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Second-generation leader grew up behind the wheel

Most people do not grow up wanting to be in the car business, John Cortese maintains, but he learned at an early age how much fun the job can be, and he could not see himself doing anything else.
 
"I look back and it’s like, What if I didn’t have that?" says Cortese, 42, president of Cortese Auto Group. "I got lucky. I used to come here to hang out with my dad, and when I came here and did those jobs, I ended up liking the people and liking what their job was."
 
He also knows how fortunate he was to have the things he had growing up.
 
"I saw how we lived. It wasn’t about having a huge house or anything like that. It was more about having freedom and not pinching your pennies," Cortese says. "That’s sort of what gravitated me toward it."
 
The nearly 40-year-old business has weathered several recessions and downturns in the automotive industry. Cortese Auto Group employs some 140 people at four dealerships in Henrietta. Franchises include Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Lincoln, Ford and Mitsubishi.
 
While Cortese declines to discuss revenues, he says the dealership sells some 2,500 to 3,000 new and used vehicles annually. The company did not participate in the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of auto dealers, but with those vehicle sales it would rank among the top 10 dealers locally.

Automotive roots
Cortese Auto Group was founded by John Cortese’s father, Pat, in 1975 when the elder Cortese bought the Dodge store he had been working at from Dale Scutti. By 1985, Cortese had added the Lincoln franchise, and shortly after that he purchased a Ford store in Scottsville.
 
John Cortese began working for his father and in his early teens became a lot boy, parking and moving cars around the dealership.
 
"I was driving way before I had my driver’s license," he says with a laugh.
 
Cortese worked his way through each of the jobs at the dealership, with the exception of the body shop.
 
"When I was 16 they gave me a car to drive, but I had to work for it," he recalls. "So I used to work four days a week after school and Saturdays."
 
After high school, Cortese attended Rochester Institute of Technology in hope of getting a business degree. He attended classes in the morning and sold cars at night.
 
"When I went (to RIT), they make you take all your liberal arts classes, and I wanted to get into my business classes right away," Cortese says. "What really hurt me was I was selling cars from 3 to 9 and I was making really good money. So it got harder to do the homework."
 
Though it disappointed his father, Cortese left school and joined the family business full time. Cortese managed the Suzuki store, and in the early 1990s he was named used-car manager.
 
In 1994 Cortese convinced his father to let him run the Dodge store, a big undertaking for a 25-year-old. The gamble paid off, and the dealership soon experienced some of its most successful years.
 
Cortese was itching to get the Ford franchise back after having sold the Scottsville store, and in 2001 the business was offered a store in Henrietta. The caveat? Cortese Auto Group also had to buy Fairport Ford.
 
Cortese and his father worked out a deal whereby the elder businessman would purchase and operate the Fairport store, while his son would buy his Henrietta facilities. He was in his early 30s at the time.
 
Several years ago Pat Cortese left the auto industry and sold Fairport Ford to Kitty Van Bortel. About the same time, Cortese Auto Group added the Chrysler and Jeep franchises.

Peaks and valleys
Throughout its four decades, Cortese Auto Group has experienced its share of ups and downs in the auto industry. The company was not untouched by recent economic turmoil. In 2009 its Dodge store hit a low in new-car sales.
 
"Where it hurt us was we didn’t have a floor plan for a period of time at the Chrysler store because Chrysler Financial went bankrupt," Cortese explains. "We went three or four months without being able to order a car. We weren’t sure what was going to happen."
 
Dealer floor plans are the credit lines used to pay for inventory until cars are sold. Most dealers have some sort of floor plan because without them they must use cash.
 
"That was a little scary," Cortese adds. "And it was hard for a period of time getting people loans, unless they had perfect credit."
 
Cortese Ford general manager Ron Christiano says the bottom line in getting through the recent recession was watching expenses and taking care of customers.
 
"Making sure the existing clients are happy-and when people come in for the first time, let them know you’re here for them," Christiano says. "Operate your business intelligently."
 
Sales at the Chrysler store have rebounded in recent years, since adding the two lines, Cortese says, and he expects sales to continue to improve companywide.
 
Cortese says longevity and loyalty are the keys to the company’s success.
 
"We have a lot of tenured employees," he notes. "The Cortese people have been with me since they were young. Some of them I worked for."
 
With that longevity comes an understanding and appreciation of the company’s philosophy.
 
"It’s like a family, really," Cortese says.
 
In most cases Cortese looks to promote from within.
 
"I’m not bringing in all these people with different ideas," he adds. "Right from when I interview you for the first time, I’m already planning what might happen with you down the road. The majority of my managers were entry-level employees at one point. And that’s really the key to it."
 
Cortese recalls the cutthroat atmosphere of dealerships in the 1980s and says that has changed dramatically.
 
"We don’t really see that anymore," he says. "I think a lot of that is from the people we hire, how we hire."
 
General sales manager Joseph Provvidenza says the atmosphere at Cortese Auto Group is family-oriented and fun.
 
"He runs a really tight, family-run business," Provvidenza says. "It’s not run like a big corporation. It’s more personal."
 
Provvidenza says the company is successful because its owner is there and involved every day.
 
"Taking care of the people," he adds. "In the car business a lot of people come and go, but from his father to John, they’ve always taken care of the customer. That’s why I like working here, because it’s not about just making a buck."

