Easthill VW joins Plaza Auto Group

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April Chadwick

WALKERTON, ONT. – Robert Stein is taking a long-term view on Volkswagen.

The dealer, who closed his purchase of Easthill Volkswagen on Oct 1., pushing his growing Plaza Auto Group stable to three stores, said that in spite of the still unresolved dieselgate debacle, the addition of a VW point was a bet on the future.

“It was a great opportunity for me to expand my group,” Stein said. “A lot of manufacturers run into problems they have to deal with over time, this one happens to be a little bigger. I believe you need to look at VW’s product mix going forward.”

Debuting in model year 2017 is the 4Motion Golf SportWagen Alltrack, a wagon targeted at Subaru’s Outback and Volvo’s Cross Country.

Arriving later next year is an all-new crossover SUV that will be built in Tennessee featuring three rows.

A further addition to VW’s SUV lineup will be a larger and significantly longer Tiguan available in seven and five-passenger models.

The hopeful dealer also expects Volkswagen to reach an agreement with Canadian owners and dealers in the near future related to the emissions cheating scandal.

Given his family pedigree in automotive retail, long-term views and dealing with challenging business decisions is nothing new.

Stein, who also owns Plaza Kia of Thornhill and Plaza Kia of Richmond Hill, Ont., got his start at a Chevrolet dealership his grandfather opened in 1953. Eventually named Plaza Pontiac Buick GMC, Stein served as general manager until the franchise fell victim to GM’s reorganization back in 2010.

“The loss of the Pontiac brand in 2009, which accounted for 85 per cent of our sales meant that it was not logical to go forward as a Buick GMC dealership. We decided to join with Kia, a dynamic and fast growing manufacturer. ”

Stein said he keeps two souvenirs of the family’s GM history, a 1962 Corvette and the last Pontiac Trans Am from 2002.

Easthill Volkswagen lies beyond Plaza’s current urban roots. The town of Walkerton (150 km north of London) has a population of roughly 5,000 but is a centre for a larger rural community in Bruce County.

The dealership averages annual sales of 125 new vehicles and 85 used.

Stein said he plans on completing some physical improvements down the road as the current 5,500-square foot facility sits on roughly 1.5 acres of land allowing lots of room for expansion.

“I feel very lucky to have bought the store from Todd Saunders, who is only the second owner since 1989,” said Stein. “The sale didn’t have anything to do with the scandal, Todd was happy with Volkswagen and ran a good store for many years.”

The first thing on Stein’s to-do list was to meet the dealership staff and to get a feel for their comfort with the sale.

“The level of experience that store has and the consistency of employees is phenomenal. The majority of staff are long-term employees. Jill Schenk, the general manager, has been with the dealership for 17 years and we have a technician who has been with Easthill for 30 years. They are a well-trained staff that understand and love the product.”

He noted the only expected staff changes will be the addition of a few new salespeople.

And the distance from his other two stores just north of Toronto is not an issue, he assured.

“When you have an opportunity to acquire a good business venture, it doesn’t matter where it is. Smaller towns are increasing in size as people are moving outside of the city to where it is more affordable. These are great markets and great people.”

He said two of his three sons are involved in the Plaza operation, which he said is becoming a rare thing in the automotive retail world.

“Our staff calls it the Plaza family. We are lucky to have a lot of employees from the old GM days. We are a family dealer and treat each other with mutual respect. I learned from my father and grandfather and my sons have learned from me. The customer feels that and it helps to build loyalty.”

Stein is counting on his sons to further grow the Plaza Auto Group, hinting that two more deals are in the works now.

“It’s still early days, but over the past four weeks being involved in the new dealership I can tell you the traffic has increased, it’s a great feeling.”