Home Sections Archive by category Autos (Page 2)

Autos

Autos Sections

On the Move — Always

The new car wash in West Springfield is the latest addition to an ever-growing portfolio of facilities for the Balise Auto Group.

The new car wash in West Springfield is the latest addition to an ever-growing portfolio of facilities for the Balise Auto Group.

As he talked about the very latest addition to the already-expansive portfolio for the Balise Auto Group, a car wash just off Riverdale Street in West Springfield, Jeb Balise said it was a capital-intensive, very necessary supplement to the collection.

Capital-intensive because car washes, as some might know but others might not, are now very sophisticated, computer-operated facilities offering an ever-greater array of wash options. And necessary because … well, consumers are becoming ever-more demanding, and, likewise, the auto business is ever-more competitive.

So auto groups like Balise need to respond with the proverbial ‘more’ and ‘better.’ ‘More,’ as in more products and services to offer those customers, and ‘better,’ as in better than the competition.

And this mindset reflects itself in everything from the company’s growing stable of car washes (there are now three, including two in Western Mass.) to the ongoing work to replace or renovate the group’s large roster of dealerships, including the Balise Nissan store a half-mile east of the car wash on Riverdale Street, to an insurance agency in Rhode Island as part of the mix.

“We’re making sure we’re giving the customer everything they want for support instead of just selling them a car,” said Balise as he talked about additions to the number of collision centers, used-car facilities, and more. “So if someone buys a car from us, they don’t have to worry about collision repair or getting their car cleaned or insurance; we can pretty much provide holistically everything they need for the life of that car.”

He offered those thoughts in an interview in one of the sales offices at Balise Nissan, the latest of the company’s dealerships to be replaced, or, in this case, given a huge makeover. Long operated under the name Jerry Rome Nissan, the facility now bears the Balise name.

Open for just over two months, the ‘new’ dealership was essentially gutted and rebuilt from the ground up, said Balise, adding that it is the first store selling this brand to incorporate new imagery and design elements developed by the carmaker.

The Nissan dealership on Riverdale Street now carries the Balise name. It’s the latest of the company’s dealerships to undergo extensive renovations or new construction.

The Nissan dealership on Riverdale Street now carries the Balise name. It’s the latest of the company’s dealerships to undergo extensive renovations or new construction.

“There was nothing left of the showroom — we stripped it right down to columns and roof, basically,” he explained. “We really rebuilt it, and you can feel it; you would never know it was a retro.”

That’s the word he chose for a dealership built in the ’80s and ’90s — before they became far more spacious (50,000 square feet in the case of the Toyota dealership, also on Riverdale Street), comfortably equipped, and customer-friendly.

As he talked about the Nissan store and offered a quick tour, pointing out its larger, revamped showroom and well-appointed service waiting area, Balise said there are a few minor touches to be completed before a grand opening can be staged — probably later this month.

And as those final touches are made, thoughts are already turning to what’s next, said Balise, adding that the company embarked on a massive campaign to make over facilities for all the brands it sells more than a decade ago, and there are still a few projects left to undertake.

One is the Balise Mazda facility on the other (north) side of Riverdale Street. Built in 1984, it is certainly showing its age, said Balise, adding that plans will be on the drawing board soon for either new construction or another extensive renovation.

Meanwhile, another nameplate in line to have a new home is Kia, which became part of the Balise stable in 2015 and has been housed in a small facility that was once a Mercedes dealership a decade ago.

Kia is a rising star in the auto galaxy, said Balise, adding that it has an attractive mix of cars, vans, and SUVs, and it will soon have a home befitting that status. Various options are currently being reviewed, and no formal plans have been announced, he went on, noting that both the Kia and Mazda facilities will be upgraded within the next 24 months.

“Our plans will be really impressive,” said Balise in reference to both projects, still in the developmental stage. “These will be either brand-new buildings or significant renovations — total change.”

As for the car washes, Balise said they are part of broader efforts to serve the full gamut of customer needs and provide additional layers of value.

The company started with a facility in Hyannis, where it also has several dealerships, then added one on East Columbus Avenue in 2016; the West Springfield location opened in January.

There are two more car washes on the drawing board for the next 24 months, said Balise, adding that the specific markets have not been identified.

The car washes offer ample evidence of consumers taking better care of their vehicles, but also of the value that auto groups are trying to provide.

Indeed, the car washes are strategically located to serve customers at the Balise dealerships (there are three on Columbus Avenue and a half-dozen on Riverdale Street), he noted.

Those who buy a car at any of the Balise dealerships get 60 days of free washes, he went on, and they also get special pricing on both everyday washes and the hugely popular ‘unlimited plans,’ whereby consumers can wash their car as often as they want for one monthly fee.

As for new dealerships, the company is always looking for new opportunities — in this market and others, he went on, adding that, despite an ongoing wave of consolidation within the industry, there are still a number of single dealerships and small groups that could be added to the portfolio if the conditions were right.

“Even with all the consolidation, it’s still a fragmented business,” he told BusinessWest. “The majority of facilities are owned by someone who might have two or three stores, or one store.

“We’re just focusing on the best-location, best-franchise philosophy,” he went on, and then making sure our facilities exceed the customers’ expectations.”

— George O’Brien

Autos Cover Story Sections

Awaiting the ‘Autohaus’

Michelle and Peter Wirth

Michelle and Peter Wirth

Michelle Wirth started her career with Mercedes-Benz as a mechanical engineer. Early on, after only a few visits to Stuttgart, Germany, where the cars are designed and manufactured, she learned that the company doesn’t build to industry standards — it creates an environment where engineers can design to their own, higher standards. These are lessons she and her husband, Peter, apply to their life and how they do business, especially with their new venture, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, set to open next month.

Peter Wirth doesn’t know exactly how long it’s been since Mercedes Benz has had a presence in Western Mass. with a dealership.

He does know that it’s been … well, long enough.

As in, long enough that he knows he and his wife, Michelle, and fellow partner Rich Hesse have a lot of work to do in many different realms as they prepare to open Mercedes-Benz of Springfield on the site of the old Plantation Inn across from Mass. Turnpike exit 6 in Chicopee.

For starters, the partners in this nearly $12 million enterprise have to let people know that Mercedes is, indeed, back in the 413 more than a decade after a small dealership on Riverdale Street, this region’s auto mile, if you will, closed its doors, leaving area consumers to travel to Hartford or just east of Worcester to do business.

And they intend to get that job done in a number of ways, from intensive, targeted marketing to a grand-opening celebration (date to be determined), to some work within the community even before the doors open, to show that they are not just here to sell cars (more on that later).

But there is other work to do, and most of it falls in the category of showing just how much Mercedes-Benz — the company, the cars, and the brand — have all changed since the last time someone had the opportunity to buy or lease a new one in Western Mass.

“What I recognized is that we have to — and we love to — reacquaint people in our area of influence with the Mercedes-Benz brand; a lot has changed in 10 years,” said Michelle Wirth, who will oversee marketing efforts and other duties for the company, but started her career with Mercedes as a mechanical engineer. “There are something like 3,000 to 4,000 Mercedes cars in Western Massachusetts currently in operation. I don’t have exact figures, but I’m sure most of them are older, because people haven’t made the trek to Hartford or Shrewsbury or Albany pick up a new car.

“We want to make sure that those folks who are already convinced about the brand know we exist, and then reacquaint them with the new cars,” she went on. “The vehicles themselves have just transformed in the past 10 years.”

An architect’s rendering of the new Mercedes dealership

An architect’s rendering of the new Mercedes dealership, which will emphasize transparency.

By that, she was referring to everything from the number of models to the depth of the price range. For example, she pointed to the CLA, a Mercedes model that retails for under $33,000, a number that would likely surprise many people, including some who know cars — and Mercedes.

Other things that have changed since Mercedes models were last sold in this region include the carmaker’s focus on safety, and not merely luxury and style (although those are still points of emphasis, to be sure), as well as the dealerships in which the cars are sold and, especially, serviced.

Indeed, dealerships today are well-appointed, convenience-focused, customer-friendly facilities that exist not so much to showcase cars, although they still do that, certainly, but pamper those who buy them.

So much so that Michelle Wirth, as she described the process of designing, outfitting, and operating the facility in Chicopee, said the mindset is that she and her husband are not competing with other dealerships, necessarily, but against hotels, restaurants, and even the new $950 million MGM Springfield casino due to open in about a year, in the manner in which they are all focused on hospitality and taking care of the customer.

“When they walk away from a fine hotel establishment, people say ‘man, they did everything right’ — it’s just a feeling they have,” she explained. “When they walk away, they’re going to feel it, they’re going to feel, ‘wow, they care about me, and they took care of me. That’s the feeling we’re going to create.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest visited the dealership a few weeks before its doors are due to officially open to gain some insight into what the partners in this venture are anticipating as Mercedes makes its much anticipated return to the area.

A Major Coup

By now, most in the region’s business community are at least somewhat familiar with the story behind Mercedes-Benz of Springfield.

Back in late 2014, Peter Wirth and Hesse, owners of a Mercedes dealership in Nanuet, N.Y., were approached by the carmaker about bringing the brand back to Western Mass. with a dealership after that aforementioned lengthy absence, and after some extensive research, the two concluded that this region was, indeed, underserved, and that a facility here had considerable potential.

