Musings and info from Charles River Saab, the oldest Saab dealership in America.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
I am leaving Charles River Saab. With the closure of the Watertown location, which some mistook at first as the end of Charles River Saab, there was some interest in my services, and for the most part they weren’t considered. After all, I have been with Charles River Saab for 23 years, and Saab for 28. What else would I do? However, an offer came along which was too professionally enticing for me to turn down. In deference to my future employer and his staff, I will not announce my location until I am installed there. As I am in the twilight of days with Saab, and this blog will then become an internet artifact, I thought I might take the opportunity to recount my own Saab story. Sorry—this is a long one.
This old-school sign at Porter Chevrolet
While I always have loved cars, they were never intended to be a vocation. My first love was music; I attended conservatory and intended to be a cellist in a symphony orchestra. All was moving well in that direction until, in early 1984, I had a need for both health insurance and money (the freelance work which had been plentiful for me and my wife had dried up, and I recall trying to get $10 from an ATM only to find out my available balance was -$8.93), and needed them fast. Since I knew about cars, and there weren’t many companies hiring anyone in those days, I answered an ad in the Boston Globe and landed a job at Porter Chevrolet-Honda-Saab (now the site of Cambridge Honda) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was only going to be temporary, I assured myself. Hah!
I started at Porter, a third generation family run dealership, in February 1984. Initially I sold only Chevrolets, which was the litmus test to move on to other products. Soon thereafter, my wife, Susan, started working at Porter, too. That dealership’s Chevrolet business was booming as one of Howard van Bortel’s “$49 Over Invoice” flagship stores. We both sold lots of Chevrolets, and soon Susan was shipped off to the Honda store up the street, and I stayed in the main building selling Chevrolets and Saabs.
Prior to being permitted to take a Saab customer, I had to be trained by someone from Saab. That is when I first met Ralph Skinder. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Ralph worked for Saab for many years as a trainer. He rather looked like Ronald Reagan: distinguished, with a reassuring smile and a shock of black hair neatly groomed and perfect posture on his sizeable frame. Ralph was very deliberate with his speech, and gave me a “walk-around” on the four-door 900T in the show-room. While I knew about some of the unique features of Saab, Ralph could put them into the context of why those characteristics were not just unique but just plain better than what everyone was doing. Does anyone else remember the discs of sheet-metal samples which were a showroom staple for Saab? While you could sense the build quality in a Saab, to show those samples to someone really reinforced why Saabs had such structural integrity. By the end of the walk-around, I wanted to buy the car. Some time later, I did.
I did great selling Saabs. My first was a 1984 900T EAG (934A) to a widow from Arlington, who came in wanting a 900S but bought the turbo when she realized how slow the S was when trying to go up “Belmont Hill” near her home. There were many others to come, and given that I had to swap cars with other dealers to get a particular car desired by one of my customers, I spent a lot of that year driving all around New England to other Saab dealers, many of them miniscule. I will always remember my foray to Voorheesville, New York to the old New Salem Saab, probably before Darryl was born, to pick up a 1985 913M in Cirrus White, and then stopping off in Albany to surprise my grandmother. All went well in sales, and in the last quarter I became the top Saab salesperson in the store. By the end of December, however, I was about to leave.
It was announced, apparently in response to the stupid big numbers I was putting up, that the Saab pay plan was going to change. This didn’t surprise me, and shouldn’t surprise anyone who was in the business in those days. Coincidentally, I had been shopping at Foreign Motors (then selling Toyota, Fiat, Alfa and Renault) in Watertown (on Arsenal Street!) for a Corolla GTS for Susan. She had wanted a CRX, but the wait was interminable, and her “deal” as an employee was to be able to buy the car at $1000 over MSRP instead of the $1500 retail customers paid. I got into a very heated negotiation with the salesman at Foreign Motors, then the sales manager and finally the general manager, who finally looked at me and said, “Kid, you can’t shit a shitter. You’re in the business, aren’t you?” When I replied in the affirmative, he told me no deal on the car (Susan eventually got a 1985 CRX), but he wanted to hire me, so when the new Saab pay plan was put forth the next day, I gave notice and took the position at Foreign Motors. But I never went.
Paul Carter, then the service manager at Porter (who in 2003 I hired at Charles River Saab as technician when he desired to get back in the business), approached me and said he had heard I was leaving. “How would you like to get rewarded for the quality of your work instead of the quantity?” he asked. Sounded interesting, I replied. He offered me a position as a service advisor, and I started right away, and sent my regrets to Foreign Motors.
