Bella died last September, but she's still a daily presence at Freehold Buick-GMC.
Her beds are still in place. Her toys are scattered about. And her photo is still listed under the staff section -- as "dealership mascot" -- of the Freehold, N.J., store's website. That's because the 73-pound greyhound was more than a mascot. She was a key player in uniting the community with the dealership.
"We try to treat customers like they are in our home. A lot of dealers say that, but having Bella here made customers truly feel as if they were a part of our family," said General Manager Michael Matt. "I can't tell you the number of customers we had who came here and immediately relaxed when they met her. And since her passing, the outreach from those customers has been incredible."
As proof of that customer-dog connection, Bella's owner, Finance Director Chris Bell, said a video tribute to Bella released by the dealership drew almost 4,000 views, more than any other video the store has posted.
Sales and finance staff members miss Bella's help in closing customers.
"I absolutely think she helped with sales and F&I," said Matt. "Not only did she relax customers but also she was a fun focal point. "Are you sure you don't want GAP insurance? Bella thinks you should get GAP insurance.' She really took the edge off."
Although some worried that having a dog in the dealership would be disruptive, Matt and others said it boosted morale. When tension built, a staff member might take a break and walk Bella. And the greyhound grew accustomed to the work environment, lying quietly on a bed when she sensed the staff was busy with deadlines or crucial projects.
"This type of relationship wouldn't work with just any dog," said Bell, noting Bella's gentle, calm personality, a common trait in the breed. "She had the right personality for it. And we were always very sensitive, asking people if they would prefer she not be there. It was rare, but if they didn't want her there, Bella would go upstairs with the [staff]."
Bell said staffers so miss the dog, they often join customers in asking him if he will soon adopt another greyhound. Though he's not quite ready, he is moving closer to finding a new one.
Office Manager Grace Tonks is looking forward to the day a new mascot joins the dealership, though she said nothing can replace Bella.
"She was like an adopted child to all of us. She was like a person," said Tonks. "We still have a picture of her on our wall. It has been six months [since her passing] and people come in every day and ask where she is."
Staff members bonded so strongly with Bella that she stayed with one of them when Bell was on vacation -- and then accompanied her temporary caregiver to work.
Customer Shannon Ber-tone so enjoyed the constant presence of Bella that she and her daughters, ages 8 and 10, would stop in at almost any time to see the greyhound.
"What a marvelous dog she was -- just the most mellow disposition with a quizzical face [and she] loved to be petted," Bertone said. "Bella truly was the star of that dealership. When Bella suddenly [died] there was an outpouring of sympathy from clients that only met her once! And it was heartfelt. ... She is sooo missed!"
Bell adopted Bella in 2010 during a particularly rocky time in his personal life. He began bringing Bella to work one day a week soon thereafter. Before long, she was a daily fixture.
"It was great for me to bring her to work, too," said Bell, saying doing so increased his productivity.
"I didn't have to worry about getting home to let her out. I could work as late as needed," he said. "That was a huge benefit to me."