Especially at the site they eventually chose, two turnpike exits east of Riverdale Street, at the old Plantation Inn site. This location is literally across the street from where the tollbooth once stood, and at the eastern end of Route 291, giving the location great accessibility.

And it will be needed, because this dealership will have a huge coverage area, one that includes parts of four states: Western Mass., Northern Conn., Southern Vermont, and Southern New Hampshire.

That large swath of territory will bring some challenges, said the Wirths as they talked about their business venture — especially the large number of markets they must advertise in — but also a great deal of opportunity to better serve thousands of Mercedes customers.

“It’s a big area, and it’s a big task,” said Peter. “But it’s a huge opportunity for people in the Springfield metro area, who have to drive 45 minutes to Hartford, or almost an hour to Shrewsbury, the next-closest dealership, or an hour and a half to Albany.”

More than three years after those initial talks between Mercedes, Wirth, and Hesse began, the Western Mass. Mercedes dealership, or ‘autohaus,’ as such facilities are called in Germany, is nearly ready for prime time.

When BusinessWest toured the site in mid-August, the exterior of the dealership had been completed, and work was continuing inside. The projected opening date will be late September.

Like most of the dealerships being built, many of them replacing facilities 30 or 40 years old, this one will be spacious, well-appointed, modern-looking, and heavy on glass and metal.

There is a corporate identity and design standards for these dealerships, and they make them easily recognizable as Mercedes-Benz dealerships. There are certain kinds of columns, tiles, paint colors, and furniture that are pretty standard across the dealer network. But at the same time, we, together with Mercedes-Benz, worked on laying out the dealership in the way we know it’s going to work.”

And while the Mercedes corporation has a desired look and feel in mind that its dealers must create, there is plenty of room to personalize one’s autohaus, said Peter, citing, as just one example, the dealership’s car wash; Mercedes doesn’t require one, but the partners considered it a key part of the “experience.”

“There is a corporate identity and design standards for these dealerships, and they make them easily recognizable as Mercedes-Benz dealerships,” he explained. “There are certain kinds of columns, tiles, paint colors, and furniture that are pretty standard across the dealer network. But at the same time, we, together with Mercedes-Benz, worked on laying out the dealership in the way we know it’s going to work.

“That’s something that has now become specific to this site,” he went on. “Mercedes-Benz has ideas, but they will also take our input, and we’ve been very vocal in that process and made it our own. While we’ve been using their design cues, the feel and flow of the dealership is what we know works and will serve our customers best.”

Asked to elaborate, he said this dealership isn’t just open, it’s incredibly open.

Wirth said his office has four glass walls, and from it, he can see the front desk, the sales office, the lounge, and the service drive. In many ways, that office embodies the intended feeling of openness, ease of transition from one department another, and a word that’s becoming ever more prominent in business and politics today — transparency.

“It’s easy for customers to not just find their way around, but to transition from one department to another — we’re not compartmentalized,” he explained. “We don’t think of a dealership as a sales, service, and parts department; it’s one unit to us.”

Driving Force

As she talked about the new dealership, plans for it, and the level of service she and her partners plan to create, Michelle Wirth thought this was the time to discuss her career with Mercedes-Benz, which began soon after she graduated from Lehigh University with a mechanical engineering degree.

Peter and Michelle Wirth say much has changed in the decade since Mercedes had a presence in the area

Peter and Michelle Wirth say much has changed in the decade since Mercedes had a presence in the area, and they intend to reacquaint the region with the brand.

“I got hired right out of school and worked in environmental and safety engineering,” she told BusinessWest. “I went to Germany a number of times a year, and actually got to go to the design center in Stuttgart, where they design and build these vehicles. I got to learn — I didn’t know this when I walked in the door — that Mercedes doesn’t just build to standards. They rise above those standards, and they have a holistic approach to safety and a holistic approach to design.

“It’s more about ‘what’s the best solution for the customer,’ and that’s impressive,” she went on, “because it creates a space where engineers get to design to the best possible standard, not just the least common denominator. And that translated over to me. As a young person, eyes wide open, I learned a lot from that. It’s like a standard you set for yourself, and it’s the highest one around.”

This attitude, or mindset, permeates everything the couple does in life and in business, Michelle explained, adding that it shapes everything from how they’ll do in business in Chicopee to how they’re already getting involved in the community that will soon be home — to them and their business.

That involvement has taken the form of support for organizations ranging from Square One to Baystate Children’s Hospital, said Peter, adding that these endeavors are part of a culture the company wants to instill. In other words, rather than doing something that might be expected, such as simply meeting auto industry design and performance standards, they’re setting the bar much higher.

“It’s not just checking a box for us,” he explained. “If you can be involved with the children’s hospital, and you have four healthy children; that comes naturally to us. Yes, you’re getting your name out, but it’s also a natural contact point for us; we can help and do good at the same time.”

Meanwhile, back in the realm of car sales, the Wirths believe they have the right brand at the right time to go along with the right location and the right culture.

Indeed, while some luxury brands have struggled with making all-important connections with younger audiences, Mercedes has made inroads, if you will, by creating lower price points and getting younger people into its vehicles.

And once that happens, they often become customers for life, said Michelle, noting that Mercedes not only has one of the highest loyalty rates in the business, but one of the highest conquest rates (winning over the drivers of other brands) as well.

At the same time, the company has adjusted its marketing messages, said Michelle, to appeal not only to the young, but to those who want to think, act, and, yes, drive like the young.

“Now, the marketing focus is more on ‘young at heart,’” she explained. “That’s how we describe people; it’s ‘do you have that Millennial mindset? You may not be that age, but you have that mindset. By doing that, you broaden the audience that you’re speaking to.”

Getting in Gear

Given the huge geographic area it will be serving, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield will already be speaking to a very broad audience.

The initial message will be that Mercedes is back in Western Mass. after a decade’s hiatus. But soon — in fact, almost immediately — there will be much more to communicate: that Mercedes is back, and that this is a brand for both the young and the young at heart.

Also to be communicated, especially through a visit to the new dealership, is that this venture fully embraces that corporate culture of not merely meeting standards, but setting higher ones.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Sections

No Slowing Down

Mike Lapointe

Mike Lapointe says effective pricing and “making it easier for customers to do business” have been keys to success at Lia Honda.

Mike Lapointe said he considers himself an “outlier” in most respects when it comes to the automotive market and what’s happening within it.

He used that term in reference to everything from his ability to sell the generally older cars being traded in these days — a development he attributes to the market he serves as general manager of Lia Honda in Northampton (one with thousands of college students on tight budgets) — to the manner in which his dealership is defying what all the ‘experts’ projected as a somewhat down year for the industry.

“Our sales are up 130% as far as new-car business is concerned, so Honda is very, very happy with us,” he explained. “It was the opposite of what we expected; during the winter, we had record months, and in the summer, we ran into vacation season, and things slowed down quite a bit. But we’re maintaining above 100% of our new-car objectives.”

But while Lapointe may well be an outlier when it comes to those older used cars — many are a decade or more older and not retailable in most markets — that term doesn’t seem to apply to overall dealership performance, at least among the owners and managers we spoke with.

Indeed, while analysts were predicting that 2017 would be the year the bubble would burst in the auto industry — when a run of several successful if not record-breaking years would come to an end and the needle would starting moving in the other direction — that really hasn’t happened, at least not locally.

“We actually expected to start to see a downturn, and internally, we were trending for that,” said Carla Cosenzi, a principal with TommyCar Auto Group, which operates Country Nissan in Hadley, Country Hyundai in Northampton, and Northampton Volkswagen. “That was the rhetoric within the industry, but we’re not seeing that; we’re trending upward at all our locations this year.”

Don Pion, president of Bob Pion Buick GMC in Chicopee, the dealership started by his father, Bob, agreed.

“We’re having a very solid year — I can’t complain,” said the 40-year industry veteran. “Both Buick and GMC have good products out there right now, rates are still good, and all those things help us sell cars.”

Carla Cosenzi says TommyCar Auto Group

Carla Cosenzi says TommyCar Auto Group is seeing continued growth across all its lines, despite projections for an industry-wide downturn.

With one voice, the dealers we spoke with said the forces that were supposed to bring an end to the auto industry’s fun ride, or at least pump the brakes — and they include everything from uneasiness over the scene in Washington (and around the globe, for that matter) to the fact that many of those older cars had already been replaced — are there. But they haven’t had the expected impact.

“We read all those reports … have we hit the bubble? Are we starting to trend down? Every possible thing that could affect the business in a negative way — that’s what they’re predicting,” said Pion. “You read all that, and you think, ‘what’s going to happen?’ But we haven’t seen it. People are still coming in, and they’re still buying cars.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest talked with area dealers about what they’re seeing — or not seeing, as the case may be.

The Ride Stuff

When asked how his dealership and others in this region have fared so well when the industry was supposed to take a step back — and still might; projections for the summer were especially glum — Pion paused for a moment.

“You would need someone smarter than me to answer that,” he said eventually, adding that he’s only doing what his father said needed to be done when the industry analysts’ predictions weren’t rosy — and also when they were.

