Family-run dealerships still a driving force in Pittsburgh

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At a time when corporate-owned businesses seem to rule the marketplace, it’s worth noting that family-owned and operated businesses are still a dominant force in Pittsburgh, especially in the auto industry. And many businesses on the area’s long list of family-run car dealerships say that location has contributed to their longstanding success.

“Pittsburgh is a great place to have a family business,” said Tim Colussy, co-owner of Colussy Chevrolet in Bridgeville. “The stability of the Pittsburgh market has served as a real advantage to a long-term business like ours. We have been able to create a lot of repeat and multi-generational customers.”

Mr. Colussy and his brother, Jon, are the third generation to run their family’s business. Started in 1918 by their grandfather, Albert, when he was just 17 years old, Colussy Chevrolet is the nation’s oldest Chevrolet dealership that has been in continuous operation by the same family. Albert Colussy ran it with his brothers, Gilbert and Arthur, for 50 years before handing it over to his son, Louis “Skip” Colussy, in the early 1970s.

When he took the helm, Skip moved the dealership from its original location on Baldwin Street in Bridgeville, to its current, expanded location at 3073 Washington Pike. When he retired in 2000, his sons, Tim and Jon, took over the business with the hopes to one day pass it on to a fourth generation.

Tom LaFrankie, president of Benson Lincoln in Baldwin, also thinks that Pittsburgh is the right place for his family-run business.

“The rich traditions of Pittsburgh’s culture and heritage lend itself to being a part of the fabric of the community and I believe that’s what family really is,” said Mr. LaFrankie. “As a dealership, we participate in many local fundraising activities, sponsorships and community projects – many of which we’ve been committed to for over 30 years.”

Benson Lincoln was started in 1968 by Jack Benson. Its original location was on West Liberty Avenue’s Auto Row. In 1975, Mr. Benson’s son, George, started working at the dealership and Mr. LaFrankie joined the team three months later. In 1979, Jack lost his lease on the building and wanted to close the business, so George and Mr. LaFrankie bought him out. They ran Benson Lincoln for 34 years together before George passed away in 2009.

Mr. LaFrankie has several family members who currently work at the dealership, including his brother, Dan, and his son, Matt. Over the years, the dealership’s general manager, Walt Bronder, who is a partner in the business, has also had family members work at the dealership, including his two sons. But both Mr. LaFrankie and Mr. Bronder feel that their work family extends beyond blood relatives.

“The real key to our family business is the employees that have made Benson Lincoln part of their family,” said Mr. LaFrankie. “Almost 50 percent of our staff has worked here for more than 25 years and many more that have retired from here. We have numerous employees who have worked their way up including Jack Fedor, Teri Lahoff, Tracy Lawson, Walt Bronder, Dan LaFrankie, Jim Schumacher, Joe Bilock, John Loposky, Mark Slekar, Ryan Carr, Matt LaFrankie, and John Jones. It’s hard to not specifically mention so many other people that are vital to our business, but our highly skilled group of technicians are key to the ‘family,’ too.”

Mr. LaFrankie said that those family-like employees make his job enjoyable and, sometimes, difficult.

“The best part of being involved in a family business is that you can work with your family members and interact with them on a daily basis as they grow and become an integral part of the business,” he said. “The toughest part is knowing that you are responsible for 60 ‘family members’ when things get tough as they did in 2008. Not only did we have to go through the recession like everyone else, but when we came out we had lost much more than other dealerships. We had lost John LaFrankie (2008) George Benson (2009) as well as more than 80 percent of our business when Ford ended the production of Mercury products in 2010.”

Even during challenging times, Bill Oliverio, owner of Oliverio Buick, said that his strategy for a successful dealership has remained the same.

“A lot of things about the car business have changed over the years,” said Mr. Oliverio. “But a couple of things that we’ve always done is kept up with everything and reinvested in the business. We’ve also always taken care of our customers which has really helped us through some tough times.”

Oliverio Buick was started in 1957 and it entered the Oliverio family in 1970 when Mr. Oliverio’s dad, Bill Oliverio Sr., bought it. At that time, it had a two-car showroom and four working stalls. Mr. Oliverio became an employee in 1982. Under his leadership, the dealership has gone through three remodels, grown to 30 employees and added a used car lot in Carnegie called Bill Oliverio Premier. Just last month, it showcased its newest remodel which is based on General Motors specifications and includes a new showroom, service area and waiting room.

Mr. Oliverio said that his favorite part of running a dealership is the variety that it offers.

“I never have a day planned,” he said. “My work day is always different. I never know what to expect.”

Mr. Colussy said that he enjoys the family aspect.

“My favorite part of being in a family business is the ability to work closely with my family,” said Mr. Colussy. “We have always gotten along very well.”

But working with family can also present some unique challenges.

“I think that defining your role in the company is important,” said Mr. Colussy. “It’s also important to clearly divide up responsibilities and to not try to do everything yourself. Instead, hire the best people that you can and allow them to do their jobs well.”

Those quality employees help provide the exceptional service that today’s customers are looking for.

“One of the things that I hear a lot from our customers is that they like knowing that my brother, Jon, and I are here every day at the business and they like seeing and dealing with the same employees,” said Mr. Colussy. “They feel comfortable seeing the stability within our company. They also know that if there is a problem, we are always available to be involved at get things resolved.”

Mr. Oliverio also strives to make himself available to his customers.

“I’m always here,” he said. “Just this morning I took five service calls. People still reach out to me for their service needs. I also pick up and deliver peoples’ cars. Our customers know that they can always talk to me if there’s a problem. That’s what they expect and that’s what they need, so I’m not going to change that.”

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