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Industry vet is steady at the wheel


Kevin Parker became the leader of the Garber Automotive Group in 2011. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

There’s nothing like getting run over by a car to put things in perspective.

When Kevin Parker landed in Rochester from Flint, Mich., four years ago he found himself alone in an unfamiliar city. He and his wife had decided to live apart for several months while their daughter finished her sophomore year of high school, allowing him to begin the task of transforming the former Holtz House of Vehicles into the Garber Automotive Group.

But shortly after arriving here, Parker was hit by a car in the parking lot of the hotel where he was living. He was talking to his wife on the phone when the accident happened.

“Luckily I put my hand down and went over (the car) as opposed to under it, or I wouldn’t have lived. My wife was talking to me and all she heard was ‘ahh’ and the phone went dead,” recalls Parker, Garber’s 50-year-old managing partner.

It was an eye-opening experience, Parker says of the accident and subsequent recovery.

“I think throughout that time I realized how quickly your life can change. It stopped my life for a moment,” he says. “That spring the flowers smelled better. The sunshine was brighter.”

After several surgeries and weeks of rehab for his mangled leg, Parker returned to the task at hand: revamping and expanding the auto franchises Garber Auto had purchased and, perhaps more importantly, maintaining the customer loyalty that former owner John Holtz had built in his four decades in the auto business.

“One of the things we felt passionate about when we bought these stores was to keep as many of these employees as we could because John had a good reputation in a lot of areas and we wanted to maintain that,” Parker said of the transition. “Our first ad campaign was ‘new name, same faces.’”

Indeed, the dealerships have changed little in that regard since Garber Auto took over. The company employs 215 in Rochester, up slightly from the roughly 200 Holtz employed. Though Parker declined to discuss local revenue, he noted the Honda facility continues to be the No. 1 volume Honda dealer in Western New York, and locally the firm sold roughly 4,000 new and used vehicles last year.

The Michigan-based company’s 15 dealerships nationwide gross in excess of $400 million annually and employ 1,450 people. Garber Auto ranked sixth on the Rochester Business Journal’s most recent list of auto dealers, based on the number of vehicles sold locally.

“It takes a lot of people to make this company go,” Parker says. “My partner’s (Dick Garber) favorite saying, and I’ve adopted it now, is that tall buildings have strong foundations.”

A century of experience

In 1907 Guy Garber was a farm implement salesman in Michigan who had been approached by William Durant, General Motors Corp.’s co-founder. Durant had asked Garber to help him take the public from the horse and buggy to the automobile.

Garber became a factory representative for Buick Motor Division and during his first six months with the company he established a dealership in Battle Creek, Mich. In 1910 Garber opened a Buick dealership in Saginaw, Mich., where the company headquarters remains more than a century later.

When Garber died in 1965, his son, Richard Garber Sr., took over the company, continuing to build on his father’s commitment to service. When the younger Garber died seven years later, his brother-in-law, Norman Geyer, took over as president.

Geyer ran the company until 1980, when Richard Garber Jr. took the reins. Garber was the third generation to run the company and the youngest Buick dealer for a dealership of its size in the nation. He continues as president.

Garber Auto’s 15 dealerships nationwide represent 15 manufacturers. The company has a strong presence in both Michigan and Florida, and in Rochester represents Honda, Acura, Porsche and Audi. Garber Auto also has a 30-car showroom in Chicago.

Garber Auto set up shop in New York in 2011, in part as a result of Richard Dorschel touting the region in a Buick Twenty Group the two dealers were members of. Twenty Groups are set up to enable dealer owners from non-competing areas to get together to learn from one another and increase profitability.

“Rick always spoke so highly of Rochester,” Garber says. “I had only heard great things about the community and how diversified and vibrant it was.”

When another friend called Garber and told him there might be an opportunity to move into the region via the acquisition of some franchises belonging to Holtz House of Vehicles, Garber was intrigued.

“I had the foundation, having known Rick, and also Rochester’s reputation speaks for itself,” Garber says. “It’s truly one of the dynamic communities in the United States, so we were very interested.”

Holtz had gotten his start in the automotive business working with his father as a youngster. He opened his first dealership—a Honda store on West Henrietta Road—in 1977 and spent more than 40 years in the industry. He received the Mercedes-Benz franchise in 1980 and shortly thereafter obtained the BMW franchise.

In 2010 Holtz had decided to retire from the auto business. He sold his Mercedes-Benz and BMW franchises to Buffalo’s West Herr Automotive Group.

His decision to sell his businesses and retire took some time, Holtz told the RBJ in 2012, but he wanted time to be able to focus on his family and the community.

