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Landing success after taking a big leap

Rochester Business Journal
June 13, 2014

Dom Genova invested almost everything to open Genesee Valley Motors. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

Dom Genova took a big gamble when he sold all his belongings except some furniture and moved his wife and two young daughters to a small town in Livingston County to open a car dealership.

But he shrugs it off.

“It was in 1993 that I saw that my future in the corporate world was not going to be what I wanted it to be, and the people in corporate were probably feeling the same way about me,” says the 60-year-old president and owner of Genesee Valley Motors Inc.

It was time for a change.

“I assessed my assets and determined that I wanted to own my own dealership, which would afford me the ability to steer my own course in life,” he says. “My wife’s feeling was that ‘It’s only money we’re risking. If you fail, we will just start all over.’ She was a big support.”

The gamble paid off. In its first year, Genesee Valley Motors sold 244 new and used vehicles. The dealership sold 455 vehicles in its second year and 560 in the third—all from a small building in Avon with a leaking roof and bats in the shop.

The company has grown from seven employees to 67. It has moved from its cramped location next to railroad tracks to two spacious facilities just off Route 390. Last year Genesee Valley Motors sold 846 new and used vehicles at its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep store and 876 at its Ford store.

Sales in 2013 exceeded $60 million, and the dealership has sold nearly 20,000 vehicles since its start. In 2004, Genesee Valley Motors was named Business of the Year by the Livingston County Chamber of Commerce.

“I started a Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership in an empty building in 1994 with $80,000 out of my pocket and built a Ford dealership from the ground up in a corn field in 2005. Those were not my greatest accomplishments,” he says. “My greatest accomplishment is that I did that and did not sacrifice my home life to do it. My wife and I have been married for 28 years, and we have two wonderful daughters.”

Diverse background
Genova’s life has been a self-described series of fallback positions.

As a child he wanted to be a stand-up comedian and did a mean Yogi Bear impression. In fourth grade he decided he wanted to be a priest.

“Sometime thereafter I found out about girls and dropped the idea,” he says.

His first job as a teenager was working on a land surveying crew.

“Basically I held the end of a measuring tape most of the time, or if someone had to go into a sewer manhole to measure a pipe, I was your guy,” he says. It taught him that not everything you need to do is going to be fun but that earning the respect of co-workers was rewarding.

Genova went to college to be an engineer.

“I had to switch majors when it became clear that I was not going to succeed,” he explains. “I tell my employees that if I were better at calculus, they would not be here and something I engineered would have probably hurt someone by now.”

An early stint at Motorola Solutions Inc. also did not work out when it had Genova selling two-way radios in a burned-out, empty-storefront section of the Bronx. In 1977 Genova landed a management trainee job at Chrysler Corp., where he would spend the next 15 years in various positions.

“Little did I know that ‘management trainee’ meant getting the boss’s car washed and doing the mail, but I have always had a love for cars, so I stuck with it,” he says.

Despite his success at Chrysler, Genova knew that was not his calling either.

“I tell people if I had been a more talented corporate employee, I would have gone farther up the ladder, not left the company and not been as happy as I am today,” he says. “I am a product of my failures as much as my successes.”

With $80,000 from selling property and belongings and with a $215,000 loan from Chrysler—dated March 31 rather than April 1 so as not to jinx the transaction—Genova moved his family to an open location in Avon.

“We moved into a rented house on Conesus Lake. The fella who rented us the dealership building also helped us find the house,” Genova recalls. “When we arrived that first night, he brought us a ham dinner that his wife prepared. We will never forget that dinner.”

A simple philosophy
Genova worked every day from open to close to make the new dealership work. He structured the business with a simple philosophy, to give people a “no-nonsense” deal and treat employees the same way.

“I can still put myself back into those feelings of our first few days in business,” Genova says. “It was like being strapped into a roller coaster. I hate roller coasters.”

