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From Front-Yard Lot to Dealership Success

Kitty Van Bortel's Focus on Customers Built Her Business


  • Kitty Van Bortel

    Kitty Van Bortel

    As the owner of an auto group, Kitty Van Bortel is part of a small group of groundbreakers. Less than 8 percent of all car dealerships nationwide have female owners. | January 21, 2014

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When you're shopping for a car, the experience you have at a dealership can make all the difference. Edmunds.com senior editor Matt Jones highlights dealerships that make car-shopping easy and enjoyable. Here's his latest report.

In 1985, Kitty Van Bortel used $500 to start a used-car lot in the front of her rented house. She bought a used Honda Accord for $200 and sold it for a good profit. Within five years, she was selling about 50 used cars a month. In 1991, she opened her first new-car franchise, Van Bortel Subaru. Today, the Van Bortel Auto Group consists of three new-car dealerships — Chevrolet, Ford and Subaru — with more than 275 employees. Van Bortel has grown her company into an enterprise with millions of dollars in revenue.

Traditionally, the car business has been a male-dominated industry, in both the sales and service operations. According to market research firm CNW's dealership study, less than 8 percent of all car dealerships nationwide have female owners. Van Bortel's business stands out in another way: Nearly 25 percent of its sales staff is female.

Van Bortel has been the recipient of numerous awards, including being recognized by Automotive News as one of the 100 Leading Women in the North American auto industry. Van Bortel Subaru has been selected by Working Woman magazine as a Top 500 Woman-Owned Business four times. She and her auto group support many local charities and nonprofit organizations.

Among Van Bortel's franchises, the Subaru operation is one of the top Subaru dealerships in the country. Van Bortel Ford and Chevrolet are both high-ranking dealerships in their markets. Besides the excellent marks the company receives from its customers for service and pricing, one of the most striking aspects of the dealership group is the owner herself.

Hard Lessons at the Start
Van Bortel's front-yard car lot was not her first job in the business. She got her start as a car salesperson in a dealership, where the owner worried that simply having a woman employed as a salesperson might cause the rest of the sales team to quit. So before formally hiring Van Bortel, the owner arranged for her to meet the all-male sales team. After meeting Van Bortel, the salesmen voted to hire her.

Van Bortel also worked for a few local dealerships while in college and continued in the business after graduation. She eventually moved up to the position of sales manager. This was no small accomplishment; when she was hired as a salesperson at her first dealership in 1975, no woman had sold cars in the Rochester, New York, area before.

In 1985, she was fired from her job as a sales manager at a German luxury car dealership, being told that the store "really wanted to hire a team of men." Although she was devastated by the loss of her high-paying job, it was a turning point in her career. Van Bortel decided she didn't want to work for somebody else anymore and began her career working for herself.

Transparency and No-Haggling Price
It wasn't always easy to build her own company, and a lack of funds early on nearly derailed her. But with the help of friends and a determination to succeed, she overcame financial hurdles and kept her business afloat.

"First of all, I had a relentless desire to prove I could make it. I refused to even think about failure," Van Bortel told the Rochester Business Journal.

Van Bortel made a name for herself not just because she is a woman in a male-dominated industry, but because of the business she has built and some of the unique attributes found in her dealerships. The Subaru, Ford and Chevy stores, for example, offer customers up-front, no-haggle pricing that lists both the MSRP of the vehicle and the Van Bortel price, clearly showing the amount of profit being made on the sale.

The salespeople at her dealerships are not paid commission, but instead are paid a fixed amount per car sold. Taking the vehicle negotiations out of the equation in this way helps make the process easier, and customers know that they are paying the same price as any other buyer.

The Van Bortel Group used-car buyer program allows buyers extra peace of mind when making a purchase. For 20 days or 2,000 miles, a buyer of a used car who is not satisfied with the purchase has the option of returning the car for another vehicle or a 102 percent refund. If a customer wants to take one of the Van Bortel pre-owned vehicles to an outside mechanic for inspection, Van Bortel will pay for that.

Special Outreaches for Women
Van Bortel has also worked to make her dealerships female-friendly. Because she feels that the car buying process is often difficult or uncomfortable for women, employee training is in place at her dealerships to not only make the process easier for her female customers, but to ensure the dealership staff knows how important women are in the decision-making process. This training isn't limited to the sales department. The service department gets it, too.

Van Bortel says that many women don't really care about what makes cars tick; they just want them to work pretty much flawlessly. Women "need a car to be just as reliable as a man does and you'd better figure out what's wrong with it," she says.

"It's not that women don't have the ability to know or learn it. They have just chosen not to," Van Bortel says.

Van Bortel believes that every one of her customers is special and should be treated that way. That philosophy is shared by all the employees of her dealerships.

Customer Care Equals Success
"People have a lot of choices, and they don't have to choose you," she says. "And if they do choose you, it's really important that you do everything you can to take care of that person. If you can do that, then people will tell other people, and that's how you build your business."

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