February 2016 Cover Story: Auto Industry

North Country’s Auto Industry Rolls with Change

Construction continues on the interior of F.X. Caprara Honda off interstate 81 at Bradley Street in Watertown. The dealership is on schedule to open to customers in April, marking the return of a Honda franchise to the north country after the former DealMaker Honda closed its doors in 2010. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

Construction continues on the interior of F.X. Caprara Honda off interstate 81 at Bradley Street in Watertown. The dealership is on schedule to open to customers in April, marking the return of a Honda franchise to the north country after the former DealMaker Honda closed its doors in 2010. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

With Honda franchise set to open after years-long hiatus, dealerships across the north country invest in growth

By Joleene Moody, NNY Business

Traveling south on Interstate 81 from the north country to Syracuse, one can’t miss the F.X. Caprara car complex just south of the Pulaski exit. Less than two years old, the campus is the Caprara family’s largest dealership to date. It’s not their first family-owned dealership and it won’t be their last. Charlie Caprara, president of F.X. Caprara Chevrolet Buick and Ford in Pulaski is proud to add a shiny, new Honda franchise to the portfolio of auto dealerships.“We are ecstatic,” Mr. Caprara said. “It took two years for Honda to make a decision. They were very careful. They crossed every T and dotted every I before we were awarded the opportunity and we are just tickled.”

The careful decision came after Honda withdrew the franchise from the DealMaker Auto Group in 2010. American Honda Finance Corp. filed a lawsuit the year prior asking that more than 100 vehicles be seized from DealMaker’s Honda dealerships in Watertown and Potsdam, this after financial issues with DealMaker began to emerge. The litigation caused Honda to be leery of allowing another franchise in the area for quite some time. But in 2011 they opened up the bid. Dealers across New York State scrambled to win the franchise. Like anything else, only one could take the cake.

“It wasn’t an easy franchise to obtain,” Mr. Caprara said. “Honda rescinded it seven years ago. But it wasn’t until three years ago we were able to bid. And we weren’t alone. Several other local dealers bid, as well as dealers in Rochester and Albany. While we were all fighting for the win and going through numerous interviews, F.X. Caprara was ultimately selected to operate a new Honda franchise in Watertown.”

Now under construction on Bradley Street near Interstate 81, the Caprara Honda franchise is slated to open in April. Set miles apart from the showcase of dealerships on auto row on Outer Washington Street in the town of Watertown, the new car lot stands alone. One might think the decision to build there is unconventional. And it is — intentionally so.

“It was Charlie Caprara’s decision to put it there,” Mr. Caprara said of himself with a laugh. “Whether it’s a success or not is something I’m always going to have to worry about. My brother and father initially felt it should have been built on auto row. But there were many things that came to me that I felt would be an advantage. The biggest was proximity. Like our Pulaski store, I wanted it to be visible from Route 81. Now when somebody comes from Potsdam or Canton or Saranac, they don’t have to drive through the city to buy. They can come down Route 11 or Route 3 to I-781, hop on 81, and then get right off at Bradley Street.”

Now three generations in, the Caprara family is one of the younger car-selling clans in the north country. The first generation began with the late Francis Xavier Caprara, who died last year. His business budded on Perch Lake Road in Pamelia in 1974 where he sold used cars from his back yard. With the help of his wife, Helen, the business grew. Today, Francis’s three children and their children maintain the business. Charlie Caprara is president of the Pulaski complex. He and his wife, Maureen, are also the face of F.X. Caprara, turning out car infomercials regularly. Billy Caprara, Charlie’s brother, takes the helm as president of the Watertown stores. And sister Theresa Caprara handles human resources for the company. Charlie and Billy’s sons and daughters also have roles in the business.

It’s a business that processes the sale of between 1,200 and 1,400 vehicles a month, the large majority being SUV and truck sales. And while some auto dealers believe fuel prices dictate the kind of vehicle consumers buy, Charlie Caprara does not.