Genova, who has trademarked the “no-nonsense car dealer” slogan, says he set out to differentiate his dealership by offering a transparent approach to buying a car. Genesee Valley Motors does not offer many of the unnecessary bells and whistles other dealerships offer, such as paint sealant, fabric protectants or electronic rustproofing, he says.

“That’s one of those things where it costs the dealer $35 (for electronic rustproofing) and they charge $500 for it,” he says.

In addition, salespeople at Genesee Valley Motors are not commissioned. They get paid a decent salary, Genova says, and a bonus for selling each car.

“We want to be actively selling, but they don’t have to go and grind the customer to get it,” he explains.

Genova has a saying, that cars are like shoes. They have to be a style you like, be comfortable, affordable, able to do what you want them to do and you cannot return them.

“We have non-commissioned salespeople who understand that fitting someone into the wrong ‘pair of shoes’ is not a good long-term strategy,” Genova observes.

Office manager Susan Vogt says it is the employees and their longevity that make the dealership successful.

“I think the employees are dedicated,” says Vogt, a seven-year veteran of the company. “We’ve had a lot of employees who have been here a long time.”

Vogt enjoys her co-workers and job so much, she says, that she drives to work from Webster every day—a long commute even on a good day.

“It’s like a family. You get to know everybody,” she says.

Genova believes people need to be free to work in their own self-interest and, in turn, they need to “watch out for the house.”

“We have tremendous teamwork here,” he adds.

Opportunities and challenges
Genova’s short- and long-term goals for the company are identical, he says.

“I want to continue to have profitable growth, continue to conduct business ethically, satisfy our customers and mentor my people so that they have fulfilling careers,” he says. “I want to continue to try to educate customers about the car business, so whether they buy a car from me or someone else, they are able to make informed decisions in their own best interest.”

The biggest challenge Genova has seen within his company is managing growth.

“When I started the dealership in 1994, we had only seven employees and I could pretty much tell what was going on all the time. I was selling cars myself and was fully engaged with every deal just because we were small,” he explains.

The challenge was to develop an organizational culture in which employees were making decisions the way he wanted without his direct intervention.

“I needed to develop a mentoring style to develop managers who could act independently but in a way consistent with my wishes,” he says.

Employees say Genova’s plan worked.

“It’s a different atmosphere than any other car dealership I’ve ever worked at,” says Chrysler sales manager Jim Spinelli. “He really does what he says he’s going to do.”

Keeping up with the way technology has changed the buying process is the biggest challenge Genova has seen in the industry. Ten years ago, customers typically shopped four dealerships before settling on a vehicle they wanted. That number has decreased to just over one, he says.

“This means that we have to stock more cars as the customer is shopping our lot from the comfort of their home and we have to be more responsive using communication techniques that were unavailable only a decade ago,” he says. “What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. It’s hard to keep ahead of the curve.”

Management style
Genova is a hands-on manager, he and his employees say, primarily when it comes to the dealership’s corporate culture and values, marketing and advertising.

“As far as the day-to-day workings of the dealership, I have a trusted group of employees I depend on,” he adds.

Both Vogt and Spinelli note that Genova spends six days a week at the dealership.

“It’s very nice to have an owner always here,” Vogt says. “If you have a question, if you have a problem, you can always go in and say, ‘This is what’s going on; this is what I need some help with.’ He’s always here to help you out with that.”

And while he is available for questions or advice, Vogt adds, he does not micromanage. His managers handle the problems.

Knowing Genova took a gamble to start the dealership makes Spinelli’s job much more fulfilling, he says.

“He loves this business; he loves this place,” he says. “It kind of makes you feel proud to work for someone who risked everything … and see it evolve into the two stores he has now.”

Genova says the best part of his job is the job itself.

“Selling cars is cool. A lot of times customers get real joy in buying a car, and that is cool. When they tell me they heard one of my tongue-in-cheek radio ads and that is why they are in, that is cool,” Genova says. “It’s cool to come up with an advertising idea that works or get a thank-you letter from a customer.”

