The expanding dealership network is Serra Automotive Inc., based in Grand Blanc and No.34 on the Ward's Megadealer 100. President Joseph O. Serra is committing at least $8 million to three franchise purchases and two new buildings. He believes growth is necessary to stimulate maximum performance by employees and keep pace with customer interests , "and that's why we're doing it,” he says.

Joseph Serra

A graduate from the hometown GM dealership in Grand Blanc will manage each of Serra Automotive's three new stores. Those include the Buick-Pontiac-GMC spread in Romeo, northeast of Detroit, where Randy Jackson will be the general manager; and Rivertown Honda in Grandville, MI, a western suburb of Grand Rapids, whose new general manager is Christopher Bard.

In a third deal, a coup in today's market, Serra is acquiring the charter Bob Saks Toyota store in Farmington Hills, a northwest suburb of Detroit. Twenty-year Serra employee Jim Tuohy will run the Toyota store, Serra's first with that highly-sought franchise.

Serra also owns three new Hummer showrooms: one between his Buick and Chevrolet buildings in Grand Blanc, and the others in Pasadena, CA, and Colorado Springs, CO.

Dramatic “canopy” planned for Serra Automotive's new Buick-Pontiac store.

It was Serra's idea to display new models in the canopy front of the Romeo dealership, says Barbara Derbis, senior project manager for Nudell Architects.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan's second-largest city where Duthler Honda has been Honda's only representative, Serra's Rivertown Honda will hew to the Honda-design model. Serra also owns a Honda point in Grand Blanc, which serves the Flint market, an addition that started Serra's franchise expansion outside GM brands.

Serra Automotive was founded in Grand Blanc in 1973 by Joe Serra's father, Albert Serra, who owned Chevrolet and Buick stores near GM's complex of plants in Flint. The Serra group began expanding when Joe Serra joined the business.

Now 45, Joe Serra commands a group of four Saturn dealerships in Southeastern Michigan. They include Chevrolet, Cadillac and Chrysler-Jeep stores in Jackson, TN; a Chevrolet dealership in Bartlett, TN; Chevrolet, Honda and Volkswagen dealerships in Colorado Springs (along with Hummer); Serra Chevrolet, Miamisburg, OH; and Chevrolet-Hyundai companions for the Hummer franchise along a crowded interstate east of Pasadena.

How does he run such a far-flung chain of dealerships?

Replies Serra, “I really don't. I believe in well-trained general managers with 20% equities doing their own thing – and leaving them alone.

“If they follow the employee-friendly and customer-friendly guideline Al Serra and I have followed here, they'll do fine. We give them sharp-looking places to work, and we finish every year in the mid-30s on the Ward's Megadealer 100.”

The group sold more than 20,000 new vehicles and garnered $763 million in revenues in 2004.

Serra has built a separate group central office building on the Grand Blanc campus. “Having buildings that look great is in my bones,” he says. “It's not an ego thing but really a customer thing. Who wants to buy new wheels from an old building? That's a turn off right away.”

Saturn's four stand-alone buildings in the southeastern Michigan cities of Clarkston, Flint, Saginaw and Southfield have done better as Saturn's lineup has increased, says Serra. “They've got new models coming, like the Sky roadster and a fullsize SUV, that will really round out the line,” he adds.

“But I do wish a certain Bob Lutz would zip his lip about dropping Buick or Pontiac, what with us building that Buick-Pontiac-GMC spread in Romeo. We're doing ok with our GM brands, and my future growth strategy is to add GM lines and imports to what we have on our plate now.”

Serra recalls one blip in his career several years back. He took a leave from Grand Blanc to join Ford's No.1 dealer, Bert Boeckman of North Hills, CA, and AutoNation Inc. President Mike Maroone in a CarMax-type venture called Driver's Mart. The idea imploded after several years, but Serra says he “learned a lot from Boeckman about how to succeed in the dealership business.”

Says Serra: “Bert's a super coach, and that's what I strive to be. It's the management style that works best.”