Balise continues its expansion drive

Model for Success: Balise continues its expansion drive

O’Brien, George

Jeb Balise says the Toyota dealership soon to take shape on the site of an old bowling alley on Riverdale Road will be the largest auto sales and service facility in the region, and nearly three times the size of the one it will replace.

But it isn’t the dimensions of the planned Balise Toyota store that will make it stand out in the marketplace – although it will be hard to miss, said Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales Company. Rather, it is the many features designed to add ease and comfort to the process of buying a car or getting one serviced.

This list includes customer parking – a very important, but often overlooked ingredient – he said, but also such touches as air conditioning in the service areas, an indoor drop-off area for service customers, a drive-though facility for oil changes, and a specially designed area for those picking up new cars.

The new, 47,000-square-foot, $5 million dealership will be the first in New England and one of the first nationwide that will be built to designs and specifications set by Toyota, now the world’s third-largest car maker, as it continues its chase of those still ahead, GM and Ford. Meanwhile, it also represents the start of the next chapter in a 78-year success story started by Balise’s grandfather, who traded a career in farm equipment repair for a Chevrolet dealership on Columbus Avenue in Springfield. And by ‘start,’ Balise means that there will be more new dealerships on the way, as carmakers such as Honda and Lexus – the next two makes on the company’s list join the list of auto makers that are raising their standards when it comes to customer service in their dealerships.

But new showrooms are just part of the ongoing evolutionary process for the company that now sells eight different makes from 13 locations in six area communities, as well as Hyannis on Cape Cod, and boasts about $400 million annual sales.

Balise recently completely an expansion of its Chevrolet dealership on West Columbus Avenue, an initiative that will enable the company to service larger truck models, thus bringing new levels of convenience to area business owners, who have had to take fleets to Connecticut for such service. Meanwhile, the company is also expanding its network of collision repair centers and used car facilities, while always looking to add more dealerships to the portfolio.

“We’re constantly looking for opportunities,” said Balise, noting that the company is now ranked as the 77th largest auto sales and service business in the country. “We want to do things that make sense for us, and for our customers.”

BusinessWest looks this month at the continuing evolution of the Balise company, and how it has become the driving force in the region’s auto sector.

A Higher Gear

As he referenced blueprints for the planned Toyota dealership, Jim Demas, facilities director for Balise, used the term state-ofthe art early and quite often.

It was borrowed to describe everything from the flooring material in the service areas – tile, not concrete – to the aforementioned drive-through oil change facility. He acknowledged that state-of-the-art is not a term traditionally used when describing auto dealerships, but it is appropriate because these facilities are changing in order to meet the wants and needs of evermore-demanding consumers.

“We like to say that this facility is customer-friendly in every way,” Demas explained. “Overall, what we want to do is make the customer as comfortable as we can.”

The new Toyota store will dwarf the current, 18,000-squarefoot facility, said Demas, noting that with that size comes the ability to serve more people and serve them better. For example, the new location will have 34 service bays, compared to the current 18, he said, adding quickly that while this number may not he needed immediately, it will be, sooner or later.

“This facility is designed for the longterm,” he explained. “We’re thinking about what we’ll need today, tomorrow, and 10 or more years from now.”

The new dealership represents the latest in a series of expansions that have involved car makes, geography, and products and services.

Tracing the history of the third-generation family business, Balise said it started when his grandfather, Paul, operator of the Square Deal Garage in Hatfield, opened Balise Chevrolet in Springfield. The company’s first major round of expansion came in the early ’70s, when Jeb Balise’s father, Jim, became one of the area’s first Honda dealers, and sold those models out of the dealership on Columbus Avenue

“You had to have vision – or some dumb luck – to buy a Honda franchise at that time,” said John Dubosh, vice president of Marketing for Balise. “No one knew that name then, and no one could really have predicted the incredible success it would have in the future.”

The company built a new home for the Chevrolet franchise on West Columbus Avenue in the late ’70s, and sold a number of different makes out of the original dealership, including BMW and Volkswagen.

The Balise empire continued to grow throughout the ’80s, with additions that included Hyundai, Oldsmobile, Mitsubishi, Chrysler-Plymouth, and others. The expansion process continued in the ’90s, with the addition of Saturn, several Ford dealerships, Toyota, and Lexus.

The company currently boasts 13 deaerships, including:

* three Ford facilities, in Westfield, Wilbraham, and Hyannis;

* three Saturn dealerships, in Enfield, Conn., Hadley, and Springfield;

* two Nissan stores, one in Hyannis, and Jerry Rome Nissan in West Springfield, a name the company kept because of its brand recognition in the region;

* a Honda facility in West Springfield;

* a Mazda dealership in West Springfield;

* a Mitsubishi Fuso trucks dealership that shares space with Balise Ford of Westfield on Route 20; and

* the soon-to-be relocated Toyota dealership in West Springfield.

Balise Motor Sales also has three used car facilities – in Enfield, Springfield, and Hyannis – and two collision repair centers, in Westfield and Hyannis

Construction of the new Toyota dealership will be the first of many projects the company will undertake that will change the face of the western end of Riverdale Road, said Balise. He noted that, while Toyota would like to see many of its dealerships expanded into the model planned for West Springfield, few have the capability to do so.

“We’re fortunate in that we were able to acquire the land needed to do this,” he said, describing the larger, more modern facilities as necessities, not luxuries. “Some dealerships are only going to be able to renovate as best they can; we’re going to be able to meet 100% of Totota’s expectations.”

To make the new dealership happen, the company acquired the former Riverdale Lanes, and will build the new facility on that footprint. The current dealership, built in the late ’80s, will he razed to provide parking. Subsequent construction of new dealerships for Honda and Lexus, currently located adjacent to the Toyota facililty, will follow, said Balise, noting that there is no firm timetable for the next round of projects, although he expects work to start by the end of the year.

“Once the Toyota project is complete, that will allow us to get started on Honda and Lexus,” he said, noting that additional acquisitions of property may be needed to accommodate the new dealerships and requisite parking facilities. “These larger, more customer-friendly dealerships are the direction the industry is taking, and we’re excited by the possibilities.”

When asked if larger, state-of-art facilities would help the company sell more cars, Balise said that, from a business standpoint, they need to – and they will.

“Any time you can make the customer more comfortable, and make the process of purchasing a car and servicing a car easier, you’re going to do better,” he said, using parking as just one example. “We just don’t have enough customer parking today based on all our growth; five years ago, we had all the parking we needed. Today, if you go out there on a Saturday, it looks like bumper derby out there as people just try to get in and out.”

Overall, the company expects to increase volume at the Toyota dealership by about 40% with the new facility, upping sales from the current 140 new and used models a month to between 200 and 225. That’s ambitious, but, Balise believes, quite realistic. “Based on our projections, and Toyota’s projections, those are numbers we can hit.”

Staging a Coupe

Describing his family’s first 78 years in the auto business, Balise said the company’s success comes down to seizing opportunities when they arise and making smart business decisions.

His grandfather made one when he took a chance on Chevrolet, and his father made another when he gambled on the then-unknown Honda nameplate. Balise expects the new dealerships on Riverdale Road and the new truck service facility on Columbus Avenue to work as well as those earlier initiatives did.

“They will create some important opportunities for us,” he said. “These are big investments – but they’re investments that will pay off for us in the future.”

Copyright BusinessWest May 02, 2005

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