From 1985 to 1989 I was a service advisor, and in 1986 was appointed “Customer Service Manager,” which just meant that I hired and trained the advisors, and took all the complaints. Because that dealership grew so quickly with its Chevrolet business going from under 100 cars a month to a peak of 600 in 1986, the service department was out of control. Susan joined me in service, and she soon took over as head Honda-Saab advisor, while I had a hand in the department as a whole. Though the days were long, the time passed oh so fast because the pace was relentless. It was in those years that I discovered Charles River Saab, then on Watertown Street. Our parts department at Porter was not the best, and when we needed Saab parts, we often purchased them from Charles River. So, when it came time for me to price out a repair and check parts availability, rather than call our own department, I started calling Charles River and getting price and availability directly from them. The advantage of working at a store with so many problems in those days was that I learned an awful lot very fast. Maybe too fast.
Besides Paul Carter, there were other Porter alumni would eventually find their way the Charles River Saab, including Dennis Collins, Stephen Lopes and Jim Carfagno. Jim, who worked as a valet at Porter, talked his way into a service assistant position at Charles River two years before I arrived. Funny story. Many of you know Jim as he has been a service advisor and head of the Gold Team at CRS for years. In many ways, Jim has been the face of the service department as the most consistent presence there. Anyone who has worked with Jim in the past twenty years knows that he is always the first at the store, usually there about an hour before we open. In fact, many of us know that if Jim were to hit a snag on the way to work, say, a flat tire, which might set him back thirty minutes, that he would be unable to handle the change in routine and just turn around and go home. He just needs to be to work that early. Well, it wasn’t always that way. During a time at Porter he was working directly for Susan, and she has never tolerated tardiness. Jim had a habit of arriving late to work, which was unimaginable since he lived a quarter mile away. After a couple of warnings, Susan sent him home without pay. Interestingly, it cured him of his perpetual tardiness. Permanently. He has NEVER been late to work at CRS in my 23 years here.
The Early Charles River Saab Years
Rendering of CRS c 1987
In late 1988 Porter sold their Saab franchise to a Buick dealer in Somerville, at the site of what is now Chambers Motor Cars. That’s a long story. I remember as boxes of parts left the building and the laid-up cars were towed away. One day we were a Saab dealer, the next day we weren’t. I didn’t stay Saabless for long, though. In January, I got a call from David Winthrop, the service manager at Charles River Saab, inviting me to be interviewed for a service advisor position, or as he referred to it, an “ASM” (Assistant Service Manger) post. Though a service advisor, I would also be heading a team of five technicians and we would operate somewhat autonomously within the confines of the larger department. I had been recommended to David and Felix Bosshard by Steve Olesnevich, District Service Manager for Saab. Steve had an interesting calling card: Bazooka Bubble Gum—he’d leave pieces on your desk to let you know he’d been by to see you.
After two interviews at Charles River, the second one with Felix, I was offered the position, despite having botched the “Here is a scenario, how would you handle it” question he posed. There I was. 1989. One baby, another on the way. Not yet 29 years old. I was going to work for THE top-dog Saab dealership. Life was good. Was I excited? You bet!
It was in 1990 that I truly became a member of the Saab community. We had purchased a few cars in the 1980s, and at the time I started at CRS I was driving Sue’s CRX and she was driving my Civic Wagon (I loved that car) as the family hauler. While the Wagon was fun to drive and never broke, we recognized that it had the structural integrity of Styrofoam cup and wanted something safer to carry the two kids. Thus, through some patient waiting as I watched trade-ins come and go (and I almost bought a Volvo 240 Turbo Wagon along the way), the perfect car came into our possession—1984 Saab 900 turbo, four door, five speed, textile interior in Slate Blue with 100,000 miles.
I was the secondary driver, and I treated that car much too gingerly. I knew I’d have trouble paying for repairs if something of substance failed, such as the pinion bearings or timing chain guides, which were common repairs in those days. I recall once travelling to Connecticut to visit family in that car with Susan at the helm and peering over at the speedometer to see she was moving along north of 80 mph. In light of being on I84 in Connecticut, a highway resplendent with speed traps, I suggested to her that perhaps she was going a bit fast, to which she replied, “This car just doesn’t like going 65.” Not sure a state trooper would have understood the rationale, much as I almost did.
Meanwhile, I had become the ASM (Assistant Service Manager) for the Red Team. Other Red Team ASMs have included Robin Bosshard, Mariel Burgos and Seth Wonkka. In those days, we had three five-man teams, each headed by an ASM and Team Leader (foreman) and four other technicians. Each team worked like a small service department, and we had our own dedicated cadre of customers. It wasn’t a perfect system, but I’ll go on record and say that of all the models I’ve ever worked in, the team system was best. It is the only system which rewards productivity and at the same time ensures that the right technician is working on the right car from both the customer’s and the business’s perspective. I could write volumes about this but won’t bore you here. My Team Leader in the early years was Matt Epple, who had migrated from boat repair to Saab repair. He will forever be remembered to CRS alumni for his unending richness of Down-East colloquialisms, almost all too colorful to repeat here. Matt has since retired to Maine, though he does deign to visit us “flat-landers” from time to time.
