Dealer shares profits, gets his community involved
John Bergstrom may be best known in Wisconsin for his 25 car dealerships -- he and his brother own the largest dealership group in the state -- or for his seat on the board of the state's beloved NFL football team, the publicly owned Green Bay Packers.
They may also know Bergstrom as a driving force behind the new park, medical facilities and an arts center in the cities along the Fox River, which runs from Green Bay, Wis., to the dealership group's hometown of Neenah, Wis.
Bergstrom Automotive Group has a company policy of giving 25 percent of its profits to local causes every year, and also regularly gathers donations from the community.
Bergstrom estimates 95 percent of the money comes from locals. And it's not just large donors chipping in.
For something like the $45 million arts center that opened 10 years ago in Appleton, Wis., "you get a much better community spirit if you get everyone involved," Bergstrom says. "If you get a kindergarten teacher to give $100 over two years, that's a big gift -- it may be a lot of money for her. And it becomes her performing arts center."
Bergstrom's team recently raised $3 million to open Gateway Community Park, replacing a shuttered paper mill on the waterfront in Neenah. It opened in August and now hosts community events such as the town's Christmas celebration.
Several years ago the team raised $32 million for a new dental school complex at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
But the biggest achievement may have been the arts center, which hosts educational programs, concerts and traveling Broadway shows. It has sold 1.8 million tickets and hosted 218,000 students for daytime educational performances over the past decade.
Bergstrom, who started with a single Chevrolet franchise in 1982 and has built a 25-store group that sells 35 brands, says his favorite regular event is "Party at the P.A.C.," which cautions local teenagers about the dangers of drinking and driving.
There is also lighter fare -- the musical "The Lion King" is coming this year. It should sell out because entertainment options are scarce in the Fox Cities, Bergstrom jokes.
That is why the arts center was so desired.
"It had been a dream for about 25 years," Bergstrom says. "Everybody said it was impossible -- that you couldn't raise that kind of money in a small community. But we were able to do it."
You can reach Gabe Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.