MANITOWOC, WI – Bob Pietroske is standing in the showroom of his General Motors Corp. dealership in Manitowoc, WI, getting ready to drive to the city hall to have some pictures taken.

Asked if permission is needed, he shakes his head no with a mischievous glint in his eye.

“Maybe they’ll think I’m running for mayor,” he laughs. “Better they’re talking about me than someone else.”

Ironically, Pietroske used to own the land on which the city hall is built. He sold it to the city in 1990, prior to moving to a new facility.

Just a few months ago, Pietroske galvanized local business leaders to convince Manitowoc’s city council to stop a 28% storm water fee it was planning to levy on the city’s citizens.

It was a contentious battle, with city council attempting to pull a fast one on Manitowoc’s citizens to put together a savings account for the city, according to Pietroske’s view.

Pietroske says he learned of the vote in late on a Friday afternoon. The vote was scheduled for the following Monday evening’s meeting.

By 9:30 a.m. Monday, 32 business leaders gathered in Pietroske’s dealership to strategize on how to get the city council to delay the vote. They were successful, and within several weeks the measure was dead.

The story is just one example of the effect Pietroske has had on his community through the years as a car dealer and why he is Ward’s 2006 Dealer of the Year.

Pietroske is a mainstay in this community with a population of 70,000. For 29 years, he has owned a number of dealerships in the area. He since has cut back to one dealership, Pietroske Inc., selling Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chevrolet medium truck, GMC and Pontiac brands.

“That’s all I want,” he says.

There are two other dealerships in Manitowoc, a Ford and Lincoln Mercury store, and a Chrysler dealership, formerly owned by Pietroske and now owned by a former service manager of his. There are no import stores in the city to compete with.

For the most part, Pietroske stays out of local politics because he does not want to give people a reason not to buy from his dealership. Instead, much of his community involvement focuses on charities.

But this one time he felt he had to do something. “It would have hurt a lot of senior citizens,” Pietroske says.

Along with his wife of 10 years, Liz, Pietroske donates $170,000 a year, a hefty sum for a dealer in a small town.

For 40 years, Pietroske has been involved with the Travelers Protection Assn., a group that provides aid for the deaf or near deaf. The group has raised more than $14 million for the TPA and has established seven scholarship funds with his wife for the deaf.

During his tenure as national president of the group, Pietroske grew the TPA, adding 200 new members.

He always has been sensitive to the disable, not being able to walk until he was six years old because of polio. Also, when Pietroske began working at a General Motors dealership while in college, nine deaf employees were on staff and he wanted to help them.

The dealership also was one of the first in the nation to start a child protection (seat- awareness) program several years ago, which GM as since copied.

Pietroske participates in the Wisconsin Automobile and Truck Dealers Assn. and this year is the group’s secretary-treasurer. In 2007, he will be president-elect and president the following year. He was the Wisconsin Dealer of the Year in 2005 and the Time magazine Quality Dealer nominee in 2006.

It is a critical time in Wisconsin for car dealers, he says. The majority of domestic dealers are losing money, and there is a danger many could be out of business in the next few years.

At 63, Pietroske is a man of solid, unassuming, compassionate and stubborn character.

He calls himself a “local boy,” having grown up in Manitowoc, a small farming and tourist community situated on Lake Michigan about 30 miles (32 km) south of Green Bay.

“This is a great place to live,” he says, although he does grumble about the high tax rates for the state. “We’re sixth in the country when it comes to taxes.”

Pietroske started washing cars in 1962 at Hamachek Dealership while attending a local technical college, partially to get out of working at his father’s dairy farm because, he says, “I thought it was too many hours.”

Ironically, he says he has worked 16 hours a day consistently for the last 43 years.

Pietroske fell in love with the car business and wanted to own his own dealership, and at age 32 he was sure he was going to get it.

For 13 years he had worked his way up at Hamachek, getting experience in each of the dealership’s departments. Now was his time.

The owner was looking to get out and had promised to sell to Pietroske. Unfortunately, executives at General Motors Corp. had other ideas and instead brought in an outsider to buy the store.

Two years later, in 1977, another dealership in Chilton, WI, a few miles away, became available. Pietroske jumped at the opportunity.

Within a couple of months, he was grabbing market share away from Lewis. In February, Pietroske sold 170 new GM cars and trucks in Chilton, a town of only 3,000 people.

Ten months after buying the Chilton store, with Lewis not working out in Manitowoc, GM approached Pietroske about buying the store he originally wanted.

The owner did not go gracefully. On the afternoon of his last day, he fired the entire staff before the deal was signed.

At 1:30 in the morning, after several hours of negotiations, Pietroske had his Manitowoc dealership. He instructed his service manager to begin calling the staff to report back to work in the morning.