“He always said that you read all that stuff, those industry projections, and you put it away for reference,” he told BusinessWest. “But you come to work every day ready to do business.”

Indeed, while Pion and the others we spoke with said they were, and are, well aware of the predictions for a slower year, all they can do is respond to what they see out their windows, in the showrooms, and on their books.

And the numbers do not reveal a slowdown of any kind.

“We sold 150 cars in February, 140 in March, and 160 in April,” said Lapointe, adding that the average for a typical year at his dealership is about 110, and ‘150-car months,’ as he called them, are solid, to say the least.

Meanwhile, Pion said, so far this year, his Buick sales are up 24%, GMC is up 30%, and used-car sales are up 20%.

Cosenzi, meanwhile, used more words than numbers to convey pretty much the same information.

“We’ve continued to see growth. And usually, we don’t see that across all brands at the same time, but we’ve seen that this year,” she explained. “Usually, one will take off a little more than another, or one will have a new-product launch or something else that will create a little more excitement. But we’ve seen growth across all three.”

What’s driving this better-than-projected performance? There are a number of factors, said those we spoke with, ranging from effective pricing (Lapointe cited this as a key to Honda’s continued solid performance) to seemingly ample amounts of confidence on the part of consumers, to quality products — especially SUVs of all sizes and shapes.

At his Honda store, Lapointe said the keys to success are having inventory that appeals to buyers in the Five College market — again, Millennials on tight budgets — and going the extra mile, whatever that may be, to clinch a sale.

“We have to find new ways to do business,” he explained. “Other dealer groups may not take a deposit over the phone; they might force you to come into the store. Other groups might not give you a trade over the phone. Those would be outdated strategies for me. We do whatever makes it easier for the customer to do business, because the next guy won’t do that.”

As for what’s selling, while car sales have been decent, said area dealers, SUV purchases and leases continue to fuel the numbers cited earlier. Each carmaker now has such vehicles in the ‘small,’ ‘mid-size,’ and ‘large’ categories, and they all seem to be selling.

“The car market is still struggling somewhat, but the SUVs, from the smaller models right up to the full-size SUVs, are doing very well,” Pion said, citing solid numbers for models ranging from Buick’s Envision (a new product) to GMC’s Acadia (a larger model).

Cosenzi agreed, noting that the SUVs made by all three carmakers she handles are doing well, as are entry-level cars — those generally under $20,000 now — such as Hyundai’s Elantra and VW’s Jetta.

The Road Ahead

As he talked about the market moving forward, Pion said his plan, in most all respects, is to continue following his father’s advice.

That would be to read and listen to the analysts’ projections, put them away for reference, but show up to work ready to sell cars.

Thus far this year, dealers have been selling more than the forecasts said they would. And they believe the conditions are such that things will continue in this vein.

This won’t make them outliers, necessarily, but it will make them quite happy.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Sections

A High-revving Engine

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi says sales have been on the rise for several years at TommyCar Auto Group, and she expects this trend to continue at its dealerships.

Initial national projections for 2017 called for the recent rise in auto sales to level off and then perhaps slow down. But those forecasts have been adjusted recently. Indeed, the experts say a host of favorable factors, from low gas prices to a stable economy to the advanced age of many cars on the road, will continue to fuel increases in sales volume.

John Kupec III has been in the automobile-sales industry for 40 years. But he has never seen trade-ins with as many miles as the ones being brought to Gale Toyota in Enfield today.

“We’re seeing cars come in with more than 250,000 miles,” the general sales manager told BusinessWest.

Indeed, a poll conducted last month by market research company IHS Markit shows the average age of light vehicles on the road is 11.5 years, and the trend Kupec observed is mirrored at other dealerships.

“This week alone, I saw trade-ins with 160,000 miles, 180,000 miles, and 240,000 miles — vehicles last longer than they used to, but people have taken it to the extreme,” said John Lewis, general manager at Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram and Bertera Fiat and Collision Center in West Springfield, as he spoke about reasons that led so many people to keep their vehicles for a decade or more.

John Kupec

John Kupec is optimistic about the year ahead, and says Gale Toyota of Enfield hopes to increase sales by 10% to 15%.

The practice began in 2008 when the economy crashed. Consumer confidence plummeted, 401(k) plans lost their value, and people worried about job security and began to realize they could drive their vehicles much longer than they had believed possible without incurring a lot of repairs.

“Today alone, we took in a 2001 with 160,000 miles and a 2005 with 155,000 miles,” said Craig Dodenstein, sales manager for Toyota of Greenfield, who noted that people usually upgrade to a new vehicle when the cost of repairs becomes prohibitive.

Sales began to rise a few years ago in line with a renewed confidence in the economy that has slowly taken root. But last fall, the National Automobile Dealers Assoc. predicted 2017 would be the year in which sales would reach their peak and begin to slow down. That projection was changed, however; now, sales of new vehicles in the U.S. are expected to remain above 17 million for the third straight year in a row, and even rise slightly toward the second half of the year.


Chart of area Auto Dealers


Aging vehicles still on the road have resulted in pent-up demand, and that factor, coupled with new models, aggressive manufacturer incentives, low interest rates, reasonable gas prices, and an upswing in the economy, are fueling optimism at local dealerships for the coming year.

“Last month, our sales were up 10% over January of last year, and we expect a 20% increase in 2017,” Lewis said, attributing the number not only to the company’s reputation and the service it offers, but the fact that Subaru sales have climbed and a new $5 million Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealership is under construction, which hindered sales last year when they started working from trailers.

Fathers & Sons in West Springfield also has a new dealership, an $18 million facility that is home to Audi and Volkswagen franchises.

“We want to grow, plan to grow, and have the tools in our arsenal to do it,” said Sales Manager Ethan Prentiss. “In December, Volkswagen had the best month in company history, and this year we expect a 10% to 12% increase in Volkswagen and Audi sales, and an 8% to 10% increase in Volvo sales,” he said, referring to the company’s other dealership on Memorial Avenue, which houses the largest dedicated Volvo dealership in the country in terms of square footage.

Ethan Prentiss

Ethan Prentiss says the demand for SUVs and crossovers such as the new Volkswagen Touareg continue to rise at Fathers & Sons Volkswagen.

Incentives are also boosting sales, and Kupec said Toyota’s are higher than they have been in decades. “The manufacturer is offering 0% interest on some models, which they have never done before; hefty rebates of $2,000 to $3,000; and bonus cash on leases,” he said. “We’re off to a great start and hope to have a 10 to 15% increase this year in sales.”

Bill Peffer concurred. “It’s a very exciting industry to be in, and our outlook for 2017 is very, very positive,” said the president and chief operating officer of Balise Motor Sales, which has 24 stores in three states. “The market is very strong, and any volatility has been offset by manufacturer incentives. There are tons of new choices for customers — it’s a very good time to buy a car, truck, or SUV.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest looks at the current landscape within the industry and what the road ahead might bring.

Getting into High Gear

Last June, Volkswagen agreed to buy back its 2.0L diesel vehicles after a lawsuit that proved it had used emissions-system-defeating software. The VW Group also agreed to pay owners $5,100 to $10,000 in additional compensation on top of a fix or buyback of their car.

The negative press that ensued made sales challenging for a period of time, but buybacks began last October and accounted for a quarter of the Volkswagen sales at Fathers & Sons in December.

“These people would normally not be in the market for a new car, and the projection is that we will be able to retain 25% of them; many of our customers love the way their Volkswagens drive and handle,” Prentiss said, explaining that this situation, coupled with the new dealership and a lineup of exciting new products, is not the only reason for the projected increase in sales.

“We are now a negotiation-free dealership, which is what customers want,” he continued. “Buying a vehicle here has become all about the experience. Our salespeople are non-commissioned, and customers can find what they are looking for and complete the purchase within two hours.

“We give them our best price up front and make it fun to buy a car,” he continued, adding that Volvo sales are also up, as the manufacturer broke records last year due to the launch of a new image and the release of new products.

Toyota of Greenfield is another dealership that has undergone change. It moved into a new, $7 million dealership last winter and held a grand opening last May, so 2016 was a year of transition as they were able to move out of the trailers they worked in during 2015 while construction was underway.

“We’re looking for a 5% to 10% increase in sales this year, and if January was any indication, we are headed in the right direction,” said Dodenstein, adding that January sales had almost tripled over last year’s numbers by the third week of the month.

Although the new dealership certainly makes a difference, manufacturer incentives and new products add to the enticements. The new electric Prius Prime is a leader in its class; it gets 133 miles per gallon, beat a preliminary 22-mile electric volt range estimate with 25 miles, and gets 54 mpg in hybrid mode.

Meanwhile, Carla Cosenzi said last year was a great one for TommyCar Auto Group, which includes Hyundai, Nissan, Buick, GMC, and Volkswagen franchises. Some stores did especially well, including Hyundai, which experienced strong demand for entry-level vehicles.

“Hyundai gives customers a lot of value for their dollar, including technology, safety, and the aggressive pricing people are looking for,” Cosenzi explained, noting that consumers are excited about the fact that new technology is standard in many brands of entry-level models and ranges from adaptive cruise control to lane assist, collision warning, and backup cameras.