Finding out the dealership messed up is the worst part, Genova says.

“We try to be perfect, but as human beings are human beings, every once in a while something goes wrong,” he explains. “I hate getting calls from customers when things go wrong, but I also am truthfully happy when they call. It’s the only way we can fix things.”

Much of Genova’s philosophy and leadership style come from advice his father gave him and from his experience at Chrysler and his mentors there.

Genova’s father—who asked for a hug when meeting Pope John Paul II in 1995—told him: “You only have one reputation. Be careful; when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

At Chrysler, a former supervisor, Joe Casola, straightened Genova out when he was in his early 20s.

“I was a subordinate of his at the time and not fully motivated, probably doing as little as possible. He sat my butt down and put the fear of God in me, giving me the ‘that’s why they call it work’ speech that his father gave to him,” Genova recalls.

The speech went like this, Genova says: “When you go to Disneyland, you hand the money and then you have the right to pick and choose what you want to do. If you are at work, however, they pay you and you need to do what you are getting paid to do to the best of your ability. That’s why they call it work.”

If you do that, Genova learned, you can go to bed at night knowing you gave your employer a good day’s work for a good day’s pay and never have to feel as if you cheated anyone.

Casola says Genova was entrepreneurial in his early days at Chrysler and is a true student of the automobile business.

“He’s a very intelligent person, one that’s very thorough in his preparation when he’s approaching an individual project or in his preparation to leave Chrysler and buy a dealership,” Casola says.

Genova is fair and straight up, he adds.

“Most people in business understand that you need to treat the customer fairly or they’re not going to pay for the goods or services that you’re offering,” Casola explains. “But there are so many businesses, even successful businesses, where the employees are maybe not treated as well as they could be.

“But Dom has always understood that if I treat the employees really well, we can do all that much better.”

Genova says he gives his “Casola speech” often and tells younger people not to be afraid of failing.

“You never know where it is going to end you up. Success is not in a straight line,” he says.

If you think you have to acquire things to be successful or to have what you want, Genova says, you are never going to have enough.

“There’s always going to be people with less things than you and people with more things than you,” he adds. “I’m just happy. I found my calling. I have a talent for this, and it worked out.”

At home
Genova was born and raised on Long Island and now lives with his wife of 28 years, Nita, in Honeoye Falls. The couple has two daughters: Francesca, 24, and Alexandra, 21.

“I would not be who I am without her,” Genova says of his wife. “I wouldn’t have done this without her.”

What interests him outside of work, he says, is more work.

“I used to play golf but found less expensive ways of humiliating myself,” he adds.

Genova is a big fan of the New York Yankees, and his office is full of memorabilia, including autographed baseballs and a Louisville Slugger. He also loves cats and has a 30-year-old cockatiel.

“We bought him as a used bird in 1986, and he is still going strong,” he says. “I think we are going to make him executor of our wills. He is going to outlast us all.”

Genova also enjoys cooking, a talent handed down from his mother.

“My mom and I used to do that together. he says. “She told me, ‘I’m going to teach you how to iron a shirt and wash your laundry and cook because I don’t want you getting married just because you don’t know how to take care of yourself.’”

Genova does not particularly believe in having regrets, he says.

“I tell people, when I look in the eyes of my children, I am totally convinced that those two girls are supposed to be here and if I did anything differently in my life they would not be,” he says. “How can I have regrets?”

Dom Genova
Title: President and owner, Genesee Valley Motors Inc.
Age: 60
Home: Honeoye Falls
Education: MBA, 1978, Long Island University
Family: Wife Nita; daughters Francesca, 24, and Alexandra, 21
Interests: Family, cooking, New York Yankees
Quote: “I tell people if I had been a more talented corporate employee, I would have gone farther up the ladder, not left the company and not been as happy as I am today. I am a product of my failures as much as my successes.”


6/13/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.



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