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Kitty’s the cat’s meow in the car business

Twenty years ago Kitty Van Bortel found herself out of a job, a 31-year-old ex-car saleswoman with $500 left to her name.
She had been working for several years as the Mercedes-Benz and BMW sales manager for Holtz Automotive Group. She was a successful saleswoman, flying high.
“I thought I’d really made it. To me, John Holtz was THE dealership,” she says. “I had a beautiful house in Brighton and I was driving around a brand new ‘Beemer’ every summer.”
But that did not last.
“One day (Holtz’) general manager called me upstairs and (said) they thought I was doing a great job but that they really wanted to hire a team of men. Quote. Unquote,” recalls today’s president and CEO of Van Bortel Motorcar Inc.
The job loss devastated her, she says, and she was out of options-or so she thought.
“I’d really worked hard. I really knew what I was doing, or certainly thought I did,” she adds. “I was working for the best dealership. I was manager of the top-of-the-line product, and there really wasn’t any place else for me to go.”
Holtz House of Vehicles Inc. president John Holtz could not be reached for comment this week, but in 1993 he told the Rochester Business Journal that when his now-retired general manager wanted to fire Van Bortel, he did not interfere.
“I guess he thought he could beef up the sales figure by putting someone else in there, and I let my managers manage,” Holtz said at the time.
Van Bortel decided she no longer wanted to work for someone else. She put her house in Brighton on the market and began looking for a place to start a used-car dealership.
But by the time she sold her house, obtained her dealer’s license and paid her first month’s rent-all of which took some three or four months to accomplish-she was broke.
“I had $500, so I bought a $200 Honda Accord and sold it for $1,995,” she recalls. “That was really a big hit for me at the time because that could get me through another month.”
Van Bortel soon began selling cars on consignment from her front yard on Route 96 in Victor, taking in vehicles from friends and used-car dealers who did not have lots.
“It would make it look like I had a lot of cars to sell so it brought more people in,” she says. “Before I knew it, after about four or five years, I was selling 40 or 50 used cars a month.”
And that was only the beginning. Van Bortel Motorcar last year sold more than 3,500 used vehicles and nearly 1,500 new Subarus-making it the No. 1 Subaru dealer in the nation for the second straight year.

