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Gateway Motors Ford to be sold, merged into Lebanon Ford

  • Family photos are taped to the side of a technician's toolbox sinched down on a flatbed truck to be taken from Gateway Ford in White River Junction, Vt., to their new home at Lebanon Ford, on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • "I'm their last service customer of all time," said Jason Scheinbart, of Burlington, left. "I pass four Ford dealerships on the road down here. I've been coming here since 1996 ... and they've never messed up the truck." Scheinbart takes video as the toolboxes of Gateway Ford service technicians are loaded onto a flatbed in White River Junction, Vt., Friday, Feb. 22, 2019 to be taken to their new home at Lebanon Ford. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dick Poirier spent 40 years selling cars at Gateway Ford and will continue his career at Lebanon Ford. "It's my life," said Poirier. "I love people and I love selling cars." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Charlie Hall drives off to the bank with his brother Allen Hall in the passenger seat on the last day of serving customers at Gateway Ford after 44 years running the dealership they took over from their father in White River Junction, Vt., Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. The Halls closed the sale of the business with buyer John Loschiavo of Saint J Auto earlier that day. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • John Loschiavo, of Saint J Auto, right, steps up to get a burger from the grill tended by Gateway Ford Service Manager Fred Small, second from right, and Shop Foreman Chris Drury, left, during a cookout to celebrate the sale of the dealership in White River Junction, Vt., Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. Allen Hall, second from left, and his brother Charlie closed on the sale to Loschiavo earlier that day. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Business Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2019

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — When brothers Allen and Charlie Hall followed their father into the family’s Ford dealership business in 1975, Ford’s midsize Granada sedan was the hot new car on the market, gas was 57 cents at the pump and New England Ford dealers were advertising a funky compact called the Pinto for $2,769 and boasting it was “now getting” 34 miles per gallon.

The Hall brothers, owners of Gateway Motors in White River Junction, have seen a lot of changes in the auto business since then, weathering six recessions; ups, downs and management upheavals at Ford Motor Co.; the rise of trucks; and the decline of passenger cars. Now, as the auto industry enters a new phase of hybrids, plug-ins and smart cars, the Halls are handing in the keys.

On Friday, before hosting a celebratory barbecue at Gateway’s Sykes Mountain Avenue lot, the Halls closed on a sale of the dealership to Saint J Auto, the St. Johnsbury auto dealer who two years ago bought Flanders & Patch Ford in Lebanon. The Gateway Motors Ford dealership, which has operated at Sykes Mountain Avenue since 1967, will close and merge with Saint J Auto’s Lebanon Ford on Miracle Mile.

The Hall brothers have motor oil in their blood. When Allen and Charlie were kids in the early 1960s, they’d ride their bikes over to their father’s dealership, then located in Bridge Street in White River Junction, where they’d be paid 25 cents apiece for each car they vacuumed and cleaned.

Over the years, they transitioned into different roles at Gateway Motors, with Allen focusing on the sales and operations while Charlie oversaw the financial and administrative side of the business.

“We’ve both been working here since 1975,” Charlie Hall, 68, said of himself and his 69-year-old brother. “We wouldn’t call it retirement. We’d call it time to enjoy the next phase of our life.”

The sale and merger of Gateway Motors nearly brings to an end multigenerational local family ownership of auto dealerships in the Upper Valley as longtime owners retire and sell out to bigger regional operators.

Since 2016, seven dealerships in the Upper Valley have been sold, including the Subaru dealership in Norwich (now located in White River Junction), the Honda dealership in Lebanon, the Toyota dealership in Claremont, the Subaru dealership in Claremont and, in January, the Chrysler Jeep Dodge Dealership in Lebanon.

Two Ford dealerships so close together — “1.8 miles as the crow flies, the closest dealerships in America,” according to Charlie Hall — is an anomaly today and Ford Motor Co. long had been pressing for the dealerships to combine so there would just be one dealer in the tri-town Hartford, Lebanon and Hanover market.

Once the dominant system for distributing automobiles, dealerships are becoming less the nerve-wracking home of the hard sell and more the pickup point for car buyers who already have researched what they want online.

