SALT LAKE CITY, UT – Jerry Seiner is a high-profile auto dealer whose early dream was to own a newspaper.

“But I couldn’t afford it,” he says of his would-be publishing ambitions.

In retrospect, it worked out well. For one thing, the newspaper business is floundering today. For another, Seiner has enjoyed much success as a dealer, first in his home state of Michigan, then here, where he runs three large dealership complexes.

He’s known in Salt Lake City as the “GM Guy,” a moniker that is on the front of his stores and in his advertising. It stems from his close ties to General Motors Co. management and product.

Jerry Seiner Dealerships represent Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick. He also sells Nissans, Kias and Isuzus. Until recently, he sold the defunct Hummer and Pontiac brands.

Seiner, 68, grew up in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb and home to Ford Motor Co., where his father worked as an electrician. As a teen, Seiner applied at the Detroit News for a job tossing bundles of newspapers off the backs of delivery trucks.

But a job-assessment test indicated he had potential for selling classified ads. So he started doing that at age 18, assigned to selling small ads to local dealers. He was good at it. By age 25, he was a Wall Street Journal display-ad salesman. His clients included the Detroit Three.

It was his interaction with those auto makers that got him thinking about becoming a car dealer.

“I’d have lunch with auto executives who would tell me they wanted their kids to be dealers because it was so rewarding,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Maybe that’s something I should do.’”

In 1975, after four days of training at Lou LaRiche Chevrolet in metro Detroit, Seiner became a partner in a Chevy-Buick store in Cadillac, a northern Michigan town. “I went in with $57,000 and borrowed the rest,” he says.

He soon became the sole owner. In 1979, he trained and turned the store over to Joe Godfrey, whose father was GM’s group vice president-manufacturing. By then, Seiner felt ready for a major market.

“I had the highest return on market share in the whole of northern Michigan and GM knew I wanted a larger store,” he says. So in 1980, he headed to Salt Lake City where a Chevrolet store was for sale.

He bought it, added more GM franchises and expanded his operation into three “super centers.” The main one, which includes a restaurant filled with GM memorabilia, is in downtown Salt Lake City. The other two are nine miles (14 km) to the north and 10 miles (16 km) to the south.

Seiner, like so many dealers, went into austerity mode when hard times hit auto sales in late 2008 and throughout 2009.

His sales fell from roughly 4,000 new units a year to fewer than 3,000 last year. Used-car sales went from about 3,000 to 2,000. Personnel dropped from 400 to just over 300 people.

The sales staff works on a variable-compensation plan, so they took pay cuts when sales softened but stand to make good money when the economy recovers, Seiner says.

“We got hit, but we were profitable every month of 2009,” he says. “We were fiscally conservative, so we got through the tough times.”

Now, he looks to expand. “We’d like to do some acquisitions. I’d love to buy stores in midsize markets where a good dealer can succeed and become part of the community.”

He describes the Salt Lake City market as stable, with fewer highs and lows than elsewhere.

“It’s a financially conservative population, and overall there’s probably less volatility to the local economy,” Seiner says. “People buy cars based on need. They don’t overspend during good times but nor do they stop spending during the bad times.”

He prides himself on running a training organization. Sales people are urged to build trust and relationships. Seiner gives them laminated step-selling tip sheets that say “Make a Friend” at the top and “Keep a Friend” at the bottom.

“Relationships should continue beyond the sale,” he says. “Ask a customer, ‘What’s the next thing I can do for you?’ Then do it. That goes back to my newspaper ad-selling days.”

Some of his sales people are better than others, as reflected by their wages. “The average pay is $46,000,” he says. “But some people make $100,000. And some leave us because they were making minimum wage.”

Overall, employees tend to stick around. All three of his service managers are 25-year employees. Seiner believes a good dealership cultivates “employee greatness.”

On a wall outside his office is a framed Anne Frank quote: “The good news is that you really don’t know how great you can be, how much you can love, what you can accomplish, what your potential is.”

In hiring, he looks for people who show competency as well as a capacity to do the right thing and make good decisions.

