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A high-octane anomaly

John Gabriele:
A high-octane anomaly

To thousands of Rochester-area television viewers, John Gabriele may be a more familiar name than John Doyle.
Even during his recent successful campaign for Monroe County executive, Doyle was hard-pressed to match the decibel level or repetitiveness of Gabriele’s signature ads.
The commercials, Gabriele himself admits, are of the “in your face” persuasion.
Most are minimalist efforts featuring Gabriele or an employee reeling off hundred-dollar-down, hundred-dollar-monthly bargains, ending with a vigorous “Pick up the phone or better yet, come on down.”
At a time when other dealers have moved to softer-focus, more low-key ads, Gabriele’s pedal-to-the-floor pitches appear to be a throwback to a less sophisticated era. But they have one signal attribute: They work.
“What we tried to do is not reinvent the wheel,” says Gabriele of his advertising strategy.
Along with an equally retro sales approach heavy on bargaining and trade-in wheeling and dealing, the ad campaign has helped move the 31-year-old Gabriele, a relative newcomer to the Rochester auto market, rather quickly into its major leagues.
In 1989, he bought Weller Motors, a sleepy Dodge dealership on an out-of-the-way strip adjacent to the Stutson Street bridge. Sales at the dealership, now known as Marina Dodge, jumped from some 400 vehicles a year to 1,100 units last year.
Over the past 18 months he has acquired two additional dealerships: Bill Gordon Chevrolet and Gabriele Auto Place, a West Henrietta Road Volkswagen dealership formerly known as F.A. Motors.
Gabriele plans shortly to tag the Chevrolet dealership with his own name.
The three dealerships, meanwhile, are joined by a fourth in Churchville–Gabriele Ford, owned by Tony Gabriele, his brother-in-law and partner–to make up a new entity, the Gabriele Auto Group.
His ambition–“to be the dominant force in the (local) automotive market, to be number one in sales”–is within his grasp, Gabriele believes.
The auto-group appellation, Gabriele concedes, is something of a marketing ploy. He and Tony Gabriele–a relation only by marriage to John Gabriele’s sister, the surname notwithstanding–are partners in Bill Gordon and the Volkswagen dealership.
John Gabriele has no stake in Gabriele Ford and Tony Gabriele has none in Marina Dodge.
The auto group, the pair maintain, before long could surpass the sales posted by longtime local market leaders such as the Bob Hastings Group and the Dorschel Group.
Their strategy is simple: to acquire underperforming dealerships and use aggressive sales techniques to push the numbers quantum levels higher.
John Gabriele is dubious of the no-dickering, one-price-fits-all approach that many dealers and auto-marketing experts now embrace.
Trade-ins lend a natural element of the bazaar to auto sales, he believes, making it a business unlike, say, major appliance or carpet retailing.
“People expect to bargain,” he says. “In car sales, we don’t have the luxury of one-price selling. You’ve got to match the competition.”
Yet, he adds, dealerships cannot succeed on price alone. Customers unhappy with their treatment bring no repeat business, so price has to be backed by customer service–an area in which his dealerships also excel, Gabriele believes. He calls the Chrysler Corp. customer service award given to Marina Dodge in 1993 “the pinnacle of my career.”
The formulas have worked so far, and Gabriele thinks the rebound of American brands after a period of Japanese ascendancy means the group is positioned to grow much, much more.
Bill Gordon, which before Gabriele bought it in October had suffered several years of declining business, alone could reach sales of 600 to 700 vehicles a month, he asserts.
Despite Volkswagen’s longtime slide in the U.S. foreign-car market, even Gabriele Auto Place’s numbers will surge with the introduction next year of an updated Beetle, Gabriele predicts.
Such growth would give Bill Gordon volume roughly equal to the combined 1994 sales of the Hastings Group and the Dorschel Group–the dealers that claimed the top two spots on the Rochester Business Journal’s most recent list of auto dealerships.
The Dorschel Group, which sells none of the same brands as the Gabriele Group, does not view the up-and-comers as a threat, says Scott Pundt, Dorschel general manager.
Regarding Gabriele’s high-power advertising approach and willingness to bargain, he says every metropolitan market appears to have room for one such dealer.
“I’ve been screamed at in motel rooms across the country,” Pundt says. “If it works for them, fine. But the key is in repeat business.”
Rochester is a relatively small and stagnant market, he says. Thus, the Gabriele Group’s chances of long-term success will depend on how many customers come back a second and third time.
Meanwhile, Tony Gabriele echoes his partner’s expectations of high-volume sales in resurgent American brand names. He says the group’s Dodge, Ford and Chevrolet dealerships offer a greater array of trucks, sport utilities and minivans than do many of the dealerships with a foreign-brand focus. Such vehicles have shown strong sales growth, auto-market experts say.
Tony Gabriele, 35, gave John Gabriele his first job in the auto business and later persuaded him to stay in it.
Whether either is senior in auto-group partnership is left unclear.
“We work together,” Tony Gabriele says.
John Gabriele, whose titles include president of Marina Dodge and Bill Gordon Chevrolet and vice president of Gabriele Auto Place, is the group’s designated front man.
Even when he worked for his brother-in-law at Gabriele Ford, John Gabriele did the commercials. He says he still gets Gabriele Ford calls.
The car business was not his first career choice, he says.
But he was a natural, Tony Gabriele observes. “He basically had the drive to succeed. He was ambitious, hard working and dedicated. He didn’t mind long hours.”
A 1986 graduate of St. John Fisher College with a bachelor’s degree in management, finance and marketing, John Gabriele at first had corporate ambitions.
A Rochester native, he had worked in restaurants his father owned when he was a high-school student, and had decided that owning his own business was not for him.
On graduating from St. John Fisher, Gabriele made the usual round of Rochester corporate employers, but failed to land a position.
Meanwhile, Tony Gabriele, who was dating John Gabriele’s older sister and had just bought a small Chrysler-Plymouth agency in Avon, offered his future brother-in-law a job selling cars.
“I definitely looked at it as a temporary thing,” John Gabriele recalls.
When Chase-Lincoln Bank a few months later offered John a job as a loan officer, Tony Gabriele wooed him into staying by making him finance manager.
“He was too good to lose,” Tony Gabriele says.
John Gabriele had accepted the Chase Lincoln offer, but there was a two-month delay between his acceptance and the job’s start date. Gabriele never made it to the bank.
“I was selling a lot of cars, and once you get a taste for the car business you don’t want to leave it,” he says. “The money is pretty good.”
After three years in Avon, Tony Gabriele sold the dealership to buy the Churchville Ford agency.
Meanwhile, John Gabriele, then 25, started negotiations to buy Weller Motors, the Dodge Dealership that “put me on the map.”
Around the same time he also married. He and wife Mary Ellen are parents of boys ages 6 and 4 and a daughter, 1/ . Some of the scant time off Gabriele gives himself from his growing auto business is to ferry his sons to T-ball games. A former high-school player, Gabriele also recently resumed playing soccer, at local indoor arenas and in an Irondequoit fall mens’ league.
The auto group, however, claims much of his time, Gabriele admits, and will continue to be his main pursuit.
“When we started out a few years ago, a lot of people said we would be flash in the pan, but I think they will start to notice us now,” he says.


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