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A steady hand on a bumpy road

While many people grumble about their lengthy commutes to and from work, Steven Ralph welcomes his nearly half-hour of drive time.
“I couldn’t imagine living a few minutes down the road. I just couldn’t do it. I need that decompression (time),” says the 38-year-old vice president of Ralph Pontiac Honda Inc. The tough part of running the company, he adds, is being unable to punch the clock at the end of the day; work goes home with him. “It is good to have a little commute to separate it.”
Foremost on his mind right now is General Motors Corp.’s decision to eliminate the Pontiac brand and how Ralph Pontiac Honda is handling the transition from dual-franchise to single-franchise dealership.
“With Pontiac being phased out, we hope to increase our Honda sales,” Ralph says.
“We’re trying to wind that up while we’re winding Pontiac down.”
While the company would like to pick up another franchise, manufacturers have rules about the number of showrooms in the same market area, and dealers who hold the most popular and profitable franchises are reluctant to let them go. Meanwhile, Ralph Pontiac Honda has ramped up its used-car business.
“Looking around town at other people whose sales are down or who are losing franchises, there are a lot of new-car dealers who are focusing on used,” Ralph says, adding that new-car dealers have an advantage over used-car dealers in that they get the best trade-ins and lease turn-ins first.
Despite the economic downturn and loss of the Pontiac franchise, the company has not let any of its 60 employees go and has no plans to do so. The company last year posted $30.2 million in retail sales and sold more than 1,300 new and used vehicles. It ranked 11th on the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of auto dealers, based on the number of vehicles sold in 2008.
To date in 2009, sales at the dealership lag 2008 numbers, but Ralph is cautiously optimistic about what the rest of the year will bring.
“We’re down a little, but we’re doing all right,” he says. “We’re not where we want to be, but I know that given the economy and (how) other people are doing sales-wise, I think with all that considered we’re doing pretty good.”

A family business
Ralph Pontiac Honda Inc. has seen difficult times before. It was founded nearly eight decades ago-during the Great Depression-as a used-car business by Steven Ralph’s grandfather, Anthony, who bought cars, fixed them up and sold them on the front lawn of his home. In 1933 he bought a lot on West Main Street in Rochester, and four years later he was awarded the Pontiac franchise.
In 1960, Michael Ralph-Steven Ralph’s father and Anthony Ralph’s son-joined the company full time. As a child he had accompanied his father to work on weekends and during the summer, and in time he was put on the payroll.
“I guess I liked being around there, so I would go to work with my father when I was a young kid on a Saturday or whenever I could and hang around there,” recalls Michael Ralph, the company’s president. “Eventually they decided they’d better put me to work.”
He started by washing cars, changing license plates and working in the parts department. When he returned to the company after attending St. John Fisher College for a couple of years, he went into the accounting end of the business.
In 1970 the company was awarded the Honda franchise, and by the mid-1970s Ralph Pontiac Honda was looking for a new home on West Ridge Road in Greece. However, the company was dealt a blow when Anthony Ralph passed away in 1977.
“I wasn’t running the company; he was running the company,” Michael Ralph recalls. “All of a sudden I was running a company and figuring out about building a building, which I had no idea what to do or even if I should do it.”
Good timing-and perhaps a bit of luck-were on his side, though, because at that time the banking business was doing well and looking for customers, he recalls. Just a couple of years later it fell on hard times and interest rates soared into the mid-20 percent range.
“That happened to be a stroke of luck,” he says. “We ended up in a good location with two good products.”
Steven Ralph started with the company much as his father did: working part time during school and returning to the family business in 1996 after college. Like his father, he started in the parts department, eventually moving through the service department and into the office, where he oversaw accounting.
Ralph Pontiac Honda truly is a family operation, Steven Ralph says. Michael Ralph’s brother, Thomas, serves as general manager of the dealership, while Thomas’ son, Zachary, is sales manager. Other family members have worked for the company through the years as well.
Having several family members involved in the business means the atmosphere is close-knit, Ralph says. And it is that close-knit, team-oriented atmosphere that sets the dealership apart from its competitors, he and his staff say.
While manufacturers try to ensure there are not too many dealers in a given market-and this is being seen more and more with recent franchise eliminations and consolidations-competition still is tough here, Ralph says.
“It’s definitely a competitive market here, especially on the Honda side. We do have some strong dealers in town,” he says. “At the same time, Honda has a pretty good market share and it’s a big city. There’s still enough out there to get.”
Having a team of employees who work well together is crucial to the success of the company, Ralph says.
“I think my people are my best asset,” he explains. “I try to make my people happy and proud to work here. And I think by doing that they’ll take care of your customers automatically.”
Adds Zachary Ralph: “The employees set us apart from the rest. We have an exceptional group of people that work well together. Everyone has a shared goal of doing what is right for the customer.”
Taking care of the customers has never been more important than it is in today’s economic climate, Steven Ralph says.
“We strive to make sure things get done right and take care of people,” he says, using the company’s slogan, ‘Done right,’ “because without the customers there’s no money coming in and I wouldn’t be able to pay people and employ them.”
Fixed operations manager Terry Harrison recalls something Michael Ralph told him many years ago. “Mike told me, ‘My name is on the back of those cars, and I want them right.’ I guess that’s what makes us successful. The customers come back because we do treat them right.”
The company’s success is a result of timing, luck, product offerings and its customers, Michael Ralph says. Success in the automotive industry today can be hard to come by, he acknowledges.
“We have a lot more choices today on where you can go to buy, the number of makes of cars and also the number of stores,” he says. “(Customers) don’t have, necessarily, the same allegiance to one product or one dealership, unless we can do something about that. And that’s something we strive to do.”

