The Otto Business: 50 Years … Thousands Of Cars
There is a photo of Otto Belovich as a 10-year-old boy, standing in front of a used car lot in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His family had recently arrived in the country from Austria. The cars in the background were pure coincidence – at least so he says.
This past August, Belovich marked 50 years of selling cars in Traverse City, the same month he also announced he had sold his dealership.
It was a decision made as he and wife Kathy celebrate another 50 years – this time of marriage – on October 23. Now both 73 years old, they decided this is the time.
“If someone could guarantee we’d be healthy another 15 to 20 years, I wouldn’t sell,” said Belovich. “But I couldn’t find that guarantee.”
Belovich’s Traverse Motors and Cherry Capital Cadillac/Subaru are becoming part of Serra Automotive. Headquartered in Grand Blanc, Serra ranks among the top ten privately-held retail automotive groups in the nation with 46 automotive franchises and 31 dealership locations in seven states.
The deal will close after all seven franchises handled by the two dealerships — Audi, Cadillac, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo — approve the transfer. Serra sells 19 car brands through 33 dealerships in seven states. Michigan is home to 16 of those dealerships, soon to be 17.
Belovich said he had been approached by a handful of prospective buyers over the last couple of years. He settled on Serra because they will run the operation much as he has – that is, like a family. A family with 135 members.
“It’s run from the ground up, not the top down,” said Belovich.
Joe Serra, president of Serra Automotive and son of founder Al Serra, recalled an early meeting he had with Belovich about Serra’s future in Traverse City.
“I told him I would like to someday carry on his tradition,” said Serra. “That was April 18, 2008. We both were very patient about it.”
Belovich said he’s excited for his employees, who will have more opportunities to grow in their careers, including the option to transfer to another Serra dealership.
Even though the Belovich ownership is going away, Belovich himself isn’t going anywhere just yet.
“They are going to keep me on for a while,” he said.
For a man who only recently went down to a five-day workweek, retirement may be a tricky transition.
“We do hope to squeeze in some more travel,” said Belovich, of he and Kathy’s immediate plans.
Serra called Belovich one of his mentors in the retail auto industry.
“I just have a ton of admiration and respect for him,” he said.
Part of that may be what they share as sons of immigrants. Serra’s father Al was born in Italy and “came over on the boat” and Belovich arrived in United States as a 10-year old – both families starting in this country with nothing. “Both self-made individuals,” Serra said.
GETTING INTO GEAR
Belovich’s first job selling cars was at Waples Motor Company, a Chrysler Plymouth dealership on E. Front Street, where Nolan’s Tobacco is today.
“They were the ugliest cars in the world, but I didn’t know that then,” he recalled. “I didn’t know a good car from a bad car back then.”
He does now.
Belovich had been a G.I. in the United States Air Force. His last tour of duty was in Empire.
“Wisconsin never invaded us,” he said with a wry smile.
He recalled his first day on the car lot like it was yesterday.
“I was discharged on Friday, August 13, 1965 at 4 p.m. and started at Waples at 9 a.m. on August 16, 1965.”
“That’s how I got into the car business … I didn’t want to work,” said Belovich, commenting on his own work ethic as a young man just out of the military. “But it’s a great profession, all you need is work ethic … which I didn’t know at the time.”
The ‘kick in the pants’ work ethic came later, and largely at the influence of his wife, Belovich is quick to note.
“Kathy was a big part of that,” he said, adding that she also worked in the business for years, and for a long time without drawing a paycheck. “Without her I wouldn’t have done this.”
He did bring a little sales acumen to the job, though. He previously had worked part-time for the Fuller Brush Company, selling home care products door to door in Beulah, Frankfort and Honor. A job Belovich said kept him in beer money, but not much else.
“NO COMPLAINTS, NO REGRETS”
Belovich was born in Halle, Germany. His family emigrated to Bridgeport, Connecticut from Austria when he was 10 years old. Belovich’s father had been a member of the German Army; his mother from then-Yugoslavia.
“We were displaced persons from the war,” said Belovich, and the family lived in a Slovenian community in their new country.
After he got out of the military, his parents wanted him to come back east, marry a girl from the “old country” and get a factory job like both his parents had. Instead, he stayed in Traverse City and got married.
Belovich doesn’t remember the first car he sold but people remember the cars he sold them – and perhaps that’s more important.
Since announcing the sale and pending retirement, Belovich has heard from longtime loyal customers taking him down memory lane, like the guy he sold a light blue Rambler to in 1965.
“I don’t remember the car, but I remember him,” said Belovich.
He does, however, easily rattle off his first car – a ’54 Ford, 2-door, blue, stick shift.
“I traded a Kodak 8mm camera, projector and screen for it” he said. “I was 20 years old.”
Belovich credits his successful career in the auto sales business to Jake Rivard – or Mr. Rivard, as Belovich calls him – former owner of Traverse Motors along with Rivard’s son-in-law Dan McCormick.
“Mr. Rivard hired me (in the early 70s)and Dan and I ran the show,” said Belovich. “When the opportunity to get a franchise came along, Mr. Rivard was fully supportive. He said, ‘You put up one-third and we’ll put up the other two-thirds.’”
The next 20 years saw Belovich acquiring other franchise licenses and ultimately buying out McCormick and becoming owner of Traverse Motors and now Cherry Capital Cadillac Subaru.
“It’s been a joyous ride, I’ll tell you that,” said Belovich. “I worked six days a week until a year ago.”
If he could turn the clock back? “I would do the same thing,” he said. “No complaints, no regrets.”
Once a salesman, always a salesman. When asked if he has a favorite car, this was his reply: “The one I sold,” he said with a smile. “The one with the taillights at the stop sign.”
The Future: Serra Comes To Town
Joe Serra balked at the notion that Serra Automotive is the future of one of Traverse City’s auto institutions.
“Otto is our future, too,” said Serra, president of Serra Automotive, the new owner of Traverse Motors and Cherry Capital Cadillac/Subaru. “There’s too much of his DNA there.”
The sale – first announced in August –is moving along “very well,” said Serra, despite involving seven manufacturers, a first for him. He expects the company to officially take over the first part of December.
As far as priorities, Serra said first and foremost is gaining the trust and respect of all the company’s associates and the community at large.
“That doesn’t just come [with the sale,] it has to be earned,” he said.
Second on the list – which will come along quickly – is taking a hard look at the dealership’s campuses, added Serra. With the ownership change come new requirements and requests from the manufacturers. “This is their time to ask,” he said.
“We will be looking at big investments in brick and mortar throughout,” to both meet facility needs and to modernize the look and feel of the buildings.