Goals
The dealership is renovating the exterior of its Ford store, as well as rebuilding its Lincoln facility. Cortese says his immediate goals are to finish those projects and pay down debt.
 
"I want to start playing more golf at some point," he says, laughing, but he says retirement is a long way off.
 
While growth is always a goal, acquisitions and more franchises are not options for now, Cortese says.
 
"I think the short-term goal is to fine-tune what we have," he adds. "It’s just getting it all together, getting them to look the way they need to look, because these franchises are on the uptick now."
 
Cortese says the biggest challenge he has seen is adjusting to growth.
 
"We were in a period of four or five years of downsizing, laying people off, getting smaller to survive, and now we’re having growth and we’re getting our mindset changed, adjusting to it," he explains. "As you grow, you need more people, but finding good, dedicated people is hard."
 
Managing people can make him want to pull his hair out, Cortese says, but what is most frustrating about the job is not having the control he would like to have over his franchises.
 
"When you have a new-car franchise, you’re sort of dependent on (the manufacturers) to do things right," he says.
 
Having control is a big part of what Cortese loves about being a business owner, he says.
 
"I’ve always had visions of things and being able to control how I want the outcome to be," he adds. "But what happens is you end up becoming a control freak. I love to get input from people, but I like knowing that when I do something it’s my final decision."
 
The ability to solve problems is one of his best attributes, Cortese says.
 
"Once you get used to doing that, it’s hard (not to). At home I have to try to let up on that," he says. "I’m used to doing that all day. You end up finding yourself doing that even when you don’t want to."
 
General manager Christiano says Cortese is a hands-on manager but does not micromanage.
 
"He lets you do your thing and lets you know if you’re not doing the right thing," he adds.
 
Cortese says another strength is his ability to remain composed.
 
"I don’t let things eat away at me," he says. "I let people make mistakes, as long as they’re willing to learn from them. I’m good at empowering and delegating."
 
But occasionally he cuts a little too much slack, Cortese says.
 
"In other words, I will wait too long before I have to make a decision," he explains. "I’ll give somebody the benefit of the doubt maybe too much. If I’m going to make a mistake, it won’t be knee-jerk firing somebody; it’ll be staying with them too long."
 
What Cortese loves about his business is being with people.
 
"Every day is different. People are different," he says. "I like being able to make decisions that help people. That’s probably the most rewarding."
 
General sales manager Provvidenza describes Cortese as understanding.
 
"When we need time for our family, he gives it to us. He never says no," Provvidenza explains. "He’s extremely flexible. He’s a great guy to work for. He’s easygoing."
 
Christiano calls the job fun and enlightening and touts the loyalty at the dealership.
 
"Loyalty is a big thing," he says. "John lets me run the store with an open policy. He lets me take care of things."
 
Christiano says Cortese knows how to keep the customers coming in and make sure they are being taken care of properly.
 
"John instills in the employees that if you treat people the way you want to be treated, it’ll come back to you tenfold," he adds. "Let’s face it: If you don’t do that, they’re not going to come back to see you again."
 
Robert Penta, who has worked as the company’s outside accountant for some 30 years, calls Cortese astute and notes Cortese’s aversion to debt. That is one reason the company has done so well despite a roller-coaster economy and industry.
 
"Oftentimes you see second generation (business owners) not go too far with the family business. He’s the exception to that rule," Penta says. "He’s a very good businessperson and a pretty honorable guy."
 
Comparing father and son, Penta says they had differing business styles but complemented each other.
 
"His dad’s influence showed through a lot of the time," he adds. "He had a very good teacher."
 
Cortese has had numerous role models throughout his career, but none stronger than his father.
 
"The biggest thing he did for me was gave me confidence," Cortese says. "He believed in me before I believed in me."
 
If he could pass along a piece of advice to other entrepreneurs or businesspeople, Cortese says, it would be to have passion for what you do.
 
"You have to love what you do," Cortese says. "The money will come from you doing it well. You can’t go into it for the money. You have to find something you love, and then you have to work at it. You have to work hard at it."

At home
Cortese says his biggest accomplishment is not work-related but that he has been with his wife, Stacy, since 10th grade and they are still happily married. They have two children, Samantha, 17, and John, 15.
 
Born and raised in Rochester, Cortese now resides in Greece. He enjoys helping with Easter Seals Inc. and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
 
Off the job, Cortese likes golf and describes himself as competitive. The family has a home in Florida, and he likes spending time with friends and family. A favorite family memory is a trip to Walt Disney World when his kids were young.
 
Though at one time Cortese may have been a workaholic, or verging on one, his work now stays at work when he leaves.
 
"I learned not to (bring it home). My wife, I don’t even talk to her about work," he says. "When I go home, that car ride home, I shut it all down. I try to be in a good mood when I get home. My whole thing is I lived it once; I don’t want to live it again."

John Cortese
Position: President, Cortese Auto Group
Age: 42
Family: Wife, Stacy; daughter, Samantha, 17; son, John, 15
Home: Greece
Activities: Golf, spending time with friends and family
Quote: "I don’t let things eat away at me. I let people make mistakes, as long as they’re willing to learn from them. I’m good at empowering and delegating."

5/25/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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