TommyCar is expecting another excellent year, and the sales of the new Volkswagen Golf All Trac station wagon, which has all-wheel drive, accelerated right after it was released. In addition, SUVs and crossovers are becoming increasingly popular, such as the 2017 seven- passenger Nissan Rogue and Volkswagen Tiguan.

“People want the space, comfort, and luxury they provide. They are more expensive than compact cars, but with interest rates and gas at all-time lows. they’re affordable,” Cosenzi noted.

Other local dealers agree that the demand for trucks, crossover vehicles, and SUVs is growing. They point to the fact that unemployment rates are low, people use trucks to do business, and buyers of all ages want to be able to travel in the winter.

“The weather in New England is unpredictable, and people want mobility whether they are driving to the ski slope or have the kids in their vehicle during a snowstorm,” Peffer said, adding that today’s crossovers and SUVs offer that versatility.

He noted the trend has changed over the past few decades. “Station wagons were popular from the ’40s through the ’70s. But when Chrysler came out with a minivan in the ’80s, the evolution of SUVs began, and so did the way people chose to be mobile,” he told BusinessWest, noting that crossovers and SUVs are affordable, offer more utility than mid-sized cars, and get good gas mileage.

Prentiss said Fathers & Sons sells seven-seat vehicles as quickly as they get them, and Audi’s Q7 and Volvo’s XC90 SUV models are popular because they offer utility plus plenty of cargo space. In addition, Volkswagen’s Tiguan and Golf All Trac have made the brand competitive with Honda and Toyota.

Changing Landscape

Local dealers say leasing has increased and accounts for a good portion of their new-car transactions.

“Leasing allows people to move into cars with low payments without the hassle of long-term maintenance; they can lease them to drive what they want and turn in the car before the warranty is up, as opposed to incurring costs over a six-year loan period,” said Peffer, noting that, a decade or two ago, leasing was reserved for commercial buyers, but today it has gone mainstream, and a third or more of Balise’s new-vehicle sales are leases.

Leasing is also popular at Bertera and accounts for 38% of its new-car business. “Technology is moving so fast, and people want the latest advances. Plus, a segment of the population is always going to have a payment, and they can get a brand-new car every two to three years with a lease,” Lewis said.

He explained that the average payment on a purchased $40,000 vehicle is $500 a month for six years, but the same vehicle can be leased for $300 to $350 a month with very little money down, which makes it attractive.

Kupec noted that the appeal extends to different age and economic groups, especially since people who do a lot of driving can build additional miles into a lease.

“People are more receptive to leasing than ever before,” he said, adding that 40% of the store’s new-car transactions are leases.

Prentiss told BusinessWest that a large portion of Millennials would rather lease than buy a new vehicle. “It has to do with their psychology; they think a three-year lease is long enough.”

The market for electric vehicles is also growing. Cosenzi said the Hyundai Ioniq, which is scheduled to come out in the next month, will have a battery-only model with an electric driving range of 124 miles and an EPA rating of 136 miles per gallon.

Positive Signs

From a big-picture, national-economy perspective, the road ahead is certainly marked by unpredictability and guarded optimism.

In the auto industry, through, there would appear to be fewer potential bumps in that road and apparently smooth riding. As noted by all those we spoke with, a number of factors are contributing to greater confidence on the part of consumers, and this is translating into greater activity at area dealerships.

As they say in this business, there is plenty of tread left on those tires.

Autos Sections

Supply and Demand

Jennifer Cernak

Jennifer Cernak says technology and connectivity features often appeal to younger buyers.

With the Millennial generation quickly becoming a more powerful force in the economy — totaling around 85 million, they’re now in their 20s and 30s, and their spending clout is only growing — auto dealers have definitely taken notice.

“They’re becoming more influential in the purchase of durable goods, including vehicles,” said Bill Peffer, president and chief operating officer of Balise Motor Sales. “They’re buying for themselves as they get older, but many are still living with their parents, so they’re also influencing their parents’ decisions. That’s quite a reversal from the Baby Boomers, who wanted to break free of the Greatest Generation and develop their own tastes.”

One way Millennials are changing the car-buying process is in their reliance on technology, specifically the online experience of car shopping.

According to Automotive News, more than 90% of car shoppers begin the journey online, visiting an average of 18 sites, including Google, online shopping networks, and social media, before showing up at a dealership, usually unannounced. However, Millennials take this process further, visiting an average of 25 sites before buying a vehicle.

“They definitely use technology to find what they need before they come into the store,” Peffer said. “Not too many years ago, the average consumer visited four or five stores. Now, with the explosion of technology and social media and the Internet, they’re making visits to far fewer stores before they actually make their purchase.”

Most Millennials don’t like to negotiate. They have information; they know what the cost is. They do their negotiating online.”

The average, actually, is fewer than two, he said. “They go to one store, and if the experience isn’t pleasant, if it’s not to their satisfaction, they go to the next one. Particularly with Millennials, they know what they want; the question is, are you able to meet their needs? You have to arrive at a mutually acceptable price and respect the convenience of when they want to make the purchase.”

J.D. Power reports that Millennials — usually defined as the generation born between 1980 and 1998 — bought 4 million cars and trucks in 2015, their share of the new-car market jumping to 28% — a number expected to rise steadily each year, with some estimates having them accounting for 75% of all purchases by 2025. So dealers need to understand their habits and preferences.

“I think it forces everyone to be on their game. It forces dealers to adopt — and not only adopt, but utilize — technology to fulfill the dealer’s end of the process,” Peffer said. “This is how shopping has evolved, not just for vehicles, but for everything. You can shop from your house for a suit at 10 o’clock at night.”

As for car shopping, he continued, “the deal has to be completed in the store, but we can make it convenient as well. We can deliver the car to the house for a test drive. We help the consumers make the decision where and when they want to.”

It’s all about meeting demand — for a generation of car buyers that can be well, demanding.

What’s New?

Jennifer Cernak, co-owner of Cernak Buick in Easthampton, understands the demands placed on a dealership by a prepared shopper.

“Most customers have already spotted the car they want; they’ve seen it online, and they know what they’re looking for,” she said.

Young people tend to appreciate technology, she said, from smartphone apps that connect a smartphone’s navigation feature to the vehicle, and infotainment apps like Pandora, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto.

“There’s definitely some cutting-edge technology,” she said. “People don’t always think of that when they think of Buick; they don’t realize we have some of the latest and greatest technology and features out there.”

Bill Peffer

Bill Peffer says young, Internet-savvy shoppers, armed with data before they arrive at the dealership, are changing the car-buying game.

While Millennials certainly appreciate infotainment and connectivity packages — features that make the car a sort of platform for all one’s personal tech — that’s only one part of what they’re looking for in a car, Peffer said.

The second big draw is safety features — everything from lane-departure sensors and active braking systems to multiple airbags and safety shields: in other words, components that both help avoid crashes and protect riders in the case of one.

The third attraction is, quite simply, value, a concept that goes beyond the bottom-line price, encompassing everything from how well a vehicle holds its resale value to how it will serve their lifestyle and needs. That explains the popularity of compact SUVs, or crossovers, because they tend to support the activities of families and outdoor enthusiasts at a more reasonable price than larger SUVs.

Cernak noted that the Buick Encore compact SUV has broad, cross-generational appeal, and that includes Millennials, who appreciate features like all-wheel drive, Bluetooth connectivity, in-car wi-fi, backup cameras, and being able to start the car from their phone — a mix of traditional and thoroughly modern amenities. “The younger generation seems to like these things — not that the older generation doesn’t like them too. But older buyers are looking for a more traditional luxury experience.”

She also said young buyers are increasingly leasing, but that’s true across the generations. “More and more people are leasing. If someone likes to get in a brand-new car every few years, it can be more affordable. Some people just want to keep up with the latest and greatest.”

Peffer likewise doesn’t see much difference in the popularity of leasing between the generations, but noted that, as a whole, the New England region leads the country, along with the West Coast, in the percentage of car shoppers who choose that option. “I don’t see that waning. No matter what the generation, it’s a great option.”

Jeff Sarat, president of Sarat Ford Lincoln in Agawam, said he sees plenty of crossover in what vehicles and elements of the car-buying experience appeal to the different generations, though he noted that some of the company’s outreach, particularly search-engine marketing, is created with younger, more tech-savvy consumers in mind.

One big difference, however, is the loyalty factor. Baby Boomers were far more likely to develop brand and even dealer loyalty and return for new product every few years for decades. Millennials, Sarat said, are less likely to forge those bonds, and are much more willing to switch models, brands, and dealerships if they see more value elsewhere.

“Millennials are apt to jump around a little bit, meaning they might go with a Volkswagen this time and then next time try a Ford,” Sarat said. “Maybe their friend recommended a car they thought was phenomenal, so they try that. They’re more likely to switch around, and they don’t have set buying habits, so you really have to work to make them a customer for life. We try to do that with everyone, of course, but with Millennials, if you don’t stay in contact with them, they’re more likely to move around.”

Unfounded Fears

According to Business Insider, there was some concern in the auto-sales industry about how enthusiastic the growing Millennial generation would be; among the questions were whether they’d reject SUVs and whether they would gravitate toward mass transit. But those fears proved unfounded, as young professionals and families were a key factor in the industry’s surge to its current sales pace, which has topped 17 million for two straight years, with the same expected in 2017.

