When It Comes to Community Involvement, He Puts the Pedal to the Metal
Jeffrey Byrnes Photography
Gary Rome says it was like the Oscars — or at least what he’s seen of the Oscars on TV.
He was referring to the recent ceremonies at which he was named TIME magazine Dealer of the Year.
The Oscars reference was a nod to everything from the size of the crowd gathered for the National Automotive Dealers Assoc. Show at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in Dallas — roughly 3,000 — to the butterflies that were in his stomach when, as one of four finalists for the coveted award (from among 48 nominees), he stood on stage awaiting the announcement of the winner.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” recalled Rome, who can now add being on the cover of TIME (not to mention BusinessWest) and the back of Automotive News to his long list of accomplishments. “My heart rate was like 100; I was really nervous, and then they pulled out that envelope and said, ‘from Holyoke, Massachusetts, our award winner is Gary Rome.’”
With the Dealer of the Year Award now on prominent display at his Hyundai store, Rome now has an even more crowded calendar for the months ahead. Indeed, representatives of TIME and Ally Financal, sponsor of the program, will be coming to Holyoke to celebrate the award, and officials from Hyundai corporate will be coming in from California to mark the occasion as well.
“If it were up to me, I’d give the money to an organization focused on animals, in honor of Jack. But … it’s not up to me. It’s not about me; it’s about my team — that’s who I attribute our success to.”
And he also has a big decision to make — only, he’s quick to note that he won’t make it himself.
The prize comes with a check from Ally Financial for $10,000, to be awarded to the charity of Rome’s choice. But, as a reflection of how he operates his dealerships, Rome will let his team help him decide.
“If it were up to me, I’d give the money to an organization focused on animals, in honor of Jack,” he said, referring to his beloved companion, spokesdog, and customer favorite, who passed away in October. “But … it’s not up to me. It’s not about me; it’s about my team — that’s who I attribute our success to.”
The TIME award was announced just a few weeks after Rome was chosen by BusinessWest to be one of its Difference Makers for 2023. The juxtaposition of the two honors is significant, and he was chosen by two different sets of judges for essentially the same reasons.
They are summed up in comments from Doug Timmerman, president of Ally Financial, who said of Rome — and the other auto dealers nominated — “they go above and beyond for their customers, communities, and employees.”
Gary Rome was recently honored as TIME magazine’s Dealer of the Year.
In Rome’s case, it’s well above and beyond, especially when it comes to communities and his employees.
With the former, Rome is omnipresent, it seems, serving as a foundation board member at Holyoke Community College (HCC); presenting a car annually to a graduating high-school student in Holyoke; carrying on a holiday tradition called the Trees of Hope event, which raises funds for the Ronald McDonald House; and presenting, in collaboration with other Western Mass. Hyundai dealers, an honor called Salute to Heroes, among many other initiatives. The latest such hero, who received a new Hyundai in gratitude for his work in the community, is Bob Charland, a/k/a the Bike Man, who was named a Difference Maker himself in 2018.
With the latter, Rome’s operating philosophy is perhaps best summed up in the company’s core values — excellence, passion, integrity, caring, and especially the last one, ‘we have fun.’
“My involvement with cars started at the age of 9 — I was just enthralled with my father and his business, so I wanted to be around him all the time. My father would go to work, and I would chase him down the hallway at home to make sure he would take me with him. I was very excited about being there, being around him … it got into my blood.”
This is made clear by the monthly calendar for the business, printed out for all employees. It lists birthdays and anniversaries of employment, but also regular raffles staged at the dealership, which coincide with ‘holidays’ such as (in January) ‘Time to get Organized Day’ and ‘National Cuddle Up Day,’ as well as ‘National Peanut Butter and Jelly Lunch Day,’ for which the company provided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to Providence Ministries — and to employees as well.
That philosophy is also represented in monthly newsletters that profile specific employees in a ‘Get to Know’ section, spotlight employees of the month (and employees of the year in the December issue), as well as collections of photos involving events and company involvement in the community. The December issue included shots from the Mayflower Marathon (Gary Rome Hyundai was a presenting sponsor), Gary and Daisy (another spokesdog) at a Springfield Thunderbirds sponsor-appreciation day, and a Gary Rome Auto Group employee-appreciation party at the Castle of Knights in Chicopee.
Gary Rome, Eastern Region board member for Hyundai Hope on Wheels, Hyundai’s philanthropic initiative to raise funds for research for childhood cancer, presents a $300,000 check to Massachusetts General Hospital last fall.
All this — and it’s just a sample, to be sure — helps explain why Rome is not just Dealer of the Year, but a true Difference Maker.
Getting back to Jack, he took the title ‘official greeter’ for the Gary Rome Auto Group. That title is still held by Daisy, who has her own business cards and is often sought out by customers (most of whom want photos) as they look over models or come to pick up a vehicle they’ve purchased.