What appealed most to Holtz as he considered selling his five auto franchises was ensuring that his employees would continue to receive paychecks, he said. The Garber Group offered that.

Although Mazda was part of the original acquisition, Garber Auto sold the franchise to Marketplace Mazda Suzuki in 2013 when Suzuki stopped selling cars in the United States.

“We’ve had some changes over the years, no question about that,” Parker says. “But we are very blessed to have the majority of the people we hired the day we took over still here.”

Merging principles
When Parker joined Garber Auto in 2001 he already had 17 years’ experience in the industry. He had joined Hank Graff Chevrolet in a suburb of Flint, Mich., as a young adult, working his way through sales and management before meeting with Garber as a potential partner in the firm.

His first job, though, was working with his father, an entrepreneur who owned a lumberyard and home improvement store in Flint. From his dad Parker learned the importance of hard work.

“I learned that there is always something to do. Even when that job’s done, go do something else,” he says.

From his first two bosses—his father and the owner of Graff Chevy—Parker learned a lot about the people end of business.

“I think I learned more watching my father interact with people—whether it was the guy who worked at General Motors on the production line who had a rental home who was trying to fix it up or a U.S. congressman who maybe lived in that area—my dad was fair to both of them,” Parker recalls. “That’s a tremendous asset that I learned from my father.”

But it is Garber, Parker says, who changed his life. He took a chance on him when Parker decided to leave his previous job in 2001.

“Dick really has done what few people do in business,” Parker explains. “A lot of times you’re interviewing for a job and they over-promise and under-deliver. He didn’t do that at all. In fact, he’s exceeded my wildest expectations with opportunities.

“When I think of a young kid from Flint, Mich., to get the opportunities and be afforded the exposure I’ve had to some of these brands, I have to pinch myself at times,” Parker adds.

Since arriving in Rochester, Parker has made it his mission to make sure the dealerships live up to both the Holtz and Garber names.

“We have a mission statement that says to be the best sales and service operation in all markets we serve,” Parker says. “I think in order to grow our company—because I have a responsibility not only here in Rochester, but also to the organization—it’s making sure we have a world-class relationship with our employees and customers. The expectations are quite high here.”

Although the dealership’s short-term goals vary little across the company, Parker has set his own long-term goal: to outperform the other Garber Auto stores.

“Within our group we all have some egos, if you will. We compare our sales and our growth,” Parker says. “We’ve got an auto mall in Florida that’s more established than we are and they do very well. So that’s kind of the bullseye that we’re aiming for, to make sure our properties here outperform them.”

Parker says what makes Garber Auto successful is that it operates a little differently than some of its competitors.

“Any company that’s survived 108 years has to be a little different than many. All our decisions and plans are guided by our values,” he explains. “As you walk my business you’ll see lots of mission statements, but you’ll never see our values. Because values aren’t posted, values are lived.”

Those values include honesty, empathy, respect, work ethic, integrity and pride.

“A value’s only a value once it’s tested. That’s the No. 1 thing I bring to this every day,” Parker says. “And my responsibility as a partner in this organization is that those values get lived.”

Parker recalls an incident in which those company values were substantiated. A Canadian family was driving through Rochester on their way to New York City for a family gathering. Their car broke down and when they arrived at a Garber Auto facility it was closed.

One employee was still there and though a part was not available to fix the vehicle immediately, the employee made arrangements for the family to leave their car and take a courtesy vehicle downstate. When the part arrived, Garber Auto fixed the vehicle and drove it to the family and returned with the courtesy vehicle.

“Our employees are empowered to make decisions. And we never make decisions based on profit or loss,” Parker says. “I think the true test is when a customer calls us with a concern. It’s a great opportunity to turn that around. Because the true test of a business isn’t when things go right, it’s when they don’t.”

You cannot put a price on customer success, says Service Director Billy Buechel.

“If we made a mistake and it cost us $1,000, we would happily pay that. You’re in power to make those decisions,” says Buechel, who spent two decades with Holtz prior to the acquisition. “If we’re lucky enough to be able to fix that problem, we’re allowed to spend whatever to make that customer happy.”

Garber says the company’s success is a result of creating a culture of high employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction.

“Our mission statement simply says the only time we do our job correctly, properly, is when we create an experience for the customer they return for,” Garber says. “The highest priority for us is always doing the right thing.”

Garber has been blessed to have a great senior leadership team and great partners such as Parker, he says.

“And this is, candidly, a real simple philosophy that my grandfather started in business over 100 years ago. We’re just carrying on his legacy,” he adds. “We really don’t try to overcomplicate it.”

