Fifteen years ago, Ryan LaFontaine asked one of his sales managers how his dealership could rise to the top 10 in General Motors’ overall dealer sales ranking.

At the time, Ryan was a new general manager at LaFontaine Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac, his family’s flagship dealership in Highland, MI, about an hour north of Detroit.  

He got a “not likely” response due to the store’s exurban location. 

LaFontaine and his family members who run the multibrand LaFontaine Automotive Group begged to differ. They had their own plans. They also had another thing: Faith. In themselves, their employees and customers.

True, Highland is not a big-box business area. Residents in the 20,000 population town tend toward equestrian and rural-like lifestyles. They typically commute to urban and suburban jobs. But the LaFontaine organization is not backwoods by any means.

In 2008, the family opened the nation’s first Gold LEED- (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified dealership. The cutting-edge 63,000-sq.-ft. (5,853-sq.-m) facility on 24 acres (10 ha) has become a model for others seeking LEED’s distinction.

Itincorporates principles of environmentally friendly sustainable design, construction and systems such as geothermal solar cooling and heating and recycling processes.

The family invested $15 million into facility renovations and at least $2 million went into the green equipment and systems, Ryan LaFontaine says. This came shortly before GM shut down the Pontiac brand, one of LaFontaine’s leading sales stores. 

For the LaFontaines, building the new dealership showed a community commitment.  “And it shows our true colors – green,” Ryan says. A new Volkswagen store in Dearborn and Chevrolet in Dexter also are green designs.

GM officials bring dealers and others to tour the flagship dealership, touting it as a first. It has become a showcase for the automaker and other dealers who want to see a fully functioning green store.

“It was a humbling experience for us,” Ryan says of the tours. Then the 2008-2009 economic crash came.

“It was the biggest education we ever got,” he says. “GM went through bankruptcy and we’d just built the LEED megastore.”

The LaFontaines had counted on plus-business from their Pontiac operation in addition to the Buick, Cadillac and GMC brands at the site.LaFontaine was the No.1 Pontiac dealer in the country when GM axed the Pontiac brand.

“We had to convince ourselves we would do fine,” Ryan says.

They hunkered down. They cut employee hours but didn’t lay off anyone.

Robert Milner, a manager at the flagship store,says,“We had to work harder, be smarter with everything we had to do. To say there was no concern (about survival) is not true. But we had no reservations we would come out ahead.”

GM’s bankruptcy reorganization plan trimmed thousands of dealers. But that doesn’t mean today’s competition is less intense, Milner says. “Those still in business are better and sharper than before.”

The LaFontaine Automotive Group consists of 18 franchises in 10 locations in Southeast Michigan. It employs 837 people. Franchises include Ford, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, GMC, Honda, Nissan, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram, Toyota, Scion, Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen.

The Buick-Cadillac-GMC complex ranks No.18 on the WardsAuto Dealer 500, selling more than 5,000 new and used vehicles last year. Total revenue was $198.2 million.

Also on the list is LaFontaine Toyota Hyundai Kia in Dearborn, MI. It ranks No.408. LaFontaine Chevrolet in Dexter, MI, is No.438.

Founders Michael and Maureen LaFontaine started with one Toyota store in Dearborn in 1980. Pontiac and GMC stores came in 1984, proving to be top nationwide sellers.

“It all took off from there,” says daughter Kelley LaFontaine, who directs business-to-business dealership operations.

Also involved in the business is son Mike Jr. and nephew Matt LaFontaine. Ryan runs the flagship store. Mike Jr. is general manager of the Dearborn facility and Matt is general manager of a Buick GMC dealership in Ann Arbor, MI.

Michael Sr. began selling Volkswagens more than 40 years ago.Michael and Maureen LaFontaine “stay very involved in all parts of the business,” Milner says. “They set the standard.”

In the past few years, the LaFontaine group has rebuilt a new GM LEED-certified Chevrolet facility in Dexter, purchased a Ford franchise in Lansing, opened an all-new LEED-certified VW facility in Dearborn and added a Nissan outlet in Highland.  

“We’re careful to give each brand its own identity,” says Ryan. “To mix imports with domestics doesn’t make sense.”

The dealership group expects to expand. But acquiring new brands or franchises “depends on their experience and growth, and if it fits in with our culture,” Ryan says. “We look at the right opportunity and what’s the best way to go about it.”

Can you get too big and lose the personal touch with customers?

“One of our challenges as the company has grown is to never become that big (impersonal) corporate environment,” Kelley says. “We want to have insight and grow together, but also it comes from the heart. We’re all borderline workaholics.”

To keep its personal touch, the group uses a grassroots marketing approach, holds community events and sponsors numerous charities.

Three years ago, Ryan, 36, a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor, raised $200,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The group named him one of its people of the year.

The dealership group relies on various marketing channels including TV, radio and the Internet. 

“The Internet has been very important for us,” Milner says . “More than 40% of our leads come from email and phone traffic. Our business has improved nearly 40% from 2012.”

He attributes the sales gains in part to an improved job market and lenders more willing to approve auto financing. “That tells us what we need to know about the economy.”

Company Profile: LaFontaine Automotive Group

Headquarters: Dearborn, MI

Flagship Store: No. 18 on the WardsAuto Dealer 500.

Founders: Michael and Maureen LaFontaine

Children: Ryan, Mike Jr., and Kelley LaFontaine serve as co-owners

Honors: Michael Sr. has served on local and national dealer councils, received GM’s Dealer of the Year awards and Toyota and Honda President’s awards.

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