Automotive beginnings

Though Van Bortel has honed her automotive skills and success with her own dealership, her car sales experience did not begin with her stint at Holtz. In 1975, a year before graduating from Wells College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Van Bortel worked in car sales at the former Ridley Motors in Webster.
Her motive for working at the dealership was to drive a demo car for the summer.
“I knew if I could fool my way through the interview I’d be able to have a car for the summer to drive,” she says with a laugh. “And that was really my only goal.”
The sales manager at Ridley Motors was new, Van Bortel says, and very progressive for the 1970s. She interviewed for the job and was hired on the spot.
To celebrate, her mother took her clothes shopping for her new job.
“I came back from the mall and I got this call from (owner) Harry Ridley, and he said there was no way he could hire me,” Van Bortel recalls. “He said all the salesmen would quit.”
The problem? No female had sold cars in the Rochester area before, she says, and that had not occurred to her when she interviewed for the job.
“Nor did I think that should have any significance,” she adds.
She pleaded with him and Ridley made her an offer: He would let Van Bortel meet the salesmen, after which they would hold a sales meeting and take a vote on whether to hire her. If the vote ended in a tie, he would break it by voting in favor of bringing her on board.
“So I went in the next day and went office to office and met all these guys and then they had the meeting and voted me in,” she recalls. “That was my very first job.”
Following her college graduation, Van Bortel returned to Ridley Motors, where she worked in sales for roughly three years. But she had wanted to work for her father, who had owned Palmyra Motors. He previously had refused to hire her for a sales position.
“He didn’t really believe women could do it,” she says. “He was a product of his time and the environment. And the thought of me working any other place but the office was beyond what he could comprehend.”
But being the top salesperson at Ridley Motors may have swayed him, she adds. He gave her a sales job.
“I worked for him for two or three years,” Van Bortel says. “He taught me the used-car business, which was a valuable, valuable education.”
Van Bortel also worked for a short time for Bill Gordon Chevrolet before moving on to Holtz and eventually her own venture.
When she started her used-car business in 1985, it was a one-woman show. Her first employee-a friend who would watch the lot while Van Bortel was out buying cars to resell-arrived in spring 1986.
She recalls the hard work of that first winter when the weather was bad and she had to clean off the cars herself each day.
“I remember one day it was zero (degrees) out and I was vacuuming the inside of a car and it was awful because the snow was coming in faster than I could vacuum it out,” she says. “I have some memories, vivid memories, of that first year.”
Van Bortel eventually moved to a larger lot down the road and focused on used-car sales until the early 1990s when, after much cajoling on her part, she was granted a Subaru of America Inc. franchise. She purchased additional property on Route 96 and arranged to have a showroom built.
The early years of the venture were tough, Van Bortel says. She did not have enough money for the full construction of the new building and for some time the showroom had a concrete floor, no ceiling and no dividing walls.
She also encountered blatant discrimination because she was a woman, she recalls.
“There was no question that the banks were all very chauvinistic,” she says. “When I first started they said, ‘Just because you can be successful working for someone else doesn’t mean you can be successful running your own car business.’ And then when I became a new-car dealer they said, ‘Just because you can be successful in the used-car business doesn’t mean you can be successful in the new-car business.'”
More than once Van Bortel worried the business would not make it.
One Sunday early on, she recalls, she was doing the bank deposit and realized she did not have enough money to pay bills, including the weekly payroll. She had some 15 employees at the time.
“I had another two days and it (would be) over,” Van Bortel says. “I had a lot of close calls before, but this was just monumental.”
She went to a friend’s house to commiserate. He was a hairdresser who sold used cars on the side.
When he asked what was wrong, she told him, “It’s just over.” She was out of money.
“He walks up to his bedroom, brings down $30,000 in cash and hands it to me,” Van Bortel says. “I never asked him for the money. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think he had that kind of money.”
Van Bortel also recalls a time when she was approved for a $150,000, 2 percent interest loan through the state. At the time, Gov. George Pataki recently had defeated incumbent Mario Cuomo in the governor’s race and was revamping the state’s spending. Without warning, Pataki rescinded the funds.
But the money already was spent, she says.
“So I just kept pursuing it, pursuing it, pursuing it,” she adds. “Honest to God, somehow, someway, one day I got five checks in the mail, all amounting to $150,000.”
The money came from several state sources, Van Bortel says, and each month she had to write five checks until the loans were paid off.
“Those were the kinds of things that happened that were just weird or uncanny or miraculous,” she adds. “My brother always said to me, ‘You’re not good, you’re lucky.'”
But Van Bortel’s luck was not the only driving force in her success.
“First of all, I had a relentless desire to prove I could make it. I refused to even think about failure,” she says. “I gave up everything. Nothing mattered. I gave up relationships. I quit eating. I gave up literally everything to make it work.”
Those sacrifices have earned accolades for Van Bortel and her dealership.
Within a year of opening her Subaru franchise, Van Bortel was inducted into the Subaru Chairman’s Roundtable. Working Woman magazine has selected Van Bortel Subaru as a Top 500 Woman-Owned Business for four years, and the dealership now is the top Subaru seller in the country.
Van Bortel has led the nation in Subaru sales since 2003, says Bill Cyphers, vice president of sales at Subaru of America. He thinks several things explain Van Bortel’s success.
“She’s enthusiastic, supportive of the brand, is hands-on at the dealership and really cares about her customers,” Cyphers says. “Her sincerity carries over throughout the entire sales and service process.”
Van Bortel’s achievement also stems from customer loyalty and product loyalty, says Michael Doyle, owner and general manager of Webster’s Doyle Subaru.
“She’s been at it for 20 years. She does it well,” he says. “She had a model and stuck to it. It’s successful for her.”
Van Bortel this year was selected as one of Rochester’s Influential Women by the Rochester Business Journal. The honor recognizes accomplishments of women working in the top ranks of local organizations and making or influencing policy decisions that drive the area’s economic growth.
Van Bortel Motorcar ranked fourth by total number of vehicles sold in 2004 on the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of auto dealerships. The company posted sales of $85 million in 2004, up from $43 million in 2000.
Four years ago, with her brother as a partner, Van Bortel opened a second dealership, this time selling Ford Motor Co. vehicles. The dealership, also on Route 96 in Victor, now is the largest Ford dealer in the area.
Van Bortel Motorcar has some 120 staffers, with roughly 60 at each location, Van Bortel says, and each lot holds more than 150 new and used vehicles.
Why the crossover to Ford?
“Good question,” she says, grinning. “I’m crazy? I’m insane? I’m a glutton for punishment?”
In truth, she says, the Subaru product line was somewhat limited.
“I had a lot of customers who really wanted to do business with me and it was impossible because their families got larger or they needed a pickup truck or a van for their business,” she explains, “and I felt I was doing a disservice to my customers because I didn’t have a full product line for them.”