“Some people will say they’re not buying a car until they meet the dog,” Rome said. “When Jack passed away, we put it on social media, and it reached 220,000 people; I received more than 6,000 messages on Facebook, hundreds of cards, letters, flowers, chocolate. We put it on LinkedIn, and it reached almost 60,000 people, and I had almost 2,000 people reach out to me, saying they grew up with Jack, and he was a big part of their life.”
Dogs have been prominent in this business for years, from their barking heard on radio and TV commercials to the company’s marketing slogan — ‘the best doggone place to buy a car’ — and their presence is seen everywhere, from the dealership itself to all those events highlighted in the newsletters. In fact, in addition to a new car wash being planned for the Hyundai store, there will a dog wash as well.
“Why would you put your dirty dog in a clean car?” he asked rhetorically, not waiting for an answer.
And dogs are just part of an intriguing story that most know by now. It starts with a young Gary working odd jobs at his father Jerry’s Datsun (later Nissan) dealership in Holyoke.
“My involvement with cars started at the age of 9 — I was just enthralled with my father and his business, so I wanted to be around him all the time,” he recalled. “My father would go to work, and I would chase him down the hallway at home to make sure he would take me with him. I was very excited about being there, being around him … it got into my blood.”
Gary Rome Hyundai sold a record 306 cars last August, and to celebrate, the staff was treated to lunch, one example of how the company values its employees.
So much so that plans to pursue a law degree were eventually shelved, and he followed his father into the business.
By 1985, he was general manager of Jerry Rome Nissan, which would eventually move to Riverdale Street in West Springfield. In 1997, Gary bought the old dealership in Holyoke and opened Gary Rome Hyundai, at a time when that brand was more of a punchline than the respected name it is today. In 2006, he bought a Kia dealership in Enfield, thus creating the Gary Rome Auto Group.
In 2016, the Hyundai store was moved to its present location on Whiting Farms Road, where it has become one of the most successful Hyundai dealerships in the country — ranking fifth in sales in the Northeast and 28th in the country, out of 820 dealers. It has also become a model for others in the brand, he said, noting that Hyundai’s regional manager recently brought his entire team of 65 to Holyoke for a day in October “so they could see what this dealership looks like, take photos, and show their other dealers what a dealership should look like.”
Those numbers, and those tours (there have been many over the years), help explain how Rome has gone from his humble beginnings to TIME’s Dealer of the Year. His work in the community — make that his team’s work in the community — and the culture he has created at his dealerships are perhaps even bigger reasons.
Let’s start with that culture. It is embodied in those newsletters and that monthly calendar of events. It’s an attitude more than anything else, encapsulated by that core value, ‘we have fun.’
Gary Rome (and Jack) read to fourth-graders at Peck Middle School in Holyoke as part of the read-aloud program created by the nonprofit Link to Libraries.
As for his work in the community, he said it takes many forms, from his involvement at Holyoke Community College, which he called a ‘crown jewel’ in the region, to support of Providence Ministries, to the Trees of Hope program for Ronald McDonald House, which this past year raised more than $175,000. On a shelf behind his desk is an array of stuffed dogs that resemble Daisy, Jack, and another predecessor, Buddy. The dealership sells them for $25 each, with proceeds going to the Jimmy Fund; more than $15,000 has been raised to date.
As with the $10,000 check coming his way from being Dealer of the Year, Rome said decisions about community involvement and where to put time, effort, imagination, and money are made as a team.
“We try to find charities that are near and dear to our employees’ hearts because we want them to be invested, and we want to them to participate,” he explained, adding that this strategy, which includes a special emphasis on Holyoke, where the company is a large corporate citizen, has proven itself very effective over the years.
Within the city, he’s on Mayor Joshua Garcia’s transition team, he’s a member of the Holyoke Taxpayers’ Assoc., and he’s on the governmental affairs committee for the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, among many other forms of involvement.
“When people ask me where I live, I say I live in Holyoke — I just sleep somewhere else,” he explained.
It’s Been Quite a Ride
Rome said his father had a few favorite sayings and words to live by. There are a few that he lives by and will recite quite often.
“He always said that your education is something that no one can take away from you,” he noted, adding that this sentiment helps explain his heavy involvement in education, be it at HCC, the Holyoke public schools, or other initiatives.
Gary Rome presents the keys to a new car to a graduating senior at Holyoke High School, one of many initiatives to support education and area young people.
“He also used to say, ‘it doesn’t cost any extra to be nice,’ and he would say it over and over and over again,” Rome went on, adding that this is a mindset he has bought to work, and to the community, every day.
“For 61 years, I heard, ‘Gary, it doesn’t cost any extra to be nice,’” he said. “And that’s why I have an excessively positive outlook on things. If you tell me there’s a 70% chance of rain, I don’t even hear you; I just hear there’s a 30% chance of sun.”
That outlook on life, work, and community explains not only why Rome is TIME’s Dealer of the Year for 2023, but why he’s always been a Difference Maker.