In the early 1990s, Dennis Collins was the Service Manager at Charles River Saab. Dennis was the ultimate “dad” figure and projected the perfect demeanor for the job. I don’t think he was really as thrilled about management as he would have been working in the shop. I had known Dennis at Porter, where he was the foreman for Honda and Saab, so I was excited about his arrival to replace David Winthrop. In the 1980s Porter had “stolen” a flock of Saab techs from Charles River Saab. Now the pendulum was swinging the other way.
A few years later Dennis was lured away by promises from a mega-dealer, and Felix decided that he was going to hire the next service manager from within. With that selection, Felix broke a long-standing tradition of only hiring technicians as managers. Perhaps with none of the technicians seeming a good fit, it was determined that the candidates for the position would be me and Tim Martino. Tim and I were clearly (to my mind) the best candidates. As ASM’s, we were very strong, in completely different ways, owing to our very different personalities. After repeated and agonizing interviews and meetings, Tim was awarded the position. Thank goodness. The late 1990s were boom years at Charles River Saab. The shop swelled to 18 technicians, and with that came one of the many innovations we pioneered in the auto industry—the four-day work week. Because we didn’t have enough bays, by stretching the hours of opening and then keeping each tech and each advisor there four ten-hour days, we increased both the capacity of the shop and the employee satisfaction, and it has long been our mantra, which Ray Ciccolo says best: Employee Satisfaction = Customer Satisfaction. Employee ownership, one of the first automotive websites, and the very first US auto dealer with ISO 9002 certification were among our pioneering efforts. During this period, a certain degree of managed chaos ruled the day. We were squeezed for space at every turn. The four-day work week for the advisors brought about its own complications. It was a fabulous team to be a part of. However, change was on the horizon and made many uncomfortable. Felix was approaching seventy years and had decided it was time for him to sell the store and retire. The employees were justifiably nervous about life after Felix, for we all knew how unique he was as a dealer principle. We should have trusted Felix, and his stated intention to find the best owner for the employees, which we also understood meant that it might not be the best deal for him.
It was with great relief that a new owner for CRS who passed muster with Felix was found. We were, of course, skeptical about this Ray Ciccolo fellow. To his credit, his Volvo dealership had the same pedigree as CRS, founded in 1957 and was the largest in the area. The more we learned about Ray, the more we liked him. When he became the owner in 1999, with the exception of a couple of personnel placements at CRS, we couldn’t have been happier. We might have lost Felix, be we gained a dynamic and caring personality in Ray. The continued success of CRS is a testament to both Felix and Ray, and while the two are dramatically different, each has imbued the store with a sizeable amount of personality.
By the end of 1999, the stress of working the front lines in service had taken its toll on me. Tim Martino was (and is) a brilliant service manager, and among his many superlative skills is his ability to read people. He knew that I was burned out, and that if he didn’t do something I’d be lost to Charles River Saab. As Village Auto Group and Ray Ciccolo were taking control of CRS, Tim made me the “Service Manager” and appointed himself “Service Director.” At first it seemed that I was going to just take on some of the more mundane tasks of the department. Then, as time went on, Tim got me more and more involved with monthly report generation, attending management meetings, scouring the profit and loss statement, and being a part of virtually every decision he made. I had the feeling I was being groomed.
The Service Manager Years
In early 2001 Tim announced his departure to Foreign Motors West. I was right, he had been grooming me. In retrospect,t I was immensely lucky to have had a year of apprenticeship and fully understood the machinations at virtually every level on day one in my new position. I am indebted to Tim on many counts. To have so thoroughly prepared me for the most important job in my life was perhaps the greatest thing he ever did for me.
Swedish Car Day!
The 2000s were an amazing decade for me inside and outside of Charles River Saab, and not all of it good. Anyone interested in the darker side of my existence might want to read Chapter 8 of Surviving Mold by Ritchie Shoemaker, MD . On the brighter side, I believe I had a chance to lead the CRS service department through some amazing years. I managed the department through a year of construction when we installed the Saab “RED” design. I started this blog when I didn’t know what a blog even was, and Ward’s Automotive interviewed me about it and suggested CRS was the first auto dealer to have its own blog. I was there when we birthed the notion of Swedish Car Day, and while it was not my idea, I have been the shepherd of all twelve events at the Larz Anderson, and the continued success of Swedish Car Day is one of my greatest joys. I was also very proud to have brought a few hundred clients and employees through advanced driver/crash prevention training with classes at Stevens Advanced Driver Training and later In Control, and built upon those experiences by getting trained, licensed and ultimately employed as an instructor for each.