Yes, Millennials are demanding, and their penchant for Internet research doesn’t make things easier on auto dealers, but it’s not a negative, Peffer said; it just means dealers have to know as much as buyers do, and be ready to clearly explain subtle differences in pricing and features, skills they should already have.

“Most Millennials don’t like to negotiate. They have information; they know what the cost is. They do their negotiating online. They come in knowing exactly what they want to pay,” he told BusinessWest. “This is how shopping has evolved in the overall economy. The question is, are you able to meet their needs?”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Sections

Waiting to Leave

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi says her newest dealership was designed to give the customer a positive experience and not waste their time.

There’s no one way to design an auto dealership, but increasingly — driven by both manufacturer requirements and an ever-more-demanding clientele — newer stores boast a number of specific features, from spacious, drive-in service departments to comfortable, well-stocked lounges; from energy-efficient touches to an emphasis on openness and transparency in the showroom. At a time of fierce competition for business, dealers say these elements are necessary to attract buyers — and keep them coming back.

Gary Rome summed up the experience of most of his customers succinctly and bluntly.

“When people are waiting for a car, they’re waiting to leave,” said the president of Gary Rome Hyundai. And that goes for both people in the market for a vehicle purchase and those bringing their rides in for service — in either case, no one wants to spend any more time at a car dealership than they have to.

On the other hand, sometimes it takes a while to, well, leave. Which is why so many aspects of his new facility on Whiting Farms Road in Holyoke, which opened last month, are designed to keep customers occupied and … let’s just say in less of a hurry to go home.

“One of the most important things to customers is time,” Rome told BusinessWest. “If you value their time and make it easy to purchase a car or have their car serviced, you’ll get loyal, repeat customers. So I want to make the process as enjoyable as possible by offering all the amenities I think are reasonable for our customers.”

Gary Rome car dealer

Gary Rome says energy-efficient touches throughout his new dealership are aimed squarely at reducing his carbon footprint.

To that end, the customer lounges — there’s one for watching TV, another for quietly doing business, and a play area for kids — border a coffee bar with free coffee, fruit, and muffins, as well as vending machines loaded with healthy snacks. Beside the TV is a screen detailing the status of every repair job currently underway, and the lounges overlook the service department so people can watch their cars being worked on.

Northampton Volkswagen and Country Hyundai, two neighboring stores in TommyCar Auto Group, opened their doors in 2014 with a similar focus on the customer experience. People bringing their cars in for service are met with high-speed doors followed by a porter who shows the way to a waiting room decked out with a TV, wi-fi, business workstations, smartphone jacks, free drinks and snacks, and even complimentary bicycles outside in case customers would rather take to the nearby bike trails instead of waiting indoors.

“We designed everything for the comfort and convenience of the customer,” said Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar. “We’re doing everything with the customer in mind.”

To that end, the facility has improved the employee experience as well, incorporating air conditioning, high ceilings, large windows, and LED lights in the service department — a far cry from the hot, cramped workspaces of old. Productivity has soared under those conditions, she said, which means, yes, less waiting for customers.

“They’re set up for efficiency, so they can be more productive and make the best use of customers’ time while they’re here. That’s where the majority of our focus was while building this.”


See: Area Auto Dealers in Western Mass.


Damon Cartelli agreed that efficiency, as it impacts the customer experience, is paramount — and a major design trend in the auto industry. His company, Fathers & Sons, opens its new, connected Audi and Volkswagen dealerships this week on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield, which boast the same type of high-speed doors — which trap air inside, keeping the space cool during warm days and warm during cold ones — that Cozensi spoke of. The driver then parks, gets out of the car, and walks directly into the shop, where a lounge with a TV area and workstations awaits.

“That’s now standard across the industry,” said Cartelli, the company’s president. “New dealerships have an area that’s comfortable and quiet so you’re able to work or sit in a lounge and have coffee and watch TV.”

While comfortable lounges and drive-in service bays may be among the more obvious hallmarks of the modern auto dealership, other trends — from a focus on transparency in the sales area to environmentally friendly features — are surging as well. For this issue’s focus on auto sales, BusinessWest explores three dealerships, two of them brand new, to talk about what dealers are doing to move customers out quickly — and get them to return, time and again.

No Secrets

Cartelli noted that many features of a new dealership — particularly Volkswagen, which demands uniformity in new dealerships with their nameplate — are blueprinted by the manufacturer, and many of the touches, including the high-speed doors, the finished service driveway (as opposed to a concrete look), the high-tech customer lounges, and display areas where customers can buy clothing, branded items, and vehicle accessories are required elements.

Damon Cartelli car dealer

Damon Cartelli says the prominent use of glass inside and outside his Volkswagen and Audi dealerships promote transparency, in both design and customer dealings.

So is the transparency. To look around the showroom is to see office walls of glass, so sales associates and managers are never hiding from customers. Cartelli said the look reflects his own philosophy of doing business in a transparent way.

“We have a transparent pricing model. We’re transparent with everything we do, with how you buy a car. We don’t want customers asking, ‘what is he doing back there?’ You can see what he’s doing. We have nothing to hide. That’s part and parcel with how we do business, which is nice.”

Cosenzi had to deal with the same demands from VW, although Hyundai was more flexible in its requirements. But she agreed with Cartelli that openness is a positive for customers.

“Sales managers are no longer in big podium stations; they’re approachable, in the middle of the showroom, and all the salespeople work in an open environment at their desks,” she said. “As you walk through the dealership, you see the open sales stations, the glass. When you’re in the finance office, you constantly see and follow what’s happening with paperwork and flow.

“We worked really hard to make the customer experience great,” she went on. “You see a lot of light when you walk in, and you’re immediately greeted by a warm, friendly body at the greeter station. We made sure all the customer parking was up front, made it really easy for them. We want customers to feel like they’re getting the VIP treatment all the way around.”

Cartelli said the best way to make customers feel important, quite simply, is to not waste their time. “If you can increase efficiency in how you do business, that’s important — the speed with which business gets done is second only to price. People want a fantastic customer experience, and they want to know how quickly you’ll get it done.”

Rome incorporated elements of transparency in his new dealership as well. “It’s important for me that customers come inside the building and are able to watch their cars being worked on,” he said, pointing out the line of sight between customer lounge areas and the spacious service department. “Some dealerships take the car around back to some black hole, and you don’t know what thery’re doing or when it will be ready. This is a much better experience.”

In this day and age, customers expect this treatment. If you don’t have it, there are other dealerships out there that do, and you’ll be missing out.”

But Rome also wanted a dealership that’s cutting-edge in environmental ways as well, incorporating a number of green elements aimed squarely at reducing the store’s carbon footprint, from energy-efficient LED lights to insulated windows to a car wash that reclaims and recycles water. All the oil collected during oil changes isn’t discarded, but rather stored in drums and pumped back into the heating system and used to heat the service department, while oversized fans circulate air in that area and control temperature. He even installed electric car-charging stations on the premises that anyone — not just customers — can stop by and use.

“Simple things like automatic faucets and toilets, motion-sensing lighting in the offices, reduces our carbon footprint,” he said. “In addition to that, we’re putting a 650-megawatt solar array on the back of the property. We’ll be generating energy.”

Lots of Options

There’s one other feature the new dealerships share: more space.

“The main feature is being able to display every model Hyundai makes,” Rome said, noting that the new showroom holds 15 cars, an outdoor canopy houses eight more, and the vast property contains hundreds more vehicles than could have been displayed at the former location on Main Street.

Cartelli’s new property is designed to handle 200% growth. “We’re in growth mode, and we have the ability to grow into it,” he said. “We’ve overbuilt for today’s business, so we can overserve the customer.”

That service begins right away when a driver enters the wide indoor bay and a device instantly tests the vehicle for alignment — a feature at the other new dealerships as well. Once out of the car, customers notice the tiled floors, which are slip-resistant and easier on the feet than cement.

In short, everything is geared to giving customers an enjoyable experience while they wait to leave. At Gary Rome, people leaving with a new car are able to fill out their paperwork in a glass-walled business office looking out over a covered area where their new car sits beside a red carpet. From the moment they walk in, he said — his rule is that associates greet any customer within 10 feet of them on the showroom floor — to that roll outside on the red carpet, everything is designed with the customer in mind.

Cosenzi said such touches are more important now than ever.

“In this day and age, customers expect this treatment,” she told BusinessWest. “If you don’t have it, there are other dealerships out there that do, and you’ll be missing out.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Sections

Groundbreaking Event

As they took to the podium placed near the front door of the hotel known long ago as the Schine Inn (it’s had many names since), several politicians reflected on the important place the site has had in Chicopee’s history, especially its political and business history. And they noted that this legacy will certainly continue as the site is prepared for its new life — as home to a Mercedes dealership to be operated by Springfield Automotive Partners. Ground was broken for the ambitious, $12 million project on Sept. 21. The dealership, highly visible from the exit 6 tollbooth of the Mass Pike just a few hundred yards away, is due to open in just under a year, said Peter Wirth, managing partner of Springfield Automotive partners, who is undertaking the project with his wife, Michelle, and partners Rich and Amy Hess.