“I don’t think gas prices play a role,” he said. “I truly believe that when it comes to any type of car, gas is not the primary factor in determining what kind of vehicle the consumer is going to buy. When gas was nearly $5 a gallon, people still drove trucks. Why? Because people want to drive what they want to drive.“

With Honda slated to open in a few weeks, that gives consumers even more options to drive what they want to drive. F.X. Caprara Honda will employ between 40 and 50 people, bringing Caprara’s total workforce to roughly 400.

The new store will be the ninth auto dealership in the conglomerate. Other Caprara dealerships sell Buicks, Chevrolets, Chryslers, Dodges, Fords, Jeeps, Fiats, Kias, and Volkswagens.

A celebrated family affair

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Timothy O. Nortz

There aren’t too many businesses today that can say they’ve been operating for 100 years. But the Nortz & Virkler Ford dealership in Lowville can. Not only can they say it, but they can add that the dealership has been run successfully all 100 years by the same family. Now three generations deep, Nortz & Virkler has much to celebrate, not the least of which is the fact that this dealership, nestled neatly in the heart of downtown Lowville, is also considered one of the oldest continuing Ford families in the state.

“We’re definitely one of the oldest dealers in the country,” Nicholas W. Nortz said, “but where we fall on the scale with that, I don’t know. In the top 25, I imagine. As far as New York state, we are one of three continuing Ford families in the country.”

Nicholas W. Nortz

Nicholas W. Nortz

For Ford, that’s a big deal. Big enough that a representative from the company will make her way to Lowville in June to help them celebrate their century-old milestone. At that time, Mr. Nortz and the rest of his family will learn just where they fall of the scale as one of the oldest Ford dealerships in the United States and New York state.

A history lesson

If you step into Mr. Nortz’s office, the framed pictures on the walls talk. They share a story of humble beginnings with a savvy guy by the name of Art Virkler. Mr. Virkler started his business by selling a line of Fordson tractors in the tiny town of Lowville. In his own beginnings, Henry Ford used the name Fordson to include his son, Edsel, in the business name. Mr. Virkler began his business in 1916 on a dusty dirt road better known today as South State Street. He parked a handful of the Fordson tractors along the road and worked his magic. But as his tractor business grew, so did his need for more hands. That’s where the Nortz family comes in.

“My grandfather, Hank Nortz, went to work for Art as a salesman when he was 16 years old,” Mr. Nortz said. “When he was his early 20’s, Art decided to take my grandfather on as a partner. From there it just grew. “

The Virkler family is no longer part of the business. They stepped away in 1969. Nonetheless, the Nortz family continues to use the name for both honor and recognition.

“The names Nortz and Virkler have always been associated with the north country, first with tractor sales and then as pioneers in snow removal equipment,” Mr. Nortz said. “My grandfather did a lot of business with the townships before there was any state bid process. He sold Ford F-800 100 horsepower four-wheel drive trucks. And on the front, a Frink snowplow.”

What’s new

Today, the dealership boasts a fresh look with its newly renovated lot, a feat that Mr. Nortz is proud to say remained on schedule.

“We recently renovated the whole building and doubled the size of our service department and showroom,” Mr. Nortz said. “It was quite a task. MTL Design out of Watertown did a great job for us. They were right on schedule. We started the renovations in July 2014 and finished in February 2015.”

This gives the dealership a lot of room for the most innovative truck that Ford has created yet: the new F150 Limited, completely redesigned with an aluminum-alloy body and steel frame. The weight of the new vehicle is 700 pounds lighter than the previous generation. Mr. Nortz said this alone will go miles with buyers looking to further take advantage of today’s lower fuel prices.

“I think this is where the industry is going as a whole,” he said. “Everyone is looking for better fuel economy. One of the ways to do it is to lighten up your product. Ford still has to meet specific economic and emission standards, so the government is pressing hard to get them to hit those target numbers. As far as the buyer, if someone has to trade a vehicle to drop the cost of going down the road, it wasn’t a good buy to begin with. Some people make hasty decisions without thinking things through. This truck is going to change that.”

