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Megadealer Draws From Days as Restaurateur

“Applying restaurant lessons to dealerships sounds strange, but it really isn’t,” says John Bergstrom.

Special Report

2011 Ward's Dealer 500

The 24-store Bergstrom Auto Group based in Neenah, WI, prides itself on being the largest privately owned collection of dealerships in a single state.

Twenty-four seems a key number for owner John F. Bergstrom, because the group grew its total revenues 24% in 2010 to $576.5 million, with more sales coming from used than new units.

Bergstrom, one of the first dealers to build a Hummer dealership in a Quonset hut design off General Motors blueprints, has used that facility as a used-car center since 2008, just before GM killed off the Hummer brand.

“We have always kept a strong used-car operation in our locations across Wisconsin,” Bergstrom reports. “Most of our used-vehicle sales are certified pre-owned, and we're very selective in maintaining a used-car inventory that can be tapped by any of our stores to meet a customer's needs.”

His dealership group ranks No.39 on this year’s Ward’s Megadealer 100, with sales of 7,979 new units and 9,066 used in 2010, and total revenues are $576,532.

Bergstrom is hoping for something like a 24% sales increase this year, too.

“The new-car market has picked up from 2010 levels in terms of new products, especially from the Detroit Three and the top Asian brands,” he says. “Domestic pickups and European brands, such as BMW and Volkswagen, are in demand in metro markets such as Milwaukee and Madison and smaller towns like Green Bay and Eau Claire.

“If we get the cars, we should step up the sales pace from 2010.”

Consistently focusing on presenting an appealing visual image at Bergstrom dealerships, the group completed eight major construction projects last year, plus four renovations. Two new dealerships and four renovations are on tap for this year.

Bergstrom attended BMW’s world dealer meeting in South Africa during April and now exudes enthusiasm for potentially increasing the sale of fuel-efficient small cars in his markets.

“Wisconsonites are highly energy-minded,” he tells Ward’s. “They are very tuned in on well-built smart-looking small cars like BMWs, the Mini, Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf.

“The youth market is growing, and small cars are in demand in the college markets around Madison and Marquette University in Milwaukee.”

An alumnus and former trustee of Marquette University and a director of the Green Bay Packers pro football team, Bergstrom stresses close-knit community relations for his dealerships.

He recalls his post-college days in the restaurant business with an eatery called Gatsby’s in the paper-mill town of Appleton.

“My partner and I learned the ups and downs of customer relations fast in the restaurant trade,” says Bergstrom. “So we bought a starving Chevrolet dealership on the cheap.”

“Applying restaurant lessons to dealerships sounds strange, but it really isn’t. Satisfying car buyers brings the same rewards as satisfying diners.”

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