An architect’s rendering of the 37,000-square-foot Mercedes dealership

An architect’s rendering of the 37,000-square-foot Mercedes dealership

A large group of officials take up shovels for the groundbreaking

A large group of officials take up shovels for the groundbreaking

Managing Partner Peter Wirth

Managing Partner Peter Wirth addresses the large gathering for the ceremonies

Autos Sections

More for the Money

CrossoversDPartLayersSport utility vehicles have long staked out significant market share in the auto-sales world, as Americans appreciate their roominess and flexibility. But their price tag has been a little high for sedan owners who might otherwise consider a larger vehicle. Enter crossovers, or compact utility vehicles, which are small SUVs that handle like cars — and typically boast a price point in the sedan range. For these reasons and others, they’ve soared in popularity in recent years, and are a main reason why SUVs now outsell sedans in the U.S.

A look at any parking lot might suggest America is the land of SUVs, but the past two years have seen hard statistics back up that perception.

Indeed, as recently as 2013, sedans accounted for half of all new-vehicle sales in the U.S. Last year, they accounted for just over 40%.

Ken Cernak, president of Cernak Buick in Easthampton, has seen the trend play out locally. “This is the second year SUV penetration been greater than sedans — last year and this year,” he told BusinessWest. “Before that, it was equal, but the last two years, it has changed, and people are buying more SUVs than passenger cars.”

At the heart of this trend is the continued dominance of perhaps the past decade’s most significant auto-sales trend: CUVs, or compact utility vehicles, also known as crossovers.

It’s easy to see why. While traditional, large SUVs are built on a truck platform, CUVs are built on a car platform and handle more like a car. But they offer much of the roominess of SUVs at often lower gas mileage and a sticker price more in line with midsize sedans.

“It’s not that people don’t still like to buy cars,” Cernak said, “but more people coming into the market are looking for SUVs of all kinds, both new and used.” And CUVs — Buick’s version is called the Encore — are driving the shift.

Though SUVs have long been popular with American motorists, the capability, passenger room, and storage space of most sedans is adequate for the needs of most families; to those who didn’t need the extra space (for camping and other hobbies, or toting multiple pets around, for example), SUVs were a luxury the price difference didn’t justify.

But CUVs, which compete with sedans at a very similar price point, are making converts. It partly explans why even hugely popular car models like the Toyota Camry and Prius fell last year to sales lows not seen since 2011, while the BMW 5 Series and Ford Focus and Fusion saw drops of up to 20%, according to Carbuzz.

“This isn’t a bad thing for automakers because crossover and SUV sales remain strong enough to keep the trend of total vehicle sales going up,” the publication notes. “Companies that have strong SUV lineups are seeing the greatest benefits from this shift in power.”

Like Balise Auto Group, which specializes in close to a dozen nameplates. Bill Peffer, the company’s president and chief operating officer, said CUVs are just one more step in America’s ever-evolving shift in driving tastes.

“If you go back through the decades, it was the sedan in the ’60s, the station wagon in the ’70s, minivans in the ’80s, sport-utility vehicles in the ’90s and 2000s,” he said. “But the traditional SUV, which was on a truck platform, has moved to a car platform and created a new segment of CUVs, or crossovers, if you will. CUVs offer the utility and some of the capacity of a truck, but still retain the comfort and drive and fuel economy of a car. It’s the best of both worlds.”

He said the crossover — popular models include the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, the Ford Edge, the Mazda CX5, and the Nissan Rogue — appeals to any number of groups, from empty nesters to newlyweds looking for weekend adventure; from hobbyists to growing families.

“They’re a lot more comfortable overall, and the footprint is a lot smaller than the Expedition, Tahoe, or Explorer,” said Peffer. “And with so many choices in the $25,000 to $35,000 range, many with four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, it’s a pretty compelling proposition. If you have any type of utility needs or a big family, it’s hard not to go the way of the CUV, and manufacturers are picking up on that; their products are reflecting more and more of that.”

Price and Performance

Michael Oleksak, general manager at Burke Chevrolet in Northampton, has done well in recent years with Chevrolet’s crossover, the Equinox, which offers front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, depending on the buyer’s preference.

“They’re very popular,” he said. “There’s the price-point part of it, but another part is the way the vehicles are built. You’re not getting up into it, and you’re not getting down into it; it’s almost level. So, if you’re an average-height person, they’re very easy to get in and out of.”

Bill Peffer

Bill Peffer says manufacturers have picked up on the growing popularity of crossovers and are busy introducing more to the market.

The utility aspects aren’t dissimilar from a larger SUV, he added. “The back is very functional because the rear seat actually moves forward and back just like the front seats, so you can get a little extra cargo room. Or, if you have a larger person sitting in the back, they have the extra room.”

In addition, Oleksak said, the low base price of most CUVs gives buyers an opportunity to add amenities, from leather seats to a moonroof, and remain below a large SUV’s price tag. “You can get something very well-equipped, very top of the line, or something very basic, or in between. The way it’s built, it’s very versatile with regard to budget.”

Cernak agreed that crossovers are easier than SUVs to enter and exit, which is especially helpful for elderly people. “It’s easier to step up and step down; in a car you drag yourself up and out. So the Encore is very popular with both young and elderly women; their size isn’t too small and isn’t too big. It’s easy to park and drives and handles well. Also, a lot of our women customers like the idea of sitting up a little higher, for better vision.”

Ken Cernak

Ken Cernak says his dealership, reflecting a national trend, now sells more SUVs than cars, and crossovers are driving the shift.

On an aesthetic level, the appeal of CUVs has become so well-understood that they adhere to a certain formula, Gregory Lang, corporate strategic planning manager for Toyota in California, told the Atlantic last year. “Frankly, if you lined up a Ford Escape, a Honda CRV, and a Toyota RAV4, and you were looking at them 50 yards away and you were an average customer, I don’t think you could tell the difference. Somebody in the industry could, but the crossovers have collapsed on a certain formula that seems to be very in vogue — some sleekness but a strong dose of utility.”

They also tend to be quieter inside than most cars, Cernak noted, which is another selling point.

However, their main appeal remains their sheer utility, Peffer said. “You can load furniture, load people, whatever your heart desires. Americans are fairly nomadic, and they’re also adventuresome, and SUVs fit that lifestyle. And because we have different sizes [with CUVs], the affordability aspect brings access to more people.”

Fueling Sales

Another element in the surging popularity of crossovers — especially for buyers who would traditionally purchase a sedan — is the currently low gas prices.

“They do make a difference,” Oleksak said, noting that the Traverse, Chevrolet’s next size up — larger than the Equinox but smaller than bigger SUVs — is also reaping the benefits of savings at the pump, and is a solid choice for, say, larger families who want a third seat.

Peffer agreed that the fuel-cost situation has been good for sales of larger vehicles, from crossovers to larger SUVs to trucks, which are selling well.

Whatever the reasons, automakers have begun to adjust to a landscape where sedans are currently being pushed to the side by SUVs and crossovers. For example, this past January and February, The Truth About Cars reported that a dozen premium brands produced 150,000 SUV and crossover sales, up 17% from the same period one year ago. Even luxury names reflected the shift; in February, Lexus was down 1,883 new-car sales from a year earlier but added 1,978 SUV and CUV sales.

Meanwhile, Automotive News reported that Hyundai’s new-car sales slipped 5.8% just last month, while its crossover sales nearly doubled.

Cernak isn’t surprised by such trends. “It’s been going in that direction for a long time,” he said, noting that Buick will soon unveil the Envision, which, like Chevy’s Traverse, bridges the size gap between the Encore and the brand’s large SUV, the Enclave. In other words, more choices for a buying public that’s increasingly ditching sedans.

As for crossovers, “when we get them, we sell them,” Peffer said. “That’s pretty much across all brands, from Lexus to Kia and everything in between. That’s where all the news is. That’s what’s selling.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Sections

Revving Up for Success

Ray Smith

Ray Smith does a brisk business selling motorcycle accessories because most owners upgrade and customize parts on their bikes.

Ray Smith left his career as a homebuilder 14 years ago to live his dream.

“Motorcycles are my passion,” he told BusinessWest, as he recalled how he opened Cycle Stop, an independent motorcycle shop in South Hadley.

In 2104, he put on a 13,000-square-foot addition because he needed more room to display the pre-owned, low-mileage motorcycles, accessories, clothing, and parts that he sells and also needed to expand his thriving service department.

Smith has seen small and large motorcycle shops and franchises close their doors over the past decade, but his business has done well, and he predicts this year will be a good one not only locally, but for the industry as a whole.

Other dealers agree and say growth has been on a slow but steady trajectory for the past few years, and they expect the trend to continue.

“We sell fun and are on the road to success,” said Glenn Morin, sales and finance manager at Valley Motorsports in Northampton, adding that the company’s inventory includes cruisers, touring bikes, sport bikes, and adventure bikes, which have become very popular because they have both on- and off-road capabilities.

Sales at Valley Motorsports have risen 9% to 10% each year since the recession ended, and the goal for 2016 is to do at least slightly better than that. The company expects to reach it, because it has seven makes under their roof, the economy is rebounding, and manufacturers are introducing new, exciting models.

