From a very young age, Gary Uftring has been passionate about cars, beginning his work in the automotive industry by doing mechanical repairs on his family’s farm. Today, Uftring is dealer principal and president of Uftring Auto Group, one of the region’s premier car dealers. The group owns and operates nine different franchises, including Chevrolet, Ford, Nissan, Jeep, Saab, Jaguar, Land Rover, Chrysler and Subaru, and sells new and previously owned vehicles. With locations in Peoria, East Peoria and Washington, Uftring makes outstanding customer service a top priority.
Tell us about your background, education, family etc.
I grew up on a farm in Minonk, Illinois. All of my life, I was involved with the mechanical repairs and operation of the family farm. At the age of 13, I started working at a gas station owned by a friend of my father. I pumped gas, changed tires and fluids, and washed cars. I graduated from Minonk Dana Rutland High School at age 17 and did not attend college. I was married to my wife Kay at the age of 20. I have two children—a son, Jeff, who resides in East Peoria and is involved in the business, and a daughter, Lori, who resides with her husband, Jeff, in Scottsdale, Arizona. We have recently been blessed with two granddaughters, Lyla, 2, and Remi, 6 months. They both reside in Scottsdale with Jeff and Lori.
How did you become interested in the automotive field?
Because of my love of cars, I decided I wanted to sell them. Since I was only 17 years old, no one would hire me to sell cars. When I was turned down repeatedly, I decided to take a job as a vehicle detail and cleanup person at Goodwin Brothers Ford in Minonk. Shortly after I was hired, and due to my mechanical ability, I was promoted to apprentice technician.
One Saturday, the sales staff was particularly short-staffed, and I finally got an opportunity to sell cars. I was quite proud because I sold two vehicles that day! However, I was back to washing and detailing the following Monday. That day gave me the confidence that I could succeed in the business of selling cars and trucks. Finally, at the age of 18, my boss agreed to let me try selling cars full-time. Because I looked like I was 15 years old at the time and adults did not want to be bothered with a “kid” selling cars, my car knowledge had to be beyond that of any other salesperson. Although I looked young, I was passionate about selling cars and helping people achieve some of their dreams.
What was the first car you ever owned? What is your favorite?
My first good car was a ‘55 Olds. As far as favorites, I have more than one. Today, I collect vintage Corvettes, Mustangs, Thunderbirds and street rods. I have always had a passion for American muscle cars and started collecting at a very young age. I have repaired, restored and renewed ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s classic cars for years and enjoy collecting. It gives me great pleasure to do this in order for future generations to enjoy the art as much as I have been able to.
When and how did the Uftring Auto Group get its start?
I realized when I started selling cars that in order for me to grow and achieve my goals, I needed to move to a larger market. I applied at six different dealerships in the Peoria area and was finally hired at S&W Ford in Washington. My first month at the new dealership, I sold 21 cars and was off and running. Two years later, John Bearce bought the dealership where I was employed. Three years later, he made me the general manager of his Ford store.
In 1982, I had the opportunity to purchase the Chevrolet-Oldsmobile store in Washington. I was full of optimism and excited to be part of the American free enterprise system. I sold all of my collector cars in order to gather up enough money to purchase the dealership. After three years of operating the business in a small building, I realized we needed to build a new store, and in 1986, I was fortunate to move into a new dealership constructed in Washington.
How has the company evolved over the years?
Over the next several years, we started acquiring additional stores. I was lucky enough to have key employees who wanted to grow and work along with me to build the business. Kirk Johnson (CFO and partner) and Mark Weston (CEO and partner), helped develop the Uftring Auto Group into what it is today. Currently, there are seven stores located in Peoria and the surrounding area, which employ approximately 400 people. The nine franchises include Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, as well as Japanese and European imports. We also own and operate car washes and are involved in several real estate ventures.
Your dealerships have a variety of affiliations with each of the Big Three automakers. How do your franchise agreements work?
Each manufacturer has stringent franchise agreements we must adhere to in order to maintain autonomy. These requirements can include different showrooms, locations, staff as well as separate financial statements. We are very proud to represent the manufacturers we do today. Expectations are very high and, although different from each other, in theory, they are the same by making it the dealer’s responsibility to sell market share as well as service the market according to the standards of each of those manufacturers.
What changes have you noticed in the consumer since the economic downturn began?
