Responding to a visitor's compliment about the Midwestern Auto Group's 'campus' in Dublin, Ohio, the receptionist instantly, heartily and sincerely boasts: 'Seventy-seven thousand square feet of sheer glory.'
Indeed, the showrooms for the 11 all-European, mostly high-end franchises are spectacular, more like an art museum than a car dealership.
The fancy facility was born out of necessity: the need for more space and a desire by owner Mark Brentlinger for more cost-efficient operations.
'I wanted everything in one building for the economies of scale, because I remembered my early years in the business when selling a single car was tough,' says Brentlinger. 'I wanted this building to work financially in bad times.'
Brentlinger needed a single new dealership to replace two aging ones in different locations - with two parts and service departments and double sets of managers. He had operated the two dealerships since January 1992, when a $1 million bank loan allowed Brentlinger, then 27, to acquire a failing Volkswagen-Audi-Porsche dealership and a bankrupt BMW store during one of the industry's worst recessions.
Doomsayers predicted he'd be out of business in six months. He proved them wrong, mainly by cutting expenses. He eliminated the free coffee that cost the dealership $17,000 a year. He bid out the insurance, cutting the premium in half. He quit spending $1,000 a month on rented doormats. In his first month of ownership he turned a $300 profit - not much, certainly, but it represented a reversal of about half a million dollars from the previous month for the two stores combined. He ended his first year with $12 million in sales and about a $3,000 profit.
Almost eight years later, Brentlinger's enterprise, which has grown from four franchises to 11 and from 40 employees to 137, takes in $130 million in revenues with a 5 percent return. And having moved into the new facility only a year ago, the dealership already has outgrown it and is expanding.
Brentlinger is still intent on cost control, which drove much of the design of his new dealership. 'I gave thought to every expense in building the dealership and every expense associated with running it,' he says.
For instance, instead of painting the giant service area floor as manufacturers insist must be done and having to repaint it two years later, Brentlinger found a material that could be impregnated into the concrete and still provide the luster of paint, with more durability. The cost: $5,000 instead of $150,000. The floors in the showrooms, rather than being expensive tile or marble, are cement stained to look like a worn horse saddle, an idea Brentlinger found in a gardening magazine.
In the end, the expensive-looking building cost only $71 a square foot to build, a relative bargain for new construction these days. 'I want people to have the impression that I spent a fortune, but I didn't,' Brentlinger says. 'I spent money where it was necessary and didn't when it wasn't.'
But Brentlinger wanted more than a cost-efficient structure; he wanted a showplace. With a keen eye for design, Brentlinger meticulously oversaw every aspect of design and construction, from the immense expanses of glass in the showrooms to the ceramic basins in the lavatories. He borrowed ideas from his many travels and from magazines.
The most dramatic features of the building are the three pyramid-shaped expanses of glass that allow people driving by to see into the showroom and create an airy, open feeling for shoppers inside. Brentlinger's inspiration was the glass pyramid entrance at the Louvre in Paris.
'I wanted the showrooms to be little glass pyramids like the Louvre,' he says. 'I wanted people who weren't interested in buying a car to drive by and say, `Wow! What is that? It's a cool building.' And then have them come in to look at it.'
Inside, a slightly curved hallway allows passage from one showroom to the other but doesn't allow shoppers in one showroom to see the other. BMW has its own showroom; Volkswagen and Audi share another; the high-line European imports are contained in the third, which serves as the main entrance. The Land Rover dealership stands separately from them but on the same property.
'I wanted to design a place that could house all of my franchises without losing the excitement that would go along with a new facility that would be exclusive to a brand,' Brentlinger says.
The focal point of each showroom is the circular lower floor that resembles the center of a European village. It is surrounded by a raised ramp to symbolize the open road, says Brentlinger.
Each showroom has its own lounge and bathrooms for customers, as well as hidden-away offices for the salespeople. All are decorated to fit the flavor of the brand. The Volkswagen and Audi showroom, for instance, is youthful and whimsical. The showroom for the upscale European brands is elegant, outfitted with high-fashion European furniture and decorated with romantic photographs like those in expensive coffee-table books.
Touches of class
Throughout the dealership are clever design elements, many of them car-related. Zebrano wood, typically found in automobiles, is used for the stair handrails. Structural columns are covered in Connolly leather, the type used for the seats of British motor cars. Mosaics are installed in the floors to resemble old roads in Europe; Brentlinger smashed them with a hammer himself to give them a rustic look.
The giant swivel door to Brentlinger's office is machined metal like on a vintage Rolls-Royce. Hanging from the two-story-high ceilings are the hoods from vintage Volkswagens and Audis, an idea Brentlinger borrowed from Volkswagen's prep center in Germany. BBC radio is heard in all of the bathrooms.
There is much for shoppers to do. TV screens hang from the ceiling. They show videos of Ferraris racing and other automobiles being assembled. Kiosks are scattered throughout the dealership. One in the VW showroom allows shoppers to build their own VW - or a competing Toyota or Honda - to compare price and features.
At the retail boutique, everything from VW Beetle models to Ferrari racing suits is sold. The shop is a good profit center for the dealership, taking in $500 to $1,000 in revenue a day. Brentlinger is adding a coffee shop. It will serve special blends related to the cars he sells - Bavarian for BMW intenders or espresso-style for Ferrari owners. Yes, the coffee is free; Brentlinger says he can afford that now.
While cost efficiency is critical, more important is the customer experience, which starts with an inviting showroom and service area but also includes attentive but not pesky service. Indeed, Brentlinger has built a reputation for good customer service. He spends less than $40 per car on advertising while the business has grown a minimum of 20 percent annually.
'People remember the experience they had buying a car; most probably don't remember what they paid for their last car,' Brentlinger says. 'It's the experience they remember, and the experience that brings them back.'
Michelle Krebs is a free-lance reporter in West Bloomfield, Mich.