Owner Jerry Randall, who opened the business in 1973, said Valley Motorsports provides financing and does its best to make a purchase seamless, which helps boost its numbers. But although it carries models that include cruisers, touring bikes, sport bikes, and adventure bikes, he doesn’t think sales will ever return to the levels seen before the recession: in one year spanning 2004 and 2005, nearly 1.1 million motorcycles were reported sold in the U.S., compared to last year, when the Motorcycle Industry Council reported that 500,678 street bikes, dual-sport, and off-road motorcycles were sold.

“Things have been inching up over the past few years, but it has been a long, uphill struggle, and I don’t think sales will ever be as good as they were; motorcycles are still a luxury,” said Randall, noting that, in today’s economy, people think very carefully about assuming debt and how they spend their money, and motorcycle owners are keeping their bikes longer, which is a trend mirrored in auto sales, where the average trade-in is 10 years old.

But interest in racing and other forms of off-road cycling is picking up (more about that later), which adds to the fun, desirability, and, therefore, the motivation to buy a bike.

Indeed, spring is the season to take to the road. “People have been pent up all winter and are anxious to get out on their bikes,” Smith said, noting that most of his sales occur between March and June.

Jerry Randall, left, and Glenn Morin

Jerry Randall, left, and Glenn Morin say Valley Motorsports sells Ducati motorcycles, which are popular, but can be difficult to find because few dealers carry the Italian bikes.

Aaron Patrick, who owns Harley-Davidson of Southampton, projects a 20% increase in sales over last year, when the company sold more than 400 motorcycles.

“We expect to sell 476 new or used models this year; sales are always dependent on weather, but if we have the June that we are expecting, we will be about halfway to our goal,” he said, adding that, although they stay open all year, the bulk of their sales take place during an eight-month period.

The company’s worst year was 2012, when it sold 375 bikes, and during its best year, that number reached 600. “We hold our own,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Harley-Davidson is careful to keep the number of new bikes manufactured in line with supply and demand, and also has a number of marketing campaigns.

He promotes sales in a different manner that focuses on local riders, and sponsors the Pioneer Valley Harley Owners Group, which has more than 100 members who take part in charity rides and other events to help the community.

Catering to Customers

Harley-Davidson offers a mixture of traditional motorcycles and trikes, which are bikes with three wheels. Prices for new units start at $7,000 and reach above $40,000.

Patrick said the Southampton dealership spends a lot of time fitting its customers to the right bike, and the number of available models make it possible for people of any shape, size, or ability to enjoy riding.

“Comfort and fit are a big thing, so we have people sit on a lot of bikes, and if they have a motorcycle license, we allow them to take models on test drives,” he said.

The dealership boasts $15 million in annual revenue and holds special events that cater to the growing number of female riders. They include Ladies Nights and a Ladies of Harley group within the Pioneer Valley group that has about 15 members.

Sales Manager Rob Thompson says Harley has five families of motorcycles to choose from. Baby Boomers tend to like touring models, which can come equipped with saddle bags, storage space beneath the seat, a backrest for the passenger, and a windshield, and which appeal to people who ride up to 20,000 miles a year.

Boomers make up a large percentage of the client base, but manufacturers’ marketing efforts are geared toward raising awareness and demand for the brand among younger generations, and include buyer promotions and special financing deals, along with two new entry-level street bikes.

One has a liquid-cooled engine that makes riding in the summer cooler, and although Harley diehards don’t like the idea, Thompson said it appeals to many people, including first-time buyers of all ages.

“A Harley is no longer just a retirement gift,” said Patrick. “It can be a birthday or graduation gift, and younger people are getting more involved with them because of their comfort and ride quality.

“Harley-Davidson is a lifestyle, and more affordable than most people think,” he went on, adding quickly that new owners typically begin customizing their bike at the time of purchase or shortly after they get it home, which can add to the price.

Aaron Patrick, left, and Rob Thompson

Aaron Patrick, left, and Rob Thompson say that, although Baby Boomers are a major part of the customer base at Harley-Davidson of Southampton, their popularity is growing with younger people.

Indeed, selling accessories plays a vital role in annual revenue for many dealers, especially since styles wax and wane in popularity. For example, over the past five years, many Harley owners have chosen matte finishes on their wheels and exhaust systems instead of chrome, which requires considerable maintenance, and some models are built with the finishes.

Smith carries a large number of parts and accessories, and said the rise in sales over the last two years, coupled with solid jobs reports recently and an uptick in the economy, led him to project a 10% increase this year.

The service department at Cycle Stop is on track to meet that number, but so far sales are at a 4% to 5% increase, so he has throttled back his expectations in that arena.

But he also does a brisk business selling accessories and says it’s not uncommon for people to spend $500 to $600 on a new seat and $1,800 on an upgraded exhaust system with a computer and air- flow cleaner.

“Some customers want custom paint, and others want fancy wheels, seats, and handlebars,” he said. “We do Massachusetts state inspections, and I had a guy today whose headlights passed, but were dim. When I pointed it out, he immediately purchased a $500 LED upgrade because he saw the benefits in terms of safety and added value. And another customer purchased an $18,000 bike earlier this spring and immediately spent another $8,000 to customize it.”

Gearing Up

Valley Motorsports specializes in European and Asian manufacturers, including the Italian Ducati (its flagship brand, which Morin called their “bread and butter”), the Austrian KTM, and Japanese bikes manufactured by Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha.

Sales are higher this year than at the same time last year, and Morin says Ducati has introduced new models such as the Scrambler G2, which ranges in price from $8,000 to $32,000 for a fully equipped, race-ready model which can be ridden on the street and at the racetrack.

Indeed, race bikes that don’t have mirrors, lights, or blinkers are gaining in popularity and appeal to riders of all ages who want to race.

“They’re becoming very popular and have helped increase our sports-bike sales; people like to take their motorcycles on the racetrack because they can ride as fast as they want without having to worry about other vehicles or the speed limit,” Morin said, adding that some bikes can reach speeds of 186 mph. Valley Motorsports is sponsoring two race events this summer at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Thompson Speedway in Connecticut.

Adventure bikes with touring capability on paved and unpaved roads are also gaining in popularity, and Randall says dirt bikes account for one-third of the overall business at Valley Motorsports. Although they appeal to a broad age range, most owners are in their 20s and 30s and enjoy taking part in competitive events held on a weekly basis.

“The evolution of technological advances over the past 10 years has given people the opportunity to use these motorcycles in a safe, controlled environment where they can enjoy their performance no matter what kind of bike they’re on,” Randall said.

A recently issued consumer report says the motorcycle industry is facing a number of challenges: motorcycles are rarely an individual’s primary vehicle, there is an aging core group of owners, and efforts to draw women into the market have been less effective than manufacturers hoped for.

But the influx of new racing bikes and the thrill of taking to the open road are certainly fueling optimism within the industry.

“It’s great to be able to feel the wind in your face,” said Smith. “You can clear your thoughts when you ride, and if you go to a place like the Quabbin Reservoir, you become aware of flowers, birds, hawks, and other things people don’t pay attention to when they are driving a car.”

Randall agreed. “Everyone here is a motorcycle enthusiast, and it’s fun for all of us,” he told BusinessWest, as he spoke about the fact that some bikes get good gas mileage and insurance is reasonable.

“You can cloak the reasons to buy a bike in the economy, but it’s really about having a good time and enjoying the wide, open road.”

Autos Cover Story Sections

Turbo Charged

Jennifer Cernak

Jennifer Cernak says Buick’s new models, including its first convertible in 30 years, due to arrive in a few eeeks, are just one of many reasons to be optimistic about 2016.

Last year was nearly one for the record books when it came to new-car sales, with more than 17 million transactions recorded nationwide. There were a host of factors that contributed to that stellar performance, from attractive interest rates to low gas prices to an aging fleet of vehicles on the road. As the new year kicks into second gear, little has changed, playing-conditions-wise, so dealers are expecting more high-octane results.

Jennifer Cernak says there’s an intriguing story behind the 1922 Buick, model 22 37, parked in the showroom of the dealership her grandfather, Samuel, opened on Route 10 in Easthampton in 1940.

It turns out the car was a trade-in, a key piece in a deal the elder Cernak clinched in 1962.

“It wasn’t worth a lot of money, but my grandfather really wanted the antique, so he took it in trade,” she explained, adding that it’s been front and center, in one respect or another, ever since.

It’s been driven in various parades over the years, for example, and it’s been put on display at several classic-car shows across the region. But while it still runs fine, it hasn’t been out of the showroom much lately, Cernak told BusinessWest, because it doesn’t easily negotiate the ramp used to bring vehicles in and out of that room.


Go HERE for a PDF chart of area auto dealers


But it might soon have to make that trek and lose the spot it has owned for years, she went on, because Buick has a number of new models coming out over the next few months, and showroom floor space will be at a premium, to say the least.

“We’re already thinking about what to do,” said Cernak, adding that, while the antique holds a special place in this three-generation family business, it may have to go — somewhere — to make room for the Cascada and the Envision.

The former is a convertible, the first one Buick has offered in perhaps 20 years, and it’s due to arrive later this month. The latter, expected by summer, is a mid-sized SUV, smaller than the company’s Enclave and bigger than its Encore. Both are expected to be real assets in the carmaker’s ongoing efforts to convince the buying public that Buick isn’t just a model for your uncle or grandfather.