Nicholas W. Nortz and his family will begin celebrating their centennial on Thursday, June 2. The event will roll for two days and include a vintage car show, live music and plenty of food. The public, which he so generously thanks for their years of dedication and service, is more than welcome.

Davidson dealerships develop

The family-owned Davidson Auto Group was born in the Mohawk Valley, raised in Rome and Watertown, and is happy to announce the birth of its newest addition in Clay. For co-owner Dwight E. Davidson, a third Ford franchise is just what the family was looking for.

“We’re very excited to expand into Clay,” Mr. Davidson said. “It completes a Davidson triangle that touches every corner of Central New York, which gives us an opportunity to better serve our customers. Our family business affords us the ability to expand because there are plenty of us to go around.

Davidson Auto Group is operating in its third generation. It began when Donald Davidson Sr. opened the doors to his first dealership in 1960. Some 20 years later, Dwight Davidson stepped up to join the business after he graduated from Syracuse University. At the time there was no Chevrolet dealer in Watertown and the bid was wide open. Mr. Davidson Sr. won the bid and a whole new world of expansion began for the Davidsons in the north country.

A new beginning

As business in Watertown boomed, so did the family’s desire to expand even further. So when the Honda franchise became available, Davidson Auto Group was quick to put in a bid in the fall of 2011. The bid was since awarded to competitor F.X. Caprara but that didn’t dampen the family’s desire to grow. Late this spring, Davidson Auto Group will open the doors to its newest location in Clay. Interestingly, to obtain the space in Clay, different territorial lines had to be drawn so the Ford franchise could effectively meet the needs of customer demand.

Construction continues last month Davidson Ford Auto Group’s new Ford  dealership on state Route 31 in the town of Clay. Photo by Ken Eysaman, NNY Business.

Construction continues last month Davidson
Ford Auto Group’s new Ford dealership on state Route 31 in the town of Clay. Photo by Ken Eysaman, NNY Business.

“In April of 2015 we bought out Fred Raynor Ford in Fulton,” Mr. Davidson explained. “We wanted to move that franchise to Clay. When we looked at the Clay location we analyzed market performance and saw that the Ford franchise might be willing to put another truck franchise back there. Franchises have territories and control where you can operate. Because Clay is a different territory than Fulton, Ford had to approve our request and redraw the territory. “

With new lines drawn, plans to build were implemented and are still ongoing. Like the Rome and Watertown locations, the new Clay location will also include Davidson Collision and Precision Car Wash.

Purchase trends

The American Automobile Association recently published that gasoline prices are the lowest they’ve been this time of year since 2009. The association estimates that Americans saved more than $115 billion on gasoline in 2015 compared to 2014, which was an average of roughly $550 per licensed driver. Mr. Davidson said this is good news for America’s truck and SUV lovers. He firmly believes car and truck sales are dictated by the national average of fuel.

“The average fuel economy of a vehicle being sold this year went down nationally,” he said, “and that was driven by the price of gas because it went down substantially. So people started buying more trucks and SUV’s. This show us that gas prices are absolutely a driver of what people buy. When gas prices were high, people that had large SUV’s and pickup trucks were coming in to trade or buy an economy car. This was tough for some because in the United States, people love their trucks and SUV’s. It’s just woven into the fabric of our country. And of course when you get into places like the north country, they are a very popular buy. Right now people are these vehicles like crazy because gas is so inexpensive.”

Mr. Davidson said today’s larger trucks and SUV’s aren’t purchased just for workloads or towing anymore. Families consider the vehicles all-inclusive, utilizing them for both work and play. And with falling gas prices on the rise, it gives buyers an even greater incentive to invest. But that investment isn’t one sided. In order to provide customers with the very best vehicle selection and customer service, Davidson Auto Group has to invest, too. And not just in the way of dollars.

