Our Towns

Kufleitner Finds ‘Logical Fit’ in Car Business

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Had John Kufleitner’s house sold a little sooner back in 1991, he might not be selling cars today, even though he says the automobile business is a natural one for him.

The one-time shipbuilder today owns Columbiana Chrysler Jeep Dodge, Salem Chrysler Jeep Dodge and John Kufleitner’s Galleria of Vintage, Classic and Pristine Cars in Salem, which recently marked four years in business.

“It was a logical fit for me, coming from a family that loves cars,” Kufleitner reflects.

“People had been saying for years that I should be selling something. I like people and I like talking.”

The car dealer’s family has been in Salem for 100 years, he says, but his father entered the Navy in 1958 and he stayed in the South. “I was born and raised there,” he says.

A shipbuilder by training – he served his apprenticeship at Norfolk Shipbuilding & Drydock in Norfolk, Va. – Kufleitner decided to move to northeastern Ohio in 1991 to take an engineering job.

Selling his house down South took longer than he expected and by the time he got here, the engineering job had been filled.

Responding to an ad that promised an income of $30,000 to $40,000 his first year selling cars, he applied for, and was hired as, a salesman at Greenwood Chevrolet.

By 1998, he became a dealer himself when he and Tom McIntee of Struthers bought Greenwood Nissan. He went on to buy the Salem (2005) and Columbiana (2006) dealerships, of which he is the sole owner. McIntee assumed control of the Nissan store, which moved to Boardman.

Kufleitner’s three dealerships collectively employ just over 100 in sales, service and administration.

Between the Columbiana and Salem dealerships, Kufleitner reports he sells 2,000 to 2,500 vehicles per year, plus another 15 to 20 per month at the Galleria dealership, which has a full restoration shop.

“The Galleria doesn’t sell a lot of cars,” he says. “But we sell cars all over the world.”

Technology, Kufleitner says, has changed how cars are sold. Thanks to the internet, buyers tend to be better informed, but at its core the car business remains a people business, he says. Customers buy from people they like and when they feel the value of the vehicle exceeds its price.

“We always say the sales department sells the first one and the service department sells the rest of them,” he says. “If you have good quality service, people will come back. If you don’t, they won’t.”

Another difference in how cars are sold is that prices aren’t negotiated as much as they used to be. “You put your best price out there or people will drive right past you,” he says. “You have to give them a reason to come to the dealership.”

Although Kufleitner’s dealerships are in Columbiana County, they “pump a lot of cars” into Mahoning, Trumbull, Jefferson and Carroll counties, he says, as well as into western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Expanding his physical presence beyond his home county isn’t out of the question. “We’re always looking to grow,” he says.

Earlier this year, the Columbiana dealership received the Customer First Award for Excellence from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.The dealership was among 349 recipients of 2,000 dealerships nationwide, reports Brandie Wagner, Fiat Chrysler’s service and parts area manager.

Dealers must meet standards in five metrics, including a survey that reports how employees feel about working for him.

Wagner, who has worked 20 years for Fiat Chrysler, describes Kufleitner as “one of the most customer-oriented and employee-oriented dealers” she has met. The dealer is “very easy-going,” she says, but so focused on retaining employees that his dealerships have very little turnover.

“I don’t have turnover concerns at all. He recognizes the talent he has and he nurtures it,” Wagner says.

The Columbiana showroom, which has been at 100 Commerce Circle a decade, doesn’t offer the staid environment of most new car dealerships, which often are required to confirm to specific requirements dictated by the manufacturers they’re affiliated with.

The walls of Kufleitner’s dealership, for example, are painted in colors that reflect the muscle car era.

“When we built this building, Chrysler wanted us to paint it pelican gray,” Kufleitner recalls. “Pelican gray doesn’t make people smile. But when most people come in, they see these bright colors. They get excited. It makes them smile.”

Decorations that adorn the dealership aren’t standard either. Hoods of various cars are hung along one upper wall, along with signs from old service stations – including a Gulf logo from nearly a century ago – throughout the building. A Sinclair gasoline pump stands in the customer lounge.

“It’s not typically something [Chrysler officials] like to see you do, but they don’t complain. They like the feel of the dealership,” Kufleitner says. “They can tell we’re car people.”

As he reflects on his success, Kufleitner is quick to credit his wife of nearly 26 years, Beth. “I wouldn’t be here without her,” he says. Any time he “got sidetracked or got stupid, she reeled me back in,” he says.

Philanthropy is important to Kufleitner, autism being a focus. Two of the Kufleitners’ four children – 17-year-old twin boys – have autism.

“We try to help everybody. We try not to turn our back on anybody,” Kufleitner says.

The Potential Development program and the Rich Center for Autism, both in Youngstown, have benefited from his philanthropy.

Kufleitner has served on the board of Potential Development since 2012 “and has been dedicated to raising autism awareness as well as assisting with fundraising,” its executive director, Paul Garchar, says.

“Since 2011, his dealership has been a corporate sponsor of our signature event, the Mahoning Valley Pizza Cook-Off, and has helped raise more than $25,000,” Garchar says.

Kufleitner connected the Rich Center with the Eastern Ohio Automobile Dealers Association, and the center became the organization’s “charity of choice,” says Phyllis Ricchiuti, Rich Center co-founder and board president.

“The auto dealers in the area had a fundraiser for years, and they would raise money for the Rich Center,” she says. “We raised some really significant operating money through the years, thanks to him and several other auto dealers.” Kufleitner also contributes to the auction the Rich Center holds annually.

For several years, Kufleitner and his dealerships have sponsored Inspiring Minds’ celebrity golf outing, which he also attends, says program administrator Jessica Winter.

“He’s very involved with the community in general,” Winter says. “I know that’s he’s interested in making an impact in the communities that he serves.”

Other beneficiaries of Kufleitner’s philanthropy are local schools and organizations and fundraisers that address cancer. The kids whose teams he supports will one day become drivers and potential customers, he notes, but that’s not why he supports them.

“If I give money to your charity, of course I want you to buy your cars from me. I hope I’d at least get a shot at it, but how much money do you need?” he asks. “I make a good living. … I have a responsibility to help people that we can.”

In addition to selling cars, Kufleitner collects them. His favorite is a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible. Only 1,782 were produced – and he owns two, which includes the Biarritz he recently acquired that belonged to the late television host, Art Linkletter.

“It’s an awesome car. We haven’t started to restore it yet,” he says. “That’s probably my all-time favorite car in the whole world.”

Other cars in his collection include a 1956 Mercedes and a 1964 Jaguar.

“My ’69 Chevelle is one of my favorite drivers. … I love them all and I like to drive them,” he continues. “I want the nicest car but I want to drive it. If it gets a scratch or nick we’ll fix it and then I’ll drive it again.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.