HIGHLAND, MI — Battling backlash from its controversial plan to shutter thousands of dealerships this year, General Motors Co. points to LaFontaine Buick-Pontiac-GMC and Cadillac as the sort of store to which restructuring survivors should aspire.

Located some 60 miles (97 km) north of GM's world headquarters in Detroit, the 63,000 sq.-ft. (5,853 sq.-m) LaFontaine Green Auto Campus opened about a year ago, just before Wall Street's meltdown led to the worst new-car sales collapse in 40 years.

Standing inside the B-P-G portion of the campus, it is hard to imagine a recession so deep it led to bankruptcies at GM and cross-town rival Chrysler Group LLC.

A sprawling receptionist's desk bathed in natural light and book-ended by a Buick Enclave and GMC Yukon Hybrid greets visitors.

A few steps farther, a gift shop and a 25-seat bistro café serving breakfast, lunch and dinner lies along one side. At the rear of the store sits a full-service salon, while the flanking side features cushy leather seats to form a lounge where customers watch big-screen plasma televisions, play X-Box video games and can peer through the open doors of the owners' offices.

Ryan LaFontaine, general manager of the dealer group's $15-million flagship store, races between the office he shares with his mother, Maureen LaFontaine — who has run the dealership since its inception in 1984 — to his sales associates' offices, all while plying shoppers with ice water and soda at every opportunity.

“We designed this place to be a destination,” Ryan LaFontaine tells Ward's.

Says Susan Docherty, sales and marketing chief for Buick-GMC: “The LaFontaine dealership is a glimpse of what to expect from GM dealerships.

“It is a showcase environmentally, and what GM will look like going forward,” she tells journalists gathered at the dealership for a preview of the new-for-'10 GMC Terrain 5-passenger cross/utility vehicle.

Between the B-P-G store and the Cadillac store, which has a more refined, quieter atmosphere befitting its luxury lineup, lies the service shop where LaFontaine completes just under 200 repairs daily.

Impossibly clean and well-lit, customers interact with service technicians in the area, a rare sight at most other dealerships. A retail parts counter and body shop are also on site.

“This is everything a dealership should be. We wanted to deliver the ‘Wow!’ factor,” Ryan LaFontaine says of the facility, one of 15 franchises bearing the family name.

“That's why you see a café, a salon… but service was the key. Everything else is a great marketing tactic and creates the right experience, but service is the most important.”

And there is no better time than the present to place a premium on outstanding service, LaFontaine adds. With the economy in a recession, vehicle leasing is at a record low. Consumers are opting to buy more often and are holding onto their vehicles longer.

“If we get it right on the service side, we have a better chance of keeping customers,” he says.

That's why LaFontaine also runs an ambitious pick-up and delivery program. A rural dealer nestled in southeast Michigan's horse country, LaFontaine draws customers from a radius of some 20 miles (32 km), or 10 miles (16 km) more than the average dealer.

With $2 million invested in green technologies, LaFontaine also earns recognition as the only Gold LEED Certified dealership in the country and one of only two buildings in the U.S. with such a designation. Put simply, every aspect of the building takes into consideration its impact on the surrounding air, water and land.

At the heart of the dealership's green operations is a geothermal heating and cooling system, but skylights also trim energy use. The body shop uses water-borne paint instead of solvent-based; hoists in the service department utilize vegetable oil as a lubricant instead of caustic hydraulic oil; and motion sensors detect empty rooms and shut lights off automatically. Overall, the site took advantage of recycled materials during construction.

Lafontaine says the family expected its green initiatives to pay off in eight years, but now it looks like five years. Customers know about the dealership's efforts, too.

“I couldn't have bought the exposure the green aspect of the dealership has brought us,” he says. “But you look at the product GM is putting out — all the hybrids, the Chevy Volt (extended-range electric vehicle) — it's important we do something like this, as well.”

Despite a difficult year for the industry, LaFontaine says the dealership has been able to hold sales. Even without the U.S. government's Cash for Clunkers scheme this summer, he says the dealership would have posted its best two months in July and August since locating to the new facility a year ago.

“It's been a strange year,” Lafontaine admits. But he says the dealership's sales have benefitted from smarter marketing by GM, such as offering more zero-percent financing.

LaFontaine also notes sales are starting to come in from nearby B-P-G and Cadillac dealers that have closed as part of GM's plan to shrink its dealer body by more than 2,300 locations, to between 3,600 and 4,000 stores by the end of next year.

The auto maker reversed course on a handful of closures and is fighting backlash from other dealers, who claim they were wrongly targeted. This week, a dealer group with Congressional support in the form of a Senate bill will make a plea to Washington lawmakers to keep their doors open. Part of their effort includes a video posted on the viral media site YouTube.

GM claims fewer dealers means a higher throughput for those surviving retailers, which means owners earn more money and can sink more cash into refurbishing their sites. Dealers that make upgrades will get additional cash from GM as part of a program launching next month.

LaFontaine's sales volumes already ensured it would remain open, but Ryan LaFontaine says it didn't hurt “getting out in front of the curve” on GM's refurbishment efforts.

At the same time, LaFontaine says he has taken advantage of the closures by hiring experienced employees from shuttered franchises elsewhere in metro Detroit.

He also remains optimistic GM will deliver the Buick and GMC products he needs after Pontiac is phased out at the end of this year. Since relocating, LaFontaine has delivered 1,000 Pontiacs from its new store.

“They'll have the product to fill the gaps,” LaFontaine says. “We just have to market them harder, too.”

Highlights in Highland

Highlights of the eco-friendly LaFontaine dealership in Highland, MI include:

  • A geothermal heating and cooling system.
  • Solar tubes and 85 skylights for natural lighting.
  • Motion sensors that turn off lights in unoccupied rooms.
  • A car wash that recycles 85% of water used.
  • Water use in toilets reduced from the standard 2.5 gallons to 1.1 gallons.
  • Service hoists that use vegetable oil.