Multi-franchise dealers acquire long-standing Winnipeg independents


By Myron Love

WINNIPEG, MAN. – “Over the last eight to ten years,” says Steve Chipman, president of the Birchwood Auto Group, “the two questions people kept asking me were when the Jets were coming back to Winnipeg (because the Chipman Family owned the Manitoba Moose AHL franchise) and when we were going to get back to operating a Ford dealership.”

As all hockey fans in North America know the Jets came back to Winnipeg last spring. As for the second question, as of February 13, the Birchwood Group is back in the Ford business with its acquisition of Keystone Ford Sales Ltd. 

The nearly 50-year-old Birchwood Automotive Group is Winnipeg’s largest network of automotive retailers with 11 stores representing 16 brands. Birchwood used to have a Ford store, but closed the dealership in 2003 during a period of consolidation of Ford stores in the city.

“We had operated a Mercury dealership for about 15 years,” Chipman says.

Chipman and Keystone Ford dealer principal Bob Kozminski have known each other for more than 25 years, dating back to a period when they were both practicing Law. “We had done a couple of previous transactions (the Birchwood Group purchased the Jaguar franchise for Winnipeg/Manitoba from Kozminski and his partners in 2000),” Chipman notes.

Keystone Ford’s history dates back to 1940 when the dealership was opened in downtown Winnipeg under the Dominion Motors title. In 1985 the dealership was relocated to its present location on Regent Avenue West in east Winnipeg. Bob Kozminski acquired the dealership in 1986. The Keystone property also includes the Keystone Ford Used Vehicle Centre and the Fast Lane Tire and Auto. 

Keystone Ford has the exclusive Ford SVT franchise for Manitoba.

“It was a case of our company looking for expansion opportunities and Bob wanted to take things a little easier,” Chipman says off the deal.  “We have been discussing this off and on for a couple of years.”

As part of the deal, Kozminski has reacquired a share in Birchwood’s Jaguar, Land Rover Volvo Winnipeg store. “Bob still drives Jaguars,” he notes.

Chipman reports that Birchwood has made very few personnel changes at its new Birchwood Keystone Food store. New used-car and service managers have been installed and an additional financial services manager has been transferred to the store. (Kozminski’s son, Matt, who had been marketing manager at Keystone, is now the new general manager at the Jaguar, Land Rover Volvo Winnipeg store.)

“We have done some minor renovations to Birchwood Keystone Ford,” he adds. “We are looking forward to increasing our new dealership’s share of the local market for Ford models.”

Keystone is the second long established family-owned dealership on Regent Avenue to change hands this year. In mid-January, the Vancouver-based Pattison Auto Group bought Frontier Toyota on Regent from founding dealer principal Marcel Thompson. The deal also includes Thompson’s Frontier Subaru store in another part of the city and FrontierAutobody which is located just south of Winnipeg.

Thompson and his wife, Val, opened Frontier Toyota in 1976. In recent years, Thompson has had several health problems and handed the management of his auto dealerships to his daughter, Denise, at the Subaru store, and long time protégé Rob Townsend at the Toyota dealership.

The Jim Pattison Auto Group operates 18 dealerships in British Columbia. This is the company’s first auto venture east of B.C. and the first step is an anticipated ongoing expansion in the industry.

Bill Harbottle, Pattison Auto group’s president, is a former Winnipegger whose relationship with the Thompson Family goes back many years.

“We had been discussing this deal with Marcel for some time.” Harbottle says. “We are looking to grow.  Marcel’s core values are in alignment with ours. Frontier Toyota has a solid management and employee base, high customer satisfaction scores and a good market share. We feel we can add some extra value to the Frontier operation.”

Harbottle reports that the Pattison Group is looking forward to growing its footprint in Winnipeg either through acquiring existing auto stores whose dealer principals want to retire – or through opening new franchise locations.