Like father, like son
Steven Ralph describes his management style as engaged, neither micromanaging nor completely hands off.
“I’m involved, but I give my managers free rein to do the right thing,” he says. “I’m not looking over their shoulder all the time.”
That involves a great deal of trust, he notes.
“I have confidence in them that they’re going to make the decision I would make and not to second-guess them after that.”
Steven and Michael Ralph have similar leadership styles, Zachary Ralph says.
“Steven truly cares about his employees. Steven is involved but has empowered the employees to handle the day-to-day business,” he explains. “They both are sure to treat everyone with respect.”
Harrison, who has been with the company 25 years, describes Steven Ralph as down-to-earth and caring and says his decision-making is careful and thorough, much like his father’s.
“He weighs everything out to make sure what we’re doing is right for everybody involved,” Harrison says. “He doesn’t make snap decisions just because he thinks it would make the business more profitable. He thinks about in advance what’s it going to do to my employees and how are we going to look in the community?”
Ralph says he is fair, honest and straightforward, and believes those are his strengths.
“I think people are comfortable to come talk to me about anything,” he adds.
But that fairness and easygoing attitude can backfire at times and become a weakness, Ralph says.
“Being laid back like that does leave the door open for people to take advantage of certain things,” he explains. “But for the most part, I think it goes back to having people I can trust.”
The best part of his job, Ralph says, is the pride he feels in his team.
“One thing that I enjoy about coming in here is when all of my team is working like a well-oiled machine. It kind of makes me proud, and I enjoy seeing everything working smoothly,” he says.
The nature of the automobile business can make a dealer pull his hair out, though, Ralph says.
“It’s a tough business. The good times can be very good, and the bad times can be very bad,” he says. “And it can change in a heartbeat.”
Throughout much of this decade, business was very good for Ralph Pontiac Honda. Then late last year sales plummeted regionwide. The dealership was not immune to that.
“It was a learning experience for me,” Ralph says. “You’ve built up all these expenses and all this overhead, and then sales come down and you’re not even close to covering all that expense. It can wipe out a lot of hard work.
“It’s frustrating to see what we all do and the team of 60 here all day and to work a whole month and not turn a profit,” he adds.
The occasional customer who refuses to be satisfied no matter how hard management works to make things right also can be a frustrating part of the business, Ralph acknowledges.
“Some of your people you have problems with; more times than not if you sit down with them and turn things around, they become some of your best customers,” he observes. “It’s one of the hardest parts, but sometimes it can be one of the best parts, the most rewarding, too.”
While the stalled automotive industry and unsatisfied customers have been learning experiences for Ralph, he says his father has taught him the most.
“He has many years’ experience, decades of the ups and downs in the car business,” Ralph says. “My grandfather and my dad, they’ve always strived to run a very fair and honest business. That’s definitely one thing my dad has taught me, to run a fair and honest business. That’s a quality my dad and the business have that I take pride in.”
He has found himself on many occasions seeking out his father as someone to test ideas with, as Michael Ralph himself did when he was in a similar position in the business.
“My father was around, but when I was there full time, he’d already worked his full-time days and now he was working his part-time days. And that’s how I learned a lot of the stuff,” Michael Ralph recalls. “You’re presented situations. Either you’re going to make some decision right then or you get a moment, you call him on the phone and say, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ Eventually I think each of us probably ended up picking up what our fathers expected their business to be like.”
Michael Ralph says that if he could pass along a piece of advice, it would be to put yourself in your customers’ shoes.
“I think that’s pretty important, because we could sit here and say the warranty ran out, you didn’t do this or you didn’t do that, (and) therefore it’s your responsibility,” he explains. “But if you were in their position and you just spent $25,000 three years ago, would you feel the same way?”

At home
Steven Ralph, who was born and raised in the Rochester area, now lives in Pittsford with his wife, Heather, daughter Tatum and son Jack.
Ralph is a director of the Rochester Automobile Dealers’ Association Inc., and he and Ralph Pontiac Honda support several area charities and nonprofit organizations, including the Tim Milgate Golf Tournament, which benefits Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong.
In his spare time, Ralph enjoys playing men’s league hockey and is an avid golfer. Ralph learned the game of golf from his grandmother, who was an accomplished amateur, says long-time friend and business associate Patrick Ahern.
“His grandmother was unbelievable at golf,” Ahern says. “I remember him telling me stories of how he would go over there when he was a kid and she would say, ‘Let me take a look at your swing.’ How many people grow up learning the game of golf from their grandmother?”
Ralph also enjoys family time, and part of his winding down after work involves walking in the door to his two children. A favorite family memory involves his father taking his family to the Adirondacks for hiking and swimming when Ralph was young, and that is becoming a tradition with his own family, he says.
Ralph, whose wife is a runner, recently took up the sport himself, running in the Utica Boilermaker 15K after training for 10 weeks prior to the event.
“I never ran in a race in my life, so I guess that was a little goal that I accomplished,” he says. “I’m not an inactive person, but picturing me running for a lot of people is quite humorous.”
Ahern says his friend is generous, fun, caring and trustworthy.
“A key thing I’ve learned, and I’ve been a customer for the past 10 years: It truly is a family business over there,” Ahern says. “I know that Steve and Mike are committed family guys, and I think that’s an important piece to their success, not only personally but also from the business perspective as well.”

Steven Ralph
Position: Vice president, Ralph Pontiac Honda Inc.
Education: B.S., business, Nazareth College of Rochester, 1995
Age: 38
Home: Pittsford
Family: Wife Heather; daughter Tatum, 5; son Jack, 3
Activities: Family, golf, hockey
Quote: “It’s a tough business. The good times can be very good, and the bad times can be very bad. And it can change in a heartbeat.”

vspicer@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

07/31/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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