The changes that have taken place in the last few years include the change of the shopping methodology of the consumer. Over 80 percent use the Internet to do the majority of their research in order to locate the makes and models they are interested in. Customer expectations have never been higher. They are looking for great value, which can be found a lot of times in program cars, late-model vehicles and off-lease cars. Those are the places where we are currently selling our largest volume.
Has the downturn impacted the calculus for leasing vs. buying? What about new vs. used? Commercial fleet sales? Luxury sales?
Leasing in our market has not always been a great opportunity due to the Illinois state laws requiring sales tax to be paid up front for lease options. In other states, leasing can be more attractive to a consumer because those laws are not present.
Now is a good time to purchase a new vehicle, as well as a used one. As I stated earlier, we are doing very well with pre-owned vehicles; however, the manufacturers are coming to the table with incentives that are making the purchase of a new vehicle just as attractive.
Commercial fleet sales were very good this past year for trucks, vans and cars. We look forward to the same in 2009. As far as luxury car sales, they slowed down considerably in 2008 due to the economy, but in the past few months, we have seen an upturn.
How do you regard the future of the domestic auto industry?
Our cars are very technologically advanced and cost a lot of money to manufacture as well. I am convinced that the auto manufacturers will rebound away from sport utilities and trucks and include more economy models. On the flip side, many people lead very diverse lifestyles. These lifestyles mandate they have a larger vehicle to carry their family in addition to needing vehicles that give them the option to boat, fish, hunt and camp, as well as the ability to trailer. We need the power, size, safety and four-wheel drive option in order to do our jobs, as well as enjoy our recreational time. The rest of 2009 will be a year of rethinking and resizing our industry so we can be successful selling fewer cars, both as manufacturers and as dealers.
What immediate impact would the failure of one of the Big Three automakers have on your business? Long-term impact?
I am optimistic that there will not be a failure unless the credit crisis does not get corrected and the confidence in the stock market does not improve. People are concerned about their 401(k)s and retirement, as well as the ability to borrow money. The auto industry will rebound as soon as the American consumer finds this confidence again.
Those people in charge of managing the “Big Three” are very bright. They are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to make the necessary changes to comply with the federal government loan requirements. They are working to change the industry in order to make them world-class competitive as it relates to cost of labor and product quality.
Should any of the “Big Three” fail, most all of the suppliers to the auto industry will fail as well. Not one of them would be able to sustain their business if they even lost one of the three. This business is very price-sensitive, regardless of whether we are talking about the “Big Three” or foreign vehicles.
Describe some of the current trends in the industry besides “going green.” What are your thoughts for the rest of 2009 and 2010?
I am convinced that American car manufacturers have never built higher-quality vehicles than we have now. Vehicles that are coming out in the next six to 12 months will be more targeted and more timely, designed to follow consumer tastes as it relates to styling and performance. The Challenger, the Camaro and the Mustang improvements for 2010 will take that part of the business to a new level. In my opinion, the consumer appetite for these types of vehicles is alive and well.
A lot of changes in technology have also taken place. Safety and five-star safety ratings, anti-lock braking systems, side-impact air bags and dynamic stability control all contribute to making the cars and trucks we drive the safest we have ever driven.
When do you think that electric vehicles will overtake hybrids? Is there a long-term future for hybrids, or are they merely a stepping stone to purely electric cars?
Alternative fuels are a big part of our drive to become less dependent on foreign oil. Diesel technology and various upgrades/changes in fuel systems for the six-, seven- and eight-speed transmissions we use will definitely improve fuel economy. We are a long way from driving strictly battery-operated cars or trucks. Our interstate highways would have to be upgraded to allow for re-charging these systems and the current technology (which requires an overnight charge), would have to be improved to reduce the amount of time necessary.
Do you anticipate that the potential growth of public transportation in the coming years will have a negative impact on the automotive industry?
Public transportation will and should be used more as a way to eliminate cost and protect our environment. Although people are not driving as many miles, our entire lives are dependent on some kind of transportation. In the United States, the automobile is the most preferred mode.
Shopping, work and recreation can sometimes be blended to fit with public transportation. Public transportation should not be paid for by the government but should stand on its own. Americans are asking more and more from our government, and I feel that direction may not be the best solution.
Anything else you would like to add?
It is an exciting time in our industry and for our country. It is a time to test, change and verify new ideas and be on the cutting edge of technology. Engineering executions and the production of cars has also become a much shorter process than ever before. It is an honor and a privilege to be a part of the American free enterprise system. I encourage each and every individual to take advantage of that. Hard work and ingenuity can give success to all Americans willing to work for it. iBi