Ups and downs
Despite its successes, Garber Auto, like most car dealerships, is not without its challenges.

Because the firm believes in promoting from within, inorganic growth can be problematic, especially as Garber Auto eyes acquisitions outside its home state or region, Parker says.

“We are a financially sound company. We won’t buy a company if we don’t have someone who’s been part of our culture that we can put in there,” Parker says. “I think we’ve kind of failed the organization by not having more men and women ready to run businesses that are mobile. Some will do it if we buy the store down the road.”

Another challenge the company faces is an industrywide problem. New technology has changed the way customers shop for vehicles.

“Three years ago the average person that purchased a vehicle shopped four to five dealerships before they bought,” Parker notes. “That’s now 1.2. They’re doing most of their work online so there’s less people coming through the doors. So oftentimes there’s a lot of idle time for our sales staff.”

But Parker is comfortable with challenge.

“The challenges ahead of me every day are amazing,” he says. “I don’t know who I’m going to meet, the situation I’m going to have. Some of the customers over the years that started with a situation or a concern have turned into some of our most loyal.”

The best part of his job is interacting with employees and customers and dealing with the everyday glitches that come with running a business.

“My philosophy is, and I tell our leaders this all the time, that employees and customers are not an interruption in our day. They’re the reason we’re here,” he says.

Parker is described as a hands-on manager who takes pride in his relationships with employees and customers.

“He is a lead-by-example person,” Buechel says. “He wouldn’t ask you to do something he wouldn’t do himself. He’s here six days a week and he touches every department every day.”

Parker welcomes ideas and input from employees, Buechel adds, especially when those suggestions will make customers and staffers happier.

Tony Tortorella was a Holtz customer prior to Garber’s move into Rochester and quickly became friends with the dealership’s new manager.

“I’m in a few times a year for regular maintenance and some of the service people I call by their name. I think for the amount of money we spend on vehicles—which are rolling computers—it gives you a high sense of satisfaction that after the sale you’re treated as good, if not better, than you were prior to the sale,” Tortorella says. “I know that’s a real hallmark that he wants to get out there and I think he’s delivering it.”

It is a great buying experience at Garber Auto, but what really makes the dealership stand out is that the service department goes out of its way to make clients feel comfortable, he says.

“Whatever your job is, if you’re comfortable where you work and you have the proper tools you’re going to do a better job. I think he has achieved that,” Tortorella says.

Garber calls Parker bright, enthusiastic and energetic.

“Kevin seldom has a bad day. He’s one of the most positive people that I’ve ever met,” Garber says. “He understands our business and he’s a very inspirational leader.”

At home
Parker and his wife of 28 years, Kris, live in Fairport with their daughter, Madison. The couple also has a son, Brandon, and daughter, Kassidy. Recently they became first-time grandparents to Zoey.

Although he has numerous business and civic achievements—including serving as the 2011 United Way Capital Campaign chairman and receiving the 2008 Rotary Governor’s Award, among other things while in Michigan—Parker says his greatest achievement is his 28-year marriage.

“And God love her, because I’ve moved her several times to new cities,” he says.

Parker enjoys golf in his free time and he and his family have an affinity for the water.

“I love the Finger Lakes and I love being on the water. My wife and I have a small boat and we are at peace when we’re on the boat,” he says. “When we raised our kids we boated a lot. When you go to the mall you’re separated. When you’re on the water on a little boat you’re with them. It really brought us together as a family.”

Although he has spent his entire adult life in the automotive industry, Parker at one time aspired to be a comedian.

“After high school I did some stand-up. It was interesting, but I didn’t pursue it,” he says. “It might be one of my regrets; maybe I should have gone to New York City, Chicago, L.A, and really given it a try. Who knows?”

With his feet firmly planted in Rochester now, Parker plans to become more involved with community and charitable organizations here. Giving back to the community is an important philosophy of both Parker and Garber Auto.

“I think giving back is an important thing. People want to do business with people they know, like or trust. And they only get to know, like or trust you through time and getting involved,” Parker says. “My dad taught me, nothing happens in this world until someone raises their hand and says I’ll help. So, giving back is important.”

Kevin Parker
Position: General manager/managing partner, Garber Automotive Group
Age: 50
Family: Wife, Kris; son, Brandon, 27; daughters Kassidy, 24, and Madison, 19; and granddaughter, Zoey
Home: Fairport
Activities: Golf, boating
Quote: “We have a mission statement that says to be the best sales and service operation in all markets we serve. I think in order to grow our company—because I have a responsibility not only here in Rochester, but also to the organization—it’s making sure we have a world-class relationship with our employees and customers. The expectations are quite high here.”

2/5/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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