He sees his dealerships not only as places for consumers to buy cars but also as resources that aid in the purchase. Internet users may car shop and research online. But they can only go so far on their own, Seiner says.

“Buying a car is a complicated purchase,” he says. Beyond their own research, many people need guidance. “That’s what a good dealership does.”

Nor does the Internet offer a test drive, which Seiner considers a vital part of buying the right vehicle. “A test drive is like sitting on a couch in a furniture store to see if it’s comfortable,” he says.

He loves walking the sales floor, talking to customers. “I think of myself as an ordinary person, and I’m surprised when people are surprised to meet me on the floor. Why wouldn’t I be there?”

He has another fondness, of a more studious nature. “I love interpretive financial reporting and planning,” he says. “Financial statements can tell you a lot, if you know what to look for.”

Seiner’s wife, Shari, is a clinical psychologist. “I told my mom there would be a doctor in the family, so I married one,” he quips.

He is the father of two sons and a daughter, Sandy, who is married to Christopher Hemmersmeier, the designated heir apparent of Jerry Seiner Dealerships.

Son Jerry Jr., 40, is a creative art director for an ad agency. Son Jimmy, 14, who attends a charter school, wants to be a theoretical scientist.

His children aren’t interested in becoming second-generation dealers, and he didn’t want to insist that they do by putting them in what he calls “golden handcuffs.”

But Seiner recently asked Jimmy to cultivate a dealer trait: the ability to negotiate.

“I told him, ‘Take a debate class, because if you do you will be able to negotiate. You may want to be a scientist, but being able to negotiate will help you through life.’”

If Seiner’s children aren’t interested in following in his footsteps, his son-in-law certainly is.

“He’s a good guy, respected by the management team and ready to take over as I prepare for my future,” he says of Hemmersmeier, who began working for Seiner 19 years ago as a salesman and now is executive general manager of the operation.

“I truly believe Chris will grow this business,” Seiner says.

Years ago, he gave his son-in-law an envelope containing $1,000. “I told him, ‘If you ever feel I cheated you, repay yourself, let me know and I’ll put another $1,000 in.’ He’s never been back to me for that.”

Hemmersmeir holds a computer engineering degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. Selling cars was “scary at first,” he says. “But I did well and was well trained.”

He admires Seiner’s passion for the business as well as his keen attention to it. “I learned a lot from Jerry. No.1 is how to manage by the numbers, by making sure your percentages and grosses are in line.”

Hemmersmeir sees his strong suit as executing business strategies. He is more low-profile than Seiner, who enjoys a notoriety around town.

“Jerry is so well-known in Salt Lake City,” he says. “People will come up to him in places like the airport and say, ‘Hey, it’s the GM Guy.’”

Because of that strong association, Seiner’s name was taken off his import outlets. He says, “We changed the name when someone said, ‘I didn’t know GM made Kias.”

So Seiner Kia and Nissan became Christopher Kia and Christopher Nissan, Hemmersmeir’s first-name namesakes.

Seiner’s relationship with GM has put him on the auto maker’s senior advisory board for 16 years. He’s on a first-name basis with top executives. He still has former CEO Richard Wagoner’s cell phone number on his contact list.

He doesn’t fault GM for downsizing its operation and reducing dealerships ranks as part of its post-bankruptcy reorganization plan.

“GM had to right its ship, and everyone had to make sacrifices, and did,” he says. “There needed to be a massive change, but it was amazing how many people thought they should be excluded.”

Seiner is contemplating what to do with his Hummer store that anchors the south end of his main dealership complex off busy Interstate 15. The vacant structure might become a truck center.

Despite the troubles it has seen, he thinks GM has a bright future, and he’s impressed with new products, such as the Chevrolet Equinox, Chevrolet Camaro and Buick LaCrosse.

“I drive a LaCrosse, and it’s beautifully put together,” Seiner says. “I’ve been asked four or five times how I like my Lexus. And I can’t say enough about Cadillac these days.”

A few times during an interview, Seiner says: “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

But he seems sure of a few things. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’ve got my health. I’ve got a great family. And, despite the turmoil of last year, I’ve got my business.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com