Women's Service Clinic 2006
I had an interesting stretch in mid-decade when I had to take on the service department at Saab of Framingham. I was rather fond of that store and its employees. Though that only lasted a few months when we convinced Peter Maitland to leave GM to work closer to home, I continued to work in Framingham on weekends….as a salesperson. I needed a part-time job, I could sell cars, and it didn’t hurt to have a service guy around all weekend. Thinking about it now, while I do work about fifty days a year for In Control, I do have some days to myself; not so in those days!
TurboX Launch Event we organized with Stevens ADT
From a purely professional perspective, my greatest accomplishment, I think, came in the darkest days—and there were many over the past several years—as I tried hard to hold the service department together and took the difficult steps required to keep us as solvent as possible while we weathered storm after storm. More than that, it was always a fight to maintain some semblance of enthusiasm among the staff for our beloved brand and the work we were doing. Finally, as we had to close the doors on Arsenal Street, I was greatly relieved to see every remaining employee from that store land in a position within the group, some of whom will actually do better professionally than they had before.
Highlights of the past few years have included Swedish Car Day 2010 and the participation of Steven Wade, aka Swade, then of SaabsUnited (later of InsideSaab and now of www.Swadeology.com ). I had come to know SaabsUnited during the first Saab crisis starting in 2009. I called a friend, long of Saab and later of GM, Keith Hart, to see if he had any information on what was going to happen with Saab. He advised me that all his connections in the US and Sweden relied on SaabsUnited, which I had read a few times, including its forbearer, TrollhattanSaab. So, I starting reading SU, everyday. Then I started refreshing it, many times a day. I was addicted. It wasn’t just the information. Swade is a gifted writer, and his way with prose is a delight. I had become a hopeless fan-boy.
With sons Andre, Marcel and Pascal at Boston Autoshow
When joy reigned throughout the Saab community after the sale of Saab to Spyker early in 2010, I was in the process of planning Swedish Car Day. I had the ridiculous idea that maybe we could convince Swade to be our guest at SCD. As I have learned, over the years, it hurts not at all to ask. So, I asked, and Swade obliged! It took a little bit of convincing on my end have the bosses see that this would be a phenomenal investment, and indeed it was. I’ve met a lot of significant Saab people over the years, but my getting to know Swade was as good as it ever got. Since that encounter, we’ve become true friends and if nothing else ever comes of my years at the helm of Swedish Car Day, his friendship alone has made it all worthwhile.
Me and Swade at the NYIAS
In April of 2011 Swade and I met up again at the New York Autoshow. He had recently sold his interest in SaabsUnited and had taken a job with Saab to work on their social media, and thus had given birth to InsideSaab. Coincidently, April was when the troubles at Saab started, ultimately leading to its bankruptcy in December. I think we all looked to the cash flow problems as temporary frustrations. Little did we know that the production stoppage would become permanent.
By the end of 2011, Swade was gone from Saab, along with everyone else. Inasmuch as we had made a number of cost-saving maneuvers over the years and months leading up to Saab’s demise, we knew Charles River Saab could hold on a while longer to await a disposition on the parent company. These were truly dark times. Solutions, such as finding another make to sell at Arsenal Street, were investigated but we were just too darn close to other dealerships for those franchises we thought my work in our location. Other scenarios were considered, and ultimately it was decided that the only viable way to keep the Saab repair and parts business going was to relieve it of the expense of its own facility. Thus, we needed to vacate Arsenal Street.
My final piece de resistance was hosting a farewell party at 570 Arsenal Street. Lots of old employees came back to say good-bye to the place, and though he struggled a bit to be there, Felix Bosshard was buoyed by all the well-wishers who came out that night. It was perfect, and a fitting ending. And with that, I too had some closure.
In late May, 2012 we moved our operation to our sister store in Allston: Boston Volvo Village. The transition was largely unremarkable. The staff here has been generous with their patience and time, and we have been made very welcomed. Now that the transition is complete, I feel comfortable bowing out and leaving Charles River Saab in the very capable hands of my colleagues. While my automotive adventures will continue, this latest chapter in a long volume which has been my life with Saab has come to a close.
While I will no longer be working in a Saab dedicated facility among Saab fanatics, I won’t have to go far to get my Saab fix. There are still six Saabs at home, half my wardrobe has SAAB emblazoned on it, and my kids have confirmed their dedication to their continued rally and hill climb racing in their SPG.
Finally, I want to thank everyone. I mean EVERYONE. Customers, colleagues, family, Saab employees—they’ve all meant a lot to me over the years. I won’t enumerate, for I would certainly leave someone out. I would be remiss, though, if I did not give special thanks to Ray Ciccolo and Felix Bosshard; I have been blessed to have been in their employ.
With that, the CRSaablog, renowned as the oldest auto dealer blog, has seen my last post.
Thanks to all of you who have supported my efforts over the years. Adieu!