For nearly two decades, James Fonzi was a hands-on leader and a self-described micromanager, second-guessing his employees and colleagues at every turn. But that changed when his wife, Judi, was diagnosed with cancer.
“I said, ‘Well, I need to take care of my wife.’ And I did,” says the 53-year-old owner and president of Gates Automotive Center.
Fonzi immediately cut his work schedule to no more than a couple of hours a day during her yearlong recovery, and in doing so he learned an important lesson about himself and his business, he says.
“That is that I have wonderful people who work for me. They stepped up. They did what they needed to do to get this job done,” he recalls. “The reality of the situation was that they did a better job without me than with me.”
The experience was an eye-opener, he says.
“It was kind of like ‘Wow, I need to let them run with the ball, because they’re doing a great job with it,'” he says. “It did two things for me: It allowed me to realize that they were capable of handling it, and I also came to realize that there were a handful of people that needed more opportunity.”
Gates Automotive has 36 employees at its facilities in Gates and Henrietta. Fonzi expects their total sales to exceed $5 million this year. The company offers mechanical and body work for retail and commercial customers, as well as towing services.
Fonzi, who was born and raised in the Buffalo area, has worked in the automotive industry for most of his life. In high school, he worked part-time at a body repair shop.
Though he was good at his job, Fonzi discovered he was not very productive.
“I was too fastidious about everything I did. ‘I’m never going to make a living doing this,'” he recalls thinking at the time. “What I learned from that was I really didn’t want to get my hands dirty doing that. I said, ‘I know I’m good with people. I can sell. I’m going to go sell cars.'”
At 21, Fonzi moved to the Rochester area and worked as a salesman at a car dealership in Albion and then one in Brockport. While he enjoyed working with customers, Fonzi decided he did not want a career selling cars. When he was 26, he went to work for the Dorschel Automotive Group as a body shop manager.
After nine years at Dorschel, Fonzi had learned enough about the business and had gained enough confidence to step out on his own. In 1990 he put together a business plan to open a heavy-truck repair facility on Mount Read Boulevard.
At roughly the same time, a friend asked him to help a family member who owned a gas station and garage. The business had grown dramatically, and Fonzi was asked to devise a plan to take the garage to the next level. When the owners opted not to do what Fonzi suggested, he put the heavy-truck repair plan on hold and purchased the garage. Gates Automotive was born.
Fonzi had plans to expand beyond the mechanical work and small towing business that the company had been involved in. He put a small addition on the building and added a collision shop.
“What I was trying to do at that point was take the things I had learned from the dealership experience, take the things that I liked about it, and kind of pick out the things I didn’t like,” Fonzi says. “What I really liked about the automobile business was the fixed operation, the parts and service, the body repair shop.”
Fonzi also liked the stability of that aspect of the automotive industry, he says.
“Once you develop those businesses, you develop a reputation. There tends to be little up-and-down movement,” he explains. “Whereas the sales aspect of the business, it was feast or famine. You’d just kill or you’d starve to death.”
Fonzi focused on growing the towing part of the business. Today the company not only offers mechanical services and collision repair for commercial and retail customers but does towing for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and AAA.
Earlier this year Gates Automotive expanded to Henrietta, renovating the vacant former Wegmans Food Markets Inc. facility on Thruway Park Drive. The $4 million expansion gave the business a much-needed additional 25,000 square feet of space to expand its fleet service and towing business.
Short-term goals for Gates Automotive include making the new facility-which also houses the company’s corporate headquarters and a NAPA Auto Parts paint store-a profit center. Last year was the company’s most successful to date, Fonzi says, and despite the poor economic climate, he expects this year to be no different.
“When the economy softens, our business tends to actually improve some,” Fonzi says, because people spend money to get more life out of their current vehicles instead of buying new ones.
“Instead of spending $4,000 to $6,000 in lease payments or car payments, I can put a few bucks into this car, lower my expenses and keep it going,” Fonzi says. “We’re seeing a lot of situations where customers would have walked away and gone out to take the deal of the day at the dealership, but they’re putting the money back into their automobile.”
It was the soft economy, a weakened real estate market and a desire to give his top employees more responsibility that led to Gates Automotive’s expansion, he says. The upside was that roughly 30 construction workers remained employed through last winter.
Fonzi’s long-term goals for the company also focus on profitability.
“As the owner and president of the company, I have a responsibility to run a profitable business and ensure it’s a business that serves the needs of the community and the people that work here, as well as my family’s needs,” he says. “But the interesting thing is I really don’t care much about money. It doesn’t really motivate me. What motivates me is having an image in the community of being highly ethical.”
The company’s image comes from its leader, says Tony Ardillo, vice president of operations for the Gates facility.
“Jim instilled good values in everybody, and that’s all he expects,” he says.
Ethical practices are what make the company successful and set it apart, Ardillo adds.
“One of the biggest things is our integrity. We’re honest,” he says. “We will never lie just to make money. Jim instilled in everybody’s mind right up front that we play with both hands on the table.”
Ardillo, who was an employee of the garage when Fonzi purchased it, says the company’s reputation is apparent when he runs into customers at the grocery store or elsewhere and they are happy to see him.
“That kind of relationship is what sets us apart from other shops,” he says. “The trust factor is huge here.”
Matthew Cutaia, vice president of operations in Henrietta, says he has learned a great deal in the 10 years he has worked for Fonzi.
“Thank God I have been able to learn at a young age good values from him,” Cutaia says. “Ethically and morally, you’re not going to find a better, more honest person, ever.”
Fonzi says his strengths lie in his people skills.
