago, and I’m sure Vinny would say the same thing, and he started in the ’60s.”
But while Cartelli grew up in the car business, he said he was not his plan to make it a career. Instead, after majoring in political science and pre-law at BC, his objective was to enter the legal field.
“My uncle was an attorney, and my cousin was an attorney, and they both tried to dissuade me from that profession,” he said with a laugh. “But I still enjoyed the banter, the back-and-forth nature of the work, the intellectual conversation, the writing, all of that. That’s what I was going to do.
“I tried to get an internship at the State House for the summer, and then go to law school in the fall,” he continued. “The internship never came together, and by fall I wasn’t ready for law school. My father said, ‘come on home, I have some work for you.’”
That work turned out to be at his summer home in Sturbridge, sanding decks, painting walls, and other forms of “manual labor,” as he called it.
“I decided that was the birds — I just wasn’t cut out for that — and I eventually took him up on his offer to join the business,” he said of his re-entry of sorts into auto sales. Over the next several years, he would have several titles on his business card, including used car manager, new car manager, and eventually general manager.
When Cartelli ascended to GM in 2002, what he called “an interesting management dynamic,” a power struggle of sorts developed. Elaborating, he said while he was more or less in charge of running the operation, his father was still president, visible, and quite accessible, which led to some problems.
His Coupe Runneth Over
“We had a lot of employees who had been here for years and years,” he explained, “and if they didn’t like what I had to say, well, it was like if you didn’t like what dad said, go see mom.’
“If they didn’t like what I was telling them, they’d go see my dad, and maybe he would — without talking to me, because he didn’t know they’d come to me — tell them something different. It was definitely a difficult period in terms of managing that dynamic between the two of us and staying on top of communications.”
In 2008, Damon acquired the dealership from his father and thus shed himself of the problem — as his father focused on the Greenfield operations — only to have to trade it for something far worse.
That would be the Great Recession, which rocked virtually every sector of the economy, but shook the auto industry to its core.
Looking back on those anxious times, Cartelli said business all but came to a halt for a few months, and what followed was a prolonged period marked by uncertainty, desperate measures such as Cash for Clunkers, and wholesale changes to the local auto scene.
Several dealerships, especially smaller outfits and suburban operations, closed their doors, and many names that had dominated the landscape for decades disappeared during the recession or the shakeup that followed it, he explained, leaving fewer family operations. It’s a trend that seems destined to continue.
“For years, that’s how it went — family operations passed from one generation the next,” he continued. “But the business is heading in a different direction now, with conglomerates and chains gobbling up all the mom-and-pop stores and franchisers trying to consolidate and getting rid of a lot of those smaller, family-run business that have been around for decades.”
When asked about the many hats he’s wearing now, Cartelli said his schedule is definitely more crowded, but he can handle it, in large part due to a talented staff that handles their assignments well. More to the point, he doesn’t really have a choice.
“Being general sales manager has been good … it’s allowed me to get my hands dirty a little bit; it’s not good to be isolated and out of the action and away from the pulse of what’s going on,” he explained. “I’ve actually been enjoying this for the past few weeks, talking to customers, getting a feel for where they’re at, what they’re doing, what they want to accomplish, and how we can help them.”
Meanwhile, he’s dealing with the lack of Audi inventory, which is one of the many new realities of the auto industry these days.
“The challenge with Audi is inventory, inventory, inventory — we can’t get enough,” he said while explaining the many reasons why. “Three or four years ago, dealers were carrying 60 to 90 to 120 days’ supply of inventory. When the economic downturn hit, manufacturers cut production, and we went down to 30 to 45 days’ supply. And the manufacturers realized that, if we have that kind of supply, they don’t have to incentivize us as much, and they make more money per car.
“Now that we’re coming out of it and they’re starting to build more cars, they’re very cognizant of the fact that they don’t want too many cars on the lots, because if they do, they’ll have to incentivize more, and that will reduce their margins,” he continued. “Plus, with the world economy, they’re shipping a lot of cars; they’re not cutting production — they’re just cutting the production that’s coming to the U.S.”
As he talked with BusinessWest just after the July 4th holiday, Cartelli said that weekend marked his first on the water with his boat — the latest he had ever started a season.
His June schedule was packed, he explained, especially on weekends, forcing the late start. July will be a little better, although when he talked to BusinessWest he was preparing to head to Chicago and a Kia dealers’ meeting that would take care of another weekend. “My plate is definitely full,” he said.
It will be even moreso in the fall, as soccer starts for his children and other endeavors compete for his time.
The trips to Chestnut Hill are now few and far between, he said, adding quickly that, while he still cares greatly about how his Eagles fare against UMass, Notre Dame, and the teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference, there are many more pressing matters at the moment.
Such as getting out from behind the sales manager’s desk and meeting some customers.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]