Inside Track: ‘Car guy’ builds on entrepreneurial background
John Hoekstra has made a business of connecting sellers and buyers of investment-grade collectible cars.
John Hoekstra’s career is the envy of many a car fanatic.
Michigan is a proud car state with a proud car culture, but even here, Hoekstra, the owner and partner of Grand Rapids-based GR Auto Gallery, still probably knows more about cars than most.
Although he came later to the car game than many, Hoekstra learned fast and is now one of the most reputable names in the local collector car industry. And that means he gets to spend a lot of time with good-looking vehicles.
“The best car — the most interesting car — we ever dealt with was a 1993 Porsche RSR, which is a factory-built car they only made 49 of in the whole world,” he said. “When we had it, it was coming of age as far as historical significance. That car represents the core model of how we do all our cars now — and we did it right. You have a car like that, you’ve only got one chance.”
Hoekstra grew up in Whitinsville, Massachusetts. He admits he didn’t actually grow up with a passion for cars. His dad, however, did spark an affection for them.
“My dad always had cool cars — or at least as cool as he could have, being a family man,” Hoekstra said.
“He had a ’67 Chevelle Super Sport: four-speed, bucket seats. That was our family car. The one I really remember was a ’73 Nova. Same thing: four-speed, bucket seats. I remember me and my sisters cramming into that thing.”
Hoekstra grew up in a Christian Reformed Church community and moved to Michigan to attend Calvin College, where his two sisters also had gone. He played soccer for Calvin and studied business and sociology for three years before he decided it wasn’t for him.
“How I got into the car business was, I made the decision to quit going to Calvin, but I didn’t want to move home, so I stayed out here and got a job at a detail shop washing cars,” he said.
“It was called Kelly Car Care. … I started learning about (cars) when I began working at Kelly Car Care. … At the time, I just needed a job, so let’s just say cars chose me.”
He started working at the Ada-based business in 1990 and remained there for about two years until it was sold. Looking back, he said almost everything he learned about cars and hard work came from that job.
“I was really good at it and I worked very, very hard, but it’s not the kind of business where you make a ton of money. You’re trading time for dollars,” he said. “However, I developed a lot of good resources because I did good work for good people. And any people in town that had a cool car, they brought it to me.”
Hoekstra soon started his own detail shop — Ada Car Care. He ran it for about five and a half years before he got “burned out” from working long hours trying to keep up with the customer base.
“I took a lot of pride in my work — maybe a little too much. I enjoyed doing it very much. I worked hard and I got very burned out. I got into a situation where I sold it,” he said. “I just wanted to do something different.”
Hoekstra spent the next year working in the construction industry, but this phase didn’t last long, and he soon returned to cars when he had the opportunity to work for “a special-interest car company” — an old customer of his.
That company was Fox International, and he stayed there for the next decade.
“I started there cleaning cars and then ended up being operations manager. Then I moved up to general manager, but it was still just a very small, private operation,” he said.
“That’s where I got my collector car knowledge. We’d look at cars for investment, reasons to buy, reasons not to buy, looking at worth. … I did that for a number of years and I got fairly good at it, and then after about 11 years of doing that, that’s when things changed, and I was put into a position where I had to do something on my own.”
In 2009, Hoekstra partnered with Jeff Bowen of Holland-based Alan Christian Motor Cars to create the Grand Rapids-based Hoekstra Ltd., which focused on connecting client-owners of premium cars with buyers.
“We shared roles. He’s more the nuts and bolts and accounting aspect and he had a strong sales sense. And I’m more the customer-oriented person,” Hoekstra said.
Hoekstra and Bowen then joined forces with Chris Hoexum, owner of Wheelz Sales and Leasing. That’s when business really started taking off, he said.
“Whenever he needed anything kind of classic or collectible, he’d come to us because we had resources that could find those cars. And whenever we needed anything that was kind of a newer or a more exotic car, we went to him,” he said.
In 2010, GR Auto Gallery, which serves strictly as a consignment car dealer, was born. It now has locations in Grand Rapids, Traverse City and the Detroit area, and the three partners are looking to add another location in Phoenix.
“When the real estate market got weird about five or six years ago, warehouse space was pretty plentiful. We put our heads together: Maybe we could share some space, offset some costs and see what happens. We came up with GR Auto Gallery. And that’s our main focus right now,” he said.
“What (GR Auto Gallery) is able to achieve for you as a seller is we can get top dollar for you for your car. We’ll put your car on a global level in terms of advertising and represent your car to your best interests. That naturally gravitates toward classics and collectibles because that’s what people do, especially on a consignment level.”
In a time when the auto industry was reeling economically, Hoekstra thinks GR Auto Gallery was successful because people wanted a venue to sell off their car assets.
“We were different. At that time, no one else was doing that kind of consignment. And then the product that we offer isn’t something you can just go out and find,” he said.
“For example, being that our focus is investment-grade or special-interest collectible cars, you can’t go shop down the street for that. And then the way we were able to market nationally and internationally and utilize shipping made it easy for buyers.”
Hoekstra believes a big reason for the business’s success has been the marketing, which GR Auto Gallery does a lot of, especially on social media.
“When you bring a car to us, we take 100 photos of that car. We do running video. We do a comprehensive description. We have a sales staff that answers any and all questions you ask, and if we don’t know the answers, we’ll find out,” he said.
“It gives buyers — even long-distance buyers — confidence that they can buy our represented car.”
Another reason for the company’s success is simply the culture. Michigan is known for cars, and whether it’s Detroit or West Michigan, it’s a primary state for car collecting and the appreciation of good car design, Hoekstra said.
And hard work still goes a long way.
“Seriously, that’s all it was: just doing an honest job and then following through with what you say you’re going to do.”