Customer focus

Van Bortel’s employees say she is entrenched in the dealership’s day-to-day operations and she is extremely customer-driven.
“She’s very hands on and most of it is because she wants to make sure those customers are happy and feel comfortable,” says Ruth Perrin, assistant to the president, who has been with the company nearly 10 years.
“It’s like her baby,” she adds. “She wants to protect and nurture everybody.”
Van Bortel recalls an incident six months ago when a woman-who had lost her husband and daughter in a car accident-was having problems with a vehicle she had bought from the dealership some two years earlier.
The woman used the life insurance money she had collected to buy a used vehicle from Van Bortel and she began having problems with the car. In a letter she wrote to Van Bortel, the woman concluded that the car had been in an accident and that was the cause of the problems.
When Van Bortel read the letter, she was consumed by it. She could not sleep. So she called the woman and offered to refund her money or find a new vehicle for her, she says.
“She was so happy. She told me she really wanted me to find her a car,” Van Bortel recalls.
Van Bortel spent months trying to find the perfect car for the customer and eventually was able to deliver on her promise.
“Those are the kinds of things sometimes that can consume me at night,” she says.
Van Bortel cares more about customer satisfaction than sales numbers, says Peter Rosser, new-car sales manager.
“What a juggling act it is,” he adds. “We can’t sacrifice either because one balances the other. We have to create an atmosphere where you want to buy a car here, and that’s what she does. If you don’t like your car, she gives you a new one.”
Van Bortel says a common thread runs through all of her employees.
“That’s that they are kindhearted. You can’t work for me unless you have a kind heart,” she explains.
Rosser describes Van Bortel as empathetic but tough. He calls her a winner.
“If you had to do something, you’d bring her with you,” he adds. “She’s got that personality. She can get anything done.”
Perhaps that is because early on Van Bortel learned the importance of self-sufficiency, she says.
When she was a child, her mother subscribed to women’s magazines, which ran sweepstakes every month, she says. One day the youngster filled out every entry form she could get her hands on and gave them to her father to mail.
He ripped all of them up.
“He said to me, ‘The only way you’re ever going to make any money in this world is to work hard and earn it yourself. Nothing is free,'” she recalls. “And that really stuck with me. I realized early on that the only way you were really going to be successful is if you worked hard and made your own money.”
Lifelong friend Daniel Fisher says Van Bortel was precocious, even at the age of eight, and often took charge of situations.
“You could sort of sense her leadership ability, even at a very young age,” he says.
Three years ago Fisher began working in sales for Van Bortel. He describes his friend’s people skills as phenomenal and says she is an incredible manager.
“She treats everyone the same,” he adds. “I’ve never met anybody as customer-oriented in any business.”
Though all customers are treated with equal respect, Van Bortel acknowledges she caters to women.
“I was always a little afraid, when I first started, to actually say it, but it’s true,” she says. “And I’m very happy just taking care of that segment of the population.”
The reason she targets women, she says, is because she feels it is very difficult for women to be comfortable buying a car.
“And I’ve done everything humanly possible to change that,” she adds, “between one-price selling so it’s non-negotiable, to extensive training of the salespeople to recognize that women generally make the car-buying decision in any household.”
Van Bortel also has trained the service department to recognize that women do not really care about how a car works mechanically.
“Nor do they want to,” she says. “We need a car to be just as reliable as a man does and you better figure out what’s wrong with it, because it’s not that women don’t have the ability to know or learn it, they have just chosen not to.”
Van Bortel keeps her employees on their toes, sales manager Rosser says, and when a customer or an employee is upset, she knows it.
“She’s been doing this for so long she has a sixth sense,” he adds. “It’s a gift.”
“I really don’t have a mean bone in my body,” Van Bortel says, “but I’m so competitive. I want to be No. 1 and I will do it at any cost, short of being cruel and greedy and unkind.”
But despite Van Bortel’s success at both her Subaru and Ford dealerships, she has no plans to rest on her laurels. She has purchased 15 acres of land near the current Ford store in order to expand and improve the dealership.
She says the expansion will bring “a lot more jobs.”
“I really want to get the culture at Ford similar to the culture at Subaru as far as the loyalty of the employees and the strong customer base,” she says of future goals.

At home

But her ultimate goal, Van Bortel says, is to spend more time with her 6-year-old daughter, Patricia.
Van Bortel makes every effort to leave work at work, she says, and even turns her phone off while she is home in order to devote more time to her daughter and husband, Roger Garrett, who is the used-car director for both dealerships.
“I have a beautiful child that could care less about anything other than spending time with me,” she says. “So I work very, very hard not to interfere with that time.”
Van Bortel says her mother also is very important to her. And while there are not many mentors in the automobile business, she says, her mother has been a role model for her.
“My mother was a tremendous supporter of mine,” she says. “I had all these jobs and told her I was going to start my own business and she never flinched.”
She recalls a conversation they had a year ago when Van Bortel asked her mother if it had ever occurred to her that her daughter might fail.
“And she said, ‘I never gave it a thought. I knew you would make it,'” Van Bortel adds.
Van Bortel’s employees also know how important her family is to her.
“She is so dedicated to her daughter and her mother,” Perrin says. “Her mother has been so supportive of her throughout the years. And I think she wants to be the same for her daughter.
“She’s a Supermom, Superdaughter, Superwife and Superboss.”
(vspicer@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

07/29/05 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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