“The investment of a top-rated car dealership is very substantial,” he said. “It’s highly capital intensive. You have to invest in your people, the facilities, equipment, and of course the vehicles to sell. That adds up to a substantial investment in time. But we love it. If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t do it.”

Doors to the new auto complex in Clay are expected to open in May. The Davidson Auto Group looks forward to the growth of the third generation that will ultimately foster a very successful fourth generation.

Mort Backus and Sons

The state’s largest county is home to one of the most humble auto dealerships. Mort Backus and Sons Chevrolet Buick has been the pride of Ogdensburg for 60 years. Now moving into its third generation, brothers Jack, Pat, Mike, and Paul Backus recall the early days when their parents, Mort and Marie began. Mort Backus operated the family farm and ran a trucking business when he bought his first used vehicle to sell. His wife Marie tended to the paperwork. When the couple saw the profitability, they decided to dig into the car business a bit more, and for good reason.

“There are four of us, all three years apart,” Jack said. “Dad figured he needed to have more income to support us, so he started selling one used vehicle at a time. He’d put it out by the road with a for sale sign on it.”

And so it began. Locals became familiar with Mort Backus and his new side business, and would go to him for their transportation needs. Soon one car turned into two and two into three. To fine tune the vehicles, Mr. Backus worked out of a stall in his backyard.

By 1954, Mr. and Mrs. Backus became a used car dealer after receiving their first set of dealer plates. More cars were bought and more cars were sold. Four years later they would take the plunge into a full-fledged used car dealership and construct a new building with a brilliant showroom and efficient service bays.

As the business grew, the four Backus boys watched and learned. Even after graduating from Lisbon Central School District and heading off to college to create a life of their own, the roots of a true, family owned and operated business called them back home.

“We all went to college to do something different: Automotive tech, business administration, and industrial arts,” Mike Backus said. “All of it tied into the business. When we graduated, there was a need to fill some holes at the dealership. We decided to come home. This way we could spend time with our family and do what we knew best.”

“We are very fortunate to be doing business in St. Lawrence County in Upstate New York where we can still conduct business with a handshake,” Jack added. “We were raised to treat the customer fairly with honesty and integrity. We’re very fortunate we can run a dealership where those traits are recognized and appreciated.”

In 1986, Mort Backus and Sons Chevrolet Buick shifted gears from a used car franchise to a new car franchise. The next generation of families who were served by Mort and Marie in the early days continued to buy from the Backus family, remaining fully committed to the dealership. Paul Backus will tell you it’s for a number of integrous reasons, including the fact that, “Our salespeople don’t sell cars. Our salespeople help customers buy cars.”

Talking to any one of the Backus brothers is like reading from a history book. With contagious laughter, wit and personality, these seasoned businessmen recall the days when vehicles rolled with nylon tires and needed to be started with a choke. And while it’s an interesting look back, it’s even more interesting to look forward to all of the changes that make buying a vehicle today a completely different experience.

“Safety is bigger than ever,” Jack said. “Major changes today center around that. From seatbelts and air bags to land departure warnings and front-end alerts, these are all things that have saved lives. When we first started in the business, there were bad accidents. There are still accidents, but these features are saving lives. Everything engineered in the vehicle starts with safety.”

Today the dealership roars with success. It’s a success the brothers credit to their staff and the community around them. Without either of these, Backus might be just another dealership.

“In the small community we live in, you can’t stay around this long without taking good care of people,” Paul said. “Repeat business is what keeps us going. That, and our dedicated employees. They come to work every day with the same work ethic we do and care as much as we do. Without them, we can’t do anything.

Celebrating 60 years in the car business, Backus is proud to offer complete car care to their patrons. Their Collision Center works vehicles inside out while their back office offers financing. It’s a one-stop shop that has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. With a third generation as part of their business model, the iconic dealership in Ogdensburg is ready for six more decades of iconic success.

Joleene Moody is a freelance writer, blogger and speaker who lives in Oswego County with her husband and daughter. Contact her at joleenemoody.com.