Meanwhile, the owner was at the bank promptly at 9:00 p.m., took the cash from the sale and moved to Kansas City.

It is that stubbornness and ability to accomplish the impossible that Dale Kocourek, Pietroske’s longtime general manager and vice president, points to when asked to describe his boss.

“Bob always has some type of goal in mind, that often is out of reach,” he says. But he always seems to get things done.”

The fact Pietroske sells both GMC and Chevrolet under one roof may raise the eyebrows of many GM dealers. Both brands sell trucks, and typically GM likes to keep them apart so they do not cannibalize sales.

“He was always talking about having Chevy and GMC together,” Kocourek says. “But I knew how GM does things and thought, ‘That will never happen.’”

But it did. “Somehow he convinced GM that is was the right thing to do for the customer,” Kocourek says.

The current location also is a miracle of sorts. Pietroske had this dream of having a new building with white pillars.

The downtown facilities (located where the current city hall is now) were poor and cramped. Kocourek says he knew what the costs for a new building would be and doubted it was feasible.

But in 1991, the move was completed. “It probably is the most memorable event I’ve had in the business,” Pietroske says. However, the pillars are beige, not white.

The dealership closed its doors at 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It opened its doors the following Monday at 6:30 a.m. and tripled its sales the first day.

“I believe in location, location, location,” Pietroske says. GM helped with a site survey and determined that a busy intersection six blocks off Interstate 43 was best.

GM also helped redesign an existing building to what was at the time flagship Buick standards, including a large dome on the roof. “We were able to save $1.5 million using an existing building,” Pietroske says.

In his best years, Pietroske has sold as many as 3,000 vehicles. But the economy has forced many large businesses out of Manitowoc. Now, the store is selling in the 1,200 to 1,400 range. The ratio is two-to-one used cars over new.

“The factory has made us new-car distributors since last July (when the employee pricing strategies were implemented),” Pietroske says. “We’re basically used-car dealers now.” Still, the store rates first among dealers with the same brands in his zone.

He does believe GM will come back strong. “With as much cash as it has, and with the recent cost cuts, we’ll be okay,” he says.

Kocourek admits the store is not going to sell as many new cars as it did two years ago. “Today, we’re dependent on GM-Certified,” he says.

The dealership gets 99% of its used inventory through trade, although the day before the interview, it took delivery of several vehicles it purchased through one of the online auctions.

“Once in a while, you have to buy used cars just to excite the sales staff,” Pietroske says.

Recently, the store bought 10 1-year old Impalas that the staff sold in less than a week.

While there are challenges today, nothing compares with 1979, when Pietroske had to lay off 50 employees including Kocourek. The store went from 69 employees to 19.

“We had to do it to stay alive,” Pietroske says. Unemployment was near 11%, and the economy was in trouble.

“I told the employees that we were going to be in business and be profitable,” Pietroske says. “Six weeks later, I was able to call many of them back. The store is much stronger today. We’re managing the entire business.”

Service, despite a 50% drop in warranty work, is as strong as ever. It helps to have Dave Kubsh, a technician who has been at the dealership for 22 years, and is the No. 1 GM technician in the country, Pietroske says.

The dealership also entered the tire business last October, and in that first month sold $30,000 worth of tires.

There is little overhead, just the racks, inventory and training, says Pietroske.

Additionally, the dealership is beginning to leverage technology to help drive sales. It recently signed with Reynolds and Reynolds to update its website and soon will start e-mail marketing.

The store sells an average of 15 units a month on the Internet. “We sell cars in Michigan using the Internet, “Pietroske says. “We stick them on the Badger,” (the ferry that crosses Lake Michigan between Manitowoc and Ludington, MI).

“We couldn’t exist without technology today,” he says. “For one, it has helped us cut down on paper records, leaving space for other things.”

Kocourek says Pietroske is not the type of boss to walk onto the showroom floor and wonder why the staff didn’t sell six cars that day.

“He understands what the market is doing and is realistic,” he says.

Still, Pietroske sets the bar high, demanding 100% customer satisfaction. The best the dealership has done is 98.2%.

“The problem is that it is up and down,” he says. “High customer satisfaction comes if you take care of the customer. You have to treat them as a house guest.”

Getting there requires training and a lot of it, Pietroske says. “We send our employees to school often, getting them out of the store and away from what’s going here,” he says. “We also train every week – hands on, all the time.”

The dealership takes bits and pieces from various sales trainers but has developed its own system for selling cars.

Having a consistent sales philosophy helps retain employees, Kocourek says. It also helps keep customers coming back because they know they’ll be treated a certain way.

“Being a car dealer is real important, especially in a smaller community,” Pietroske says. “You’re in the public eye all the time.”

cbanks@wardsauto.com