Before exploring how, over the past 13 years, West Herr Auto Group has become one of the leading automobile dealerships in the Rochester area, it’s perhaps best to understand a little about Scott Bieler, the company’s president, CEO and majority owner.
With 39 dealerships between Buffalo and Syracuse, including 11 in greater Rochester, West Herr represents more than two dozen brands, from BMW, Mercedes Benz and Infiniti, to Ford, Dodge and Toyota. Which means Bieler pretty much can get behind the wheel of whatever type of vehicle he wants to drive.
His choice: a black, 2019 Ford Taurus that’s nearing 100,000 miles.
“Ford made everything happen,” he said, “so I feel a certain loyalty.”
When he decides this Taurus has served its purpose, he has already has another 2019 Ford Taurus, same color, lined up as his next ride.
Bieler’s loyalty to Ford — the brand flag when West Herr was founded in the Buffalo suburb of Hamburg in 1950 — provides insight to what he’s all about. Namely, you take care of those who take care of you.
He wants his dealerships to run the same way. His 3,000 employees, including the approximately 1,000 at dealerships in Greece, Henrietta, Webster, Brockport and Canandaigua, are his priority, and urgency is their responsibility. He says bigger shouldn’t mean West Herr is disengaged with consumers. Hardly.
“Our size should not be an impediment to taking care of people,” Bieler said. “Just the opposite; we have more people than anyone, so taking care of people should never be a problem.
“I don’t ever want to hear, ‘West Herr isn’t as good as it used to be.’”
West Herr used to be a one-store, one-automaker company. Harold West and Joe Herr, brothers-in-law, opened a Ford dealership in Hamburg in 1950. Brad Haefner joined the business in 1959 and eventually took over operations, with an eye on growth in the Buffalo market.
Bieler was hired as a salesperson in 1975, when he was 21. He was supposed to join his family’s commercial cleaning business but wanted to give selling cars a try just to see what else the world had to offer.
Three months into his job at West Herr, the new car smell was too powerful. He was hooked on horns, hemis and horsepower. Haefner apparently knew it, too. By 1980, he extended an offer for Bieler to join the management team.
“He said, ‘You’re my guy. I want a partner,’ and he gave me an offer that was unbelievably fair to me,” Bieler said.
More than 40 years later, Haefner remains the West Herr chairman, with a 16 percent ownership share. “He’s more than a partner; he’s like my second father.” Bieler owns 52 percent. Two other partners each own 16.
For the first 60 years, West Herr was strictly a Buffalo-area car dealer, and of the 39 dealerships owned by West Herr, 27 are in Buffalo. That market is definitely cornered.
Bieler, however, believes growth is essential, so he looked to Rochester. His first acquisitions: the Mercedes and BWM dealerships that are next-door neighbors on West Henrietta Road. They had been part of the John Holtz automotive group.
Back around 2010, Bieler had heard John Holtz was looking to divest, so he inquired. At first, Holtz wanted to sell all seven of his dealerships as a package. Bieler, however, only wanted Mercedes and BMW.
“They were two luxury brands we didn’t have,” he said. “He wanted to sell the entire group but I kept asking, ‘Would you sell just the two.’ ”
Persistence paid off. When a buyer for the entire group didn’t materialize, Holtz relented and sold the luxury lines to West Herr. Garber Automotive, headquartered in Saginaw, Mich., bought the other five in late 2011.
“Once we got here, I really liked the market, the talent to hire and the way the community embraced us,” Bieler said.
So, he continued to explore expansion. The Vision Ford dealership in Greece was the next to join the West Herr family, in 2014. Then came Doan’s Chrysler Dodge Jeep store just down West Ridge Road, in 2019. Vanderstyne Toyota, right across the street from that Doan store, was acquired in 2021.
“All of a sudden 60 miles seemed easy,” Bieler said of the drive from Buffalo.
The acquisitions often start with a casual phone call that goes something like this: “If you’re interested in selling, when the time is right, we’re interested in talking to you,” he said. “They know we’re people of our word, they know we have the capital and they know the manufacturer will approve us.”
Indeed, manufacturer approval is critical.
“They want to make sure you have the track record of high customer satisfaction and not just the ability to buy, but the capital to put into the store after the sale.”
The former owners also want to know the business they built will be in good hands.
“Jay Vanderstyne actually works for us,” Bieler said. “You know you’ve done something right if you’ve acquired a dealership and the owner still works for you and refers customers to you.”
Some might ask, why so many dealerships? And why so many brands? Bieler said the key to success is building loyalty not just with the mother, father or leaving-the-nest child, but the entire family.
That’s because studies show the average U.S. family owns 2.7 cars. Creating customer loyalty helps ensure each one of those cars has a West Herr emblem on the back. But not everyone in the same household wants a Ford or Honda. Having multiple manufacturers under the West Herr flag helps meet all preferences. Thus, the smorgasbord of offerings through various dealerships.
“I knew all three cars wouldn’t be the same brand,” Bieler said. “We were a relationship-selling organization. We weren’t just selling cars; people trusted us. But why have this relationship with the family if we can’t meet their needs?”
Providing convenience also helps ensure loyalty. The customer doesn’t need to go from one West Herr lot to another searching for the brand they want.
“Every store in the company can sell any car in the company,” he said. Which is why 48 percent of used cars sold within the West Herr group last year weren’t sold by the dealership on whose lot they sat, Bieler said.
Another factor in creating loyalty: a hands-on owner. Bieler regularly tours his dealership to ensure all is well and to meet with employees. “Then the last thing I do is find two sets of customers,” he said. “I say, ‘How many cars is this for your family from us?’ and, I’m not exaggerating, I often hear the number is over 20.
“When you have loyalty like that, then we better make life better in the community.”
Which is why West Herr donated a van to the Boys & Girls Club of Rochester in February. And why the company has been the presenting sponsor for the Recipe for a C.U.R.E., an annual fundraiser for the Childhood Cancer Association. And why West Herr paid an undisclosed sum for naming rights with the Rochester Broadway Theatre League. It’s now the West Herr Auditorium Theatre.
“We’re trying to do more than we ever have in re-giving,” Bieler said. “And I say re-giving because I don’t think anything we’re giving is ours. It was given to us, so we’re re-giving this benefit back to the community.
“People can be loyal and spend $50 a week at Dunkin’ Donuts or $300 a week at Wegmans, but if you’re loyal to our dealership, it’s 50 grand or more.”
The key ingredient in building customer trust, though, is the employee. While contrary to the old saying, “The customer comes first,” Bieler says his employees come first. That, in turn, ensures the customer really is No. 1.
“That’s because the employee wants to do it,” Bieler said, “and the reason they want to do it is they know the company values them.”
Customers, in turn, feel a sense of loyalty, and keep coming back for their next car.
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