Commentary

Car-dealer success stories are plentiful, and they come in many forms.

There are up-through-the-ranks guys such as David P. Kelleher, who became an entry-level salesman at a Philadelphia store in 1992.

In 2005, he fulfilled a dream of acquiring his own Dodge store. He added Jeep and Chrysler franchises and increased sales at the David Auto Group in Glen Mills, PA, from 40 vehicles to 140 a month.

Smart and articulate, Kelleher testified before Congress in connection with Chrysler’s dealer-reduction plan. He did about 20 TV interviews on the subject. Despite the limelight, he says it is good to “get back to selling cars.”

Then there are dealer folks such as Ryan LaFontaine who is helping to make the family business better and helping worthy causes, too.

LaFontaine, who graduated from Michigan’s Northwood University dealer-studies program, now is general manager at LaFontaine Buick-GMC-Cadillac in Highland, MI.

He is keen on customer satisfaction. An indicator of that is that his office is just off the customer waiting room. He says it gives him easy access to visitors.

LaFontaine helped oversee the construction of a $15 million award-winning “green” facility that now houses the family’s flagship store. Two years ago, in the midst of that ambitious project (and shortly after learning that his wife was expecting twins), he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

The cancer is in remission, and LaFontaine now is spearheading an effort to raise $200,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through a series of benefit events, such as a casino night and a classic-car show at the dealership.

Among my favorite success stories are the ones in which a setback ironically leads to an opportunity. David Wilson and the late Bob Crevier come to mind in that regard.

Wilson runs the Wilson Auto Group which regularly appears on the Ward’s Megadealer 100 (No.17 this year). Some of his individual stores regularly show up on the Ward’s Dealer 500, including his palatial $70 million Newport Lexus.

Based in Orange County, CA, he runs 22 stores that last year took in revenues of more than $1 billion.

Ironically, Wilson says he might not have become a dealer had he not messed up while working as a young oil changer at a dealership in his native Iowa.

He botched a job, oil leaked out and the engine was ruined. The dealer demanded he pay for a new engine. Wilson asked if he could work it off. Not in the service department, said the dealer.

So Wilson transferred to the showroom, where he began selling cars. He discovered he had a knack for that. He became sales manager in two years. He moved to California and soon became 25% owner of a Toyota dealership in 1982. “It’s been uphill from there,” Wilson said in a Ward’s interview.

The son of a South Dakota farmer, Bob Crevier took a bus to California in 1936, where he got a job at a donut shop. He started working at a dealership as a salesman in 1949. He was good at it. But a drinking problem got in the way.

He lost a job at a Volkswagen dealership and at age 50 moved in with son Don and his young family. At rock bottom, the elder Crevier joined Alcoholics Anonymous. It changed his life.

The VW store rehired him. Soon Bob Crevier was the general manager. He wanted to fulfill a dream of owning his own VW dealership. But he couldn’t afford it. More within reach was a relatively low-cost franchise from another German auto maker, which, at the time, was a mere niche player with modest sales, but an avid customer base.

Crevier BMW opened in 1971. BMW now is a major luxury-brand player, especially in California and particularly in Orange County, home of Crevier BMW which took in total revenues of $255 million last year, earning the No.6 spot on the Ward’s Dealer 500.

Bob Crevier died at age 86 in 2004. Almost to the end, he “suited up” and went to work. Son Don, who had provided that port in a storm for his down-and-out dad, now runs the dealership, the nation’s largest BMW store.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com