“There’s a lot of buzz about these cars, and we’re really excited to have a lot of new models,” Cernak explained, adding that the new nameplates are just one of many reasons why she believes the robust performance of 2015 — witnessed across the auto industry — will carry over into this new year.

And she’s not alone in that assessment.

Bill Peffer, COO at West Springfield-based Balise Motor Sales, told BusinessWest that industry analysts are predicting another solid year for sales, perhaps even something approaching the 17.4 million new cars sold in 2015, a total just shy of the record set some 15 years ago.

The reasons for such projections include everything from attractive interest rates (0% is still available, although harder to find), to low gas prices; from a still-strong economy to lingering, pent-up demand in the form of many older cars still on the road that need to be replaced; from decent weather (knock on wood) to an abundance of intriguing, well-made products.

“The stars are certainly aligned,” Peffer said of the current auto-sales sky, adding that, while this is a buyer’s market in every sense of that phrase, it’s an environment in which many constituencies benefit.

This includes consumers, dealers, and auto makers, who are, he said, taking the profits from the surge in sales and plowing them back into research and development, which will in turn lead to innovations and new products, which will continue the current cycle and fuel more growth.

“Forecasts we’re getting from various sources show growth this year,” he told BusinessWest. “Gas prices are lower, consumers have access to credit and low rates, we have a fairly robust economy, we’re seeing demand for vehicles, and there’s adequate supply. It all adds up to a very positive environment for sales.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest talked with several area dealers about what to expect in the months to come, and why all the experts are expecting another year in the fast lane for this industry.

Firing up the Grille

Don Pion calls it “old iron.”

That’s an industry term of sorts that Pion, second-generation president of Bob Pion Buick GMC in Chicopee, summoned to describe the volume of elderly vehicles still on the road.

Don Pion and his son, Rob

Don Pion and his son, Rob, note that many factors point to continued solid sales in 2016, especially all the “old iron” still on the roads.

There are many of them, he said, noting that there are a number of contributing factors to this phenomenon, including better quality, which prolongs a car’s life, and several years of lingering doubts about the economy and the direction in which it was headed, which prompted many consumers to get another year — or two, or three, or four — out of their vehicles.

“The age of the fleet, the cars on the road today, remains at an all-time high,” he said. “It’s almost 12 years, according to the reports I’ve heard, which is pretty remarkable given the number of cars that were sold last year.”

This old iron — and ‘old’ is a relative term, certainly — is one of those aforementioned stars now in alignment and a contributing factor to solid projections for the year ahead, said those we spoke with.

Indeed, the more elderly vehicles — which have kept service departments jammed, providing a different source of revenue — are finally being traded in, spawning sales of new and used cars. Meanwhile, a large amount of younger old iron — especially a huge number of cars coming off leases after 36, 24, or even 12 months — is creating attractive inventory for the used-car market, where profit margins are usually better than those for cars right out of the box.

It’s part of an intriguing cycle, with a number of moving parts, but sales of the new models definitely set the tone.

“The new-car side of the business is kind of the catalyst that makes everything go,” said Pion. “It keeps everything running.”

Peffer agreed, and said that current trends collectively comprise the best news for the industry — the fact that there is plenty of fuel to keep this fire burning through the year and probably well beyond.

Indeed, while more than 50 million cars were sold in 2015 — those 17 million new models and north of 40 million used cars — there is still plenty of demand for both.

“There is a lot of activity out there, and as dealers we sell new and used vehicles,” he explained. “When you take a used vehicle in, you sell a new vehicle, so that helps new-car sales. You recondition and then sell the used car, creating another transaction, creating more service department work, creating another customer that comes back for repeat business and service.”

Meanwhile, in a departure from recent years for some models, there is ample supply of new cars and trucks, although dealers could always use more.

The 1922 Buick at the Cernak dealership

The 1922 Buick at the Cernak dealership may soon have to find a new home to make way for the new models to roll in over the next few months.

“For many years following the recession [in 2008], you had a situation where there was maybe more demand than there was supply,” said Peffer, adding that this scenario was true with some carmakers more than others. “Most manufacturers, though, have caught up, and will, or already have, satisfied demand through additional production.”

As for the nature of that demand he and others mentioned, it comes in a number of flavors, and this is yet another reason for the rosy outlook for the industry.

Much of the focus, of course, is on the huge and seemingly insatiable appetite for SUVs and trucks, and especially the latter. Peffer said these vehicles have always been popular, and become even more so when gas prices fall below $3 a gallon. When they’re below $2, like they are now, it’s hard to keep trucks on the lot, and soaring truck sales, he noted, create a rising tide that, as the saying goes, lifts all boats.

“Low fuel prices generally move people into bigger vehicles, heavier vehicles — truck-based vehicles, so trucks are really hot right now,” he explained, putting additional accent on ‘really.’ “And when people buy more trucks, that’s good for the manufacturers — they take that money and put it into R&D, and that yields new products. The truck business is profitable for the manufacturers, and it’s profitable for dealers as well.”

But while trucks are white hot, so, too, are SUVs, a class of vehicle that has seen its appeal spread well beyond soccer moms.

“They’re attracting people of all ages, including a growing number of older individuals because they’re much easier to get in and out of,” said Rob Pion, Don’s son and a member of the third generation of management at the dealership. “There’s interest across the board.”

So much so that there is now demand for a host of different-sized and variously appointed SUVs to meet the wide variety of needs within that growing market. And that’s why Cernak is so enthusiastic about the Envision.

“Some people find the Enclave too big and the Encore too small,” she explained matter-of-factly, adding that the Goldilocks factor is prompting all makers, including Buick, to respond accordingly. “We really needed a mid-sized SUV, and now we’re getting one.”

And with gas prices low and expected to stay that way for the near future, sales of these vehicles should remain brisk, said the Pions, both noting that the near certainty that these prices won’t last isn’t nearly enough to deter most all buyers of these larger vehicles.

Setting a President

Don Pion’s memories of life in the auto business stretch back more than a half-century, to when his father was a salesperson at the old Boulier Chevrolet in Springfield and he would accompany him to the lot.

He recalls the fall season, when the new models would roll in and the dealership would cover the showroom windows with brown paper to build suspense and draw customers in.

He also remembers Presidents Day and how it was a much bigger deal decades ago, when red, white, and blue balloons would often populate the showroom, dealers would give away cherry pies with sales, and area newspapers would be crammed with full-page ads announcing deals.

Most all of that is gone now, especially the newspaper ads, he said with a hint of lament in his voice, adding that the Presidents Day sales, always a bigger event in the Northeast than other parts of the country for some reason, were designed to break the winter doldrums and give people a reason to get into the showrooms.

Such sentiment still exists, and some dealers continue to mark the holiday with special sales, he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that promotions are now a near-constant in this business, with new incentives on a monthly or quarterly basis. As for February, in many respects it’s just another month, although sometimes a challenging one when winter hits with full fury, as it did in 2015.

This year, of course, it’s expected to be a solid month, as all those aforementioned stars continue to shine an optimistic light on the industry.

“Everything is very favorable right now,” said Don Pion as he surveyed the scene. “All the signs are positive.”

There are always threats to this sector, though, and things could change in a hurry. But most potential stumbling blocks, such as the stock market’s dreadful start to the year, are minor or temporary in nature, said Peffer.

Bill Peffer

Bill Peffer says the “stars are aligned” when it comes to the auto industry and sales projections for 2016.

Still, while most of the arrows are pointing up for this industry, there are challenges in various forms, starting with heightened competition in the form of quality vehicles carrying seemingly every nameplate.

“Where quality was once a market differentiator decades ago, now it’s cost of entry,” said Peffer. “I can’t think of a brand that doesn’t have really good quality.

“There are so many new-product offerings on the market right now that are full of technology, full of safety features, full of performance and styling,” he went on, adding that all this competition is in many ways a positive more than a negative. “All this really piques a customer’s interest; it’s a very good time to be in the market for a new or near-new vehicle.”

Pion agreed. “In the age of consumerism that we have now, bad products don’t survive in any segment, whether we’re talking about automobiles or whatever,” he explained. “You have to build a good product because anyone can go online and read the reviews — and people do that before they buy.”

For the Buick dealers, meanwhile, there’s the almost age-old (no pun intended) challenge of convincing younger audiences that this brand is not just for their father or grandfather.

Rob Pion recalls a recent episode involving a younger individual who test-drove one of the Buick models, liked it, but then offered, ‘I’m not old enough to drive a Buick,’ or words to that effect. And that’s a fairly common refrain.

“We battle that all that time,” said the younger Pion. “If I could just blindfold people until they got in the car and took it for a test drive, I know I could sell more people on these vehicles.”

Super Models

Time will tell whether that 1922 Buick retains its long-held parking space at the Cernak dealership. But at the moment, it looks like the family may well have to find a new home for the antique.

The Cascada will be arriving in a few weeks, and the Envision not long after that. In the meantime, the existing models, including more traditional offerings like the Lacrosse and the Verano, are in solid demand.

Add it all up, and the focus clearly shifts to the present and future, not the past.

And to the stars, which, as Peffer and other dealers said, are certainly aligned.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]