“I think I’m good at helping people grow, at helping people find their way,” he says. “I think I’m a good guide.”
And he loves what he does.
“I love to work,” he says. “I never imagine myself retiring.”
Fonzi tries to foster trust in his relationships with clients.
“The part I enjoy the most is standing out front and helping the customers, making them feel comfortable,” he explains.
A bumpy road
No amount of people skills or ethics could have prepared Fonzi for the struggles he faced in his early days as a business owner. In the early 1990s, new technology had been developed for painting vehicles, and Fonzi was able to secure financing for the downdraft paint booth he needed at what would have been the Mount Read Boulevard facility. When he decided to buy the garage that would become Gates Automotive, the bank refused to finance the booth, so Fonzi had to come up with roughly $100,000 out of pocket.
Then the 1991 ice storm hit the Rochester area and shut down Gates Automotive for roughly five weeks. Fonzi borrowed a generator from a friend in Watertown, and that allowed him to function enough to operate just the towing part of the business.
But the company had to cover five weeks of payroll and expenses without much income, Fonzi recalls. “So we got knocked over.”
Fonzi still was optimistic because he had business interruption insurance-until he learned that his insurance company was refusing to pay.
“So we ended up with a couple of hard knocks there in our first year,” he says. “We made the typical mistakes that businesses make in the first year, figured them out in the second year and spent the next three years working hard to get ourselves to a point where we were viable.”
It was a serious struggle, he adds.
“There were times I wasn’t sure we were going to make it,” he says. “It was by the grace of God all of a sudden things would start to happen and we would pull it together and make it work.”
Despite perhaps because of-a rough start, Fonzi does not do stress, he says.
“When I start to feel I’m getting that way, I sit back and I remember those times,” he explains. “This is nothing by comparison, so there’s no reason to get uptight. It’s going to be fine.”
His employees and his customers keep him grounded, and building relationships with clients has led to the company’s success, Fonzi says.
Good customer service is essential in his line of work, he says. While Gates Automotive’s demographic is varied, the retail customer is the backbone of the business, so employees must cater to many different needs.
“We don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to a customer,” Fonzi says. “Everybody’s needs are different.”
While one customer may be OK with inexpensive brake shoes to get through a season, another customer may need the vehicle to last four more years.
“We explain those things to people, and we try to make sure we understand what the customer’s needs are,” Fonzi adds. “So we tend to do better with an educated customer, with somebody who isn’t immediately thinking we’re trying to sell them a bill of goods.”
Ardillo describes Fonzi as a hands-on leader.
“He doesn’t act like he’s above anybody. He’s always making everybody feel very comfortable,” Ardillo says. “And if there are ever any concerns, you always know you can go to him, sit down, tell him what’s going on, and there’s no drama.”
Fonzi allows employees to speak their minds, Cutaia says.
“You’re allowed to voice your opinion; you don’t get shut off,” he says. “Everything you say is taken into consideration, and if it makes sense, it happens. I’ve always treated the place like it was my own because he allowed me to do that.”
Friend and business associate Joseph Nacca describes Fonzi as hardworking, energetic, positive and eager to please.
“As a businessman, he’s absolutely quality-conscious. He will do anything for a customer. He goes out of his way to make them happy,” he says.
Nacca adds that people are responsive to Fonzi and that what has made Gates Automotive successful is the way Fonzi treats his staff.
“He treats them as family, and he goes out of his way to make sure their personal needs are met, as well as any business requirements that he may have for them,” Nacca says.
Fonzi and his wife are urban dwellers, residing in the East End. They have a son, CJ, who is 29.
Growing up, Fonzi wanted to be a politician, but it was seeing his mother work so hard for the government that made him change his mind. His father died when Fonzi was a child, and his mother raised him and three siblings alone. She learned stenography and worked long hours and traveled extensively for the state government, he recalls.
“That was my thing with politics. I grew up with it,” Fonzi says.
Fonzi quit high school when he was 17 and earned his GED a short time later. His education was at the school of hard knocks, he says with a laugh.
“What’s interesting is I then married a teacher, who then became a professor,” he says.
Judi Fonzi is an associate professor of education at the University of Rochester.
In his spare time Fonzi enjoys winter sports, including skiing, and loves to travel. His family has a cottage on Canandaigua Lake, and he enjoys hiking, sailing and other water sports.
Favorite family memories include reunions at his cottage-“Swimming, water skiing, the smoker going with fish in it, great wine, everybody making a weekend out of it, hanging out, camping out and just enjoying each other,” he says.
Fonzi is a first-generation American, and when he was growing up, life was all about having food on the table and nice clothes to wear.
“It was all about that, and we never took a chance,” he recalls. “You just never took a risk. And if you failed, it was a fate worse than death.”
But between the businesspeople he met and the jobs he held, Fonzi gained the confidence to take chances. If he could pass along a piece of business or life advice, it would be to stick with your goals, he says.
“When you set your goals, stay with them and don’t give up too soon,” he says. “I’ve come to know so many people with great ideas, and they quit before they should.”
firstname.lastname@example.org / 585-546-8303
Title: Owner and president, Gates Automotive Center
Family: Wife Judi; son CJ, 29
Interests: Winter sports, travel, hiking, sailing and water sports
Quote: “As the owner and president of the company, I have a responsibility to run a profitable business and ensure it’s a business that serves the needs of the community and the people that work here, as well as my family’s needs. But the interesting thing is I really don’t care much about money. It doesn’t really motivate me. What motivates me is having an image in the community of being highly ethical.”
06/19/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal