Wenzel Grows Way Back Home

September 28, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Over the past 21 years, Todd Wenzel has worked his way up through the ranks, across the country, and through probably a billion dollars in automobile sales — all to end up about 100 yards from where he started.

"My desk is right about in the same position where it was, facing the exact same way that I spent the first 10 years of my automobile career," Wenzel said from his office at Todd Wenzel Pontiac-GMC. At

2727 28th St. SE
, his store is next door to Berger Chevrolet, where an 18-year-old Wenzel landed his first job. "I can almost throw a stone there; if I go to that side of the building I can hear their pages."

Two decades ago, the former KelloggsvilleHigh School senior class president began making waves right from the start. Matt Berger promoted Wenzel from rookie dealer to used car finance manager within a year, then to new car finance manager the year after. At 21, Wenzel became Berger Chevrolet's financial director.

"When he came to work for us he was just 18," Berger remembered. "He was an extremely polite and professional young guy and very high energy, just like he is now. It was obvious he had a lot of ambition, and he was quite polished for someone his age — we moved him up quite rapidly.

"We moved him into the finance arena quickly and he did a spectacular job," Berger said. "He had an ability to communicate with such a wide range of people, and to be so good with numbers and have such a quick mind — that's unusual for someone with so few years."

Wenzel laughs at the memory of those days.

"Matt Berger has said that I was the youngest 40-year-old he knew," Wenzel said. "The mindset wasn't any different at 19 than now at 39 years old: You still want to sell them service and to the greatest amount of customers possible, to always make sure the business in moving forward. I understood that at a young age — that every day you go to work, you put your personal needs and personal agenda secondary.

"I put Mr. Berger's needs and agenda first, and I found that my agenda ended up falling in place just fine."

After a decade at Berger, Wenzel's aspirations had grown beyond his first employer. He began seeking his own dealership but couldn't locate any opportunities in his hometown — or even his home state or the entire Midwest, for that matter.

He finally found an option through a contact with GMAC. There was a faltering dealership in Portland, Maine — Forest City Chevrolet — and the owners were looking for an exit.

Simultaneously buying a Portland Saab dealership, Wenzel and his family relocated to Yankee country. Wenzel's first store became a Top 50 GM dealership and a Top 5 Northeast region GM dealership. He later opened up three used car superstores, and at one point was retailing as many as 400 used vehicles a month.

A few years later, GM approached Wenzel with the hope that he might entertain the idea of turning around some other dealerships operating below expectations. He did so with a store in Danbury, Conn., and was soon offered even more opportunities.

He found an option to purchase several stores in the Boston area wasn't feasible, but then found a set of five dealerships in the Baltimore area.

He structured a long-term sell-out of the Portland group to a minority partner, and started working on a move to the Baltimore area.

Meanwhile, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity had opened up back in West Michigan

Orson E. Coe had died months before, and the family hoped to sell his

28th StreetPontiac
-GMC dealership. Wenzel called the Coe family, and six months later, he was back in Grand Rapids, beginning a massive overhaul of the Orson E. Coe operation.

A long-running labor dispute was settled within days, remodeling and construction transformed interior and exterior design, and a blitzkrieg marketing campaign was launched to develop the brand.

"We marketed very aggressively," Wenzel said. "We've taken this business from a $50 million a year company to a $110 million a year company. We've doubled business, added employee count, all in a down economy. Now, we sell nearly twice as many vehicles and service three times more customers, and I've continued to be very aggressive at growing this business in a down economy."

Since his return to Grand Rapids, Wenzel has created 40 new jobs within his company, has become one of three local dealers to earn GM Dealer of the Year honors, and has been the largest GM dealer in the area for four years running, narrowly ahead of his old friends, Berger Chevrolet.

"To this day I count the Bergers as one of my closest friends and I hope they do me," Wenzel said. "I have a huge respect for them. I think they are a fine organization, but, moreover, I think that they're fine people.

"But having said that, business is business," Wenzel acknowledged with a smile. "They understand that too. We'll take as much business as we can take from them, and although I don't run their business, I'm sure they're doing the same for me. We're head to head every single day."

Wenzel displayed the current numbers on the computer screen behind his desk. "As of right now we're 17 units behind. I get up every morning and run to this report," he confessed. "It goes back and forth, but ultimately we'll outsell them every year."

The competition has proven beneficial to both dealerships, attracting more GM customers to the dealer row of

southeast 28th Street
. Likewise, it has proven good for consumers, with each dealership forced to up the ante each week in pricing, selection and customer service.

"I don't think that we would have ever expected him to end up next door," Berger added. "But we never had any doubts that Todd would go a long way. That he would be a car dealer someday wasn't beyond anyone's expectations. I don't think we limited it to that, believing that he would have been running for state senator or higher wouldn't have been beyond anyone's expectations."

Whether or not there is a possibility of politics in the future, Wenzel seems to be happy where he is right now — back home.

"The goal deep down was always to come back to West Michigan," Wenzel said. "And I had hopes of someday ending up on

28th Street
. This is a great GM community. GM enjoys over a 50 percent market share here. The GM plants and suppliers here, retirees and employees here, their families — that has been nearly 50 percent of my business.

"And this community has just a huge reputation for rewarding businesses that are local people focused on service and focused on favorable pricing."

Wenzel has continued his aggressive approach to business growth. After waiting for a decade for a West Michigan dealership, lightning recently struck again.

This summer he acquired Serra Chevrolet in Hudsonville from Flint-based Joe Serra, and has applied the same formula that has served him well for the past 10 years.

By the time Wenzel owned the Hudsonville dealership for 60 days, it had doubled its sales from that point in the previous year. Traditionally barely a Top 10 area GM dealership, the now-Todd Wenzel Chevrolet has currently settled at third, behind Berger and Wenzel's Grand Rapids store.

Already strategically positioned to serve the Lakeshore area, Wenzel believes that when the M-6 South Beltline is finished, the Hudsonville dealership could become the choice of southwest metro Grand Rapids. The two locations will also serve to complement each other's service options.

"The mindset is to be aggressive and grow the business," he said. "But it needs to be a controlled business so as to not sacrifice the personal relationship I have with my employees and my customers. I don't take that lightly. I want to maintain a personal growth. It is very challenging, especially if I were to add another two or three dealerships."

Within the group, Wenzel has 160 employees and $150 million in sales.    

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