“The dealership location today is not quite as important as our internet presence,” said John Loschiavo, owner of Saint J. Auto. “It used to be more than three visits to a store before someone would purchase their car. Now it’s less than one.”

Carpeting, wood panelingand ‘office girls’

When Halls’ father, Dave Hall, moved the Gateway dealership from Bridge Street to Sykes Mountain Avenue in 1967 — Allen was 18 years old at the time and Charlie was 17 years old — the facility was hailed for its streamlined, brightly lit showroom that featured “sponge rubber back” wall-to-wall carpeting and wood-panel walls. The Valley News celebrated the opening of the “sparkling” new dealership with a 10-page section stuffed with congratulatory advertisements from area businesses.

True to the times, Gateway salesmen wore suits and ties, and the newspaper’s coverage included photos of three women it identified as “the office girls at Gateway.”

Gateway Motors’ origins go back to the early 1920s, when local businessman Alfred Watson opened a car dealership located on Bridge Street between the railroad overpass and the former fire station, where the Main Street Museum now is located, according to the Hartford Historical Society.

Watson was followed by Marcus (Buster) Pippin, who bought the dealership, which sold Studebakers, in 1927.

But six months later, Pippin lost the Studebakers in the 1927 flood of White River, and when he reopened in 1928, he switched to Ford — just then introducing the Model A.

Pippin sold the dealership in 1955, bought it back in 1959, then sold it again in 1961 to his brother-in-law, Robert Guernsey, and his partner, Dave Hall.

Hall, originally from Maine and a World War II vet, bought out Guernsey’s stake in 1982.

That same year, Dave Hall was killed in a private plane crash in Strafford, N.H., with another Upper Valley businessman, O.W. (Chick) Miller, who was piloting (Miller is believed to have become disoriented in snow and fog, according to news reports at the time).

Allen and David Hall took over the business upon their father’s death.

Strong ties to Gateway

Significantly, taking over the Gateway Motors dealership is coming full circle for Saint J auto owner Loschiavo.

His father, Joe Loschiavo Sr., worked for the Halls for more than 20 years and retired as a salesman at Gateway Motors. John’s brother, Mike Loschiavo, also worked for more than 20 years at Gateway before becoming a dealer principal at Saint J Subaru.

Even John Loschiavo when a young teen worked as a car washer at Gateway Motors — until, that is, his first day on the job when, Loschiavo backed a car into the “rinsing machine” and sheared off a piece of the equipment, which summarily ended his brief employment, as he tells it.

Loschiavo, of Bradford, later got a fresh start in the auto business selling used cars at Clifford’s Garage in West Hartford in the late 1980s and worked at various Upper Valley dealerships — he was for a time a partner in Miller Auto Group before acquiring Saint J Auto’s predecessor company in 1998.

Given their mutual ties in the business — and the realities of the auto market, which is increasingly becoming an online-driven business — Loschiavo knew there might be an opportunity with Gateway in the future.

“Charlie and Allen were looking to retire. Ford was looking to consolidate the two dealerships so there would be just one dealer in (the heart of) the Upper Valley,” Loschiavo said.

In fact, the Halls had had on-and-off talks about selling their dealership to Loschiavo over the years, “but the timing was never right,” Loschiavo said.

Finally, when the time was right, Loschiavo said they all met together in Bradford “over beers and pizza” to talk about the outline of a deal.

Preparing employees

With their eight children between them all pursuing careers outside the auto business and Gateway Motors unlikely to pass to a third generation, Allen and Charlie Hall said they began informing their approximately 40 employees three years ago that they were preparing an “exit strategy” in the eventuality of their retirement.

Many of Gateway’s employees have been with the company for decades (the company is known for its advertisements that feature headshot photos of staff with the numbers of years they have worked underneath, meant to convey both the Halls’ loyalty to employees as well as the ties the dealership has with longtime customers).

To make the transition as painless as possible, the Hall brothers said they have paid for all the auto techs to get any certifications needed to qualify them to work at other dealerships in the Upper Valley.

Nonetheless, Loschiavo said he expects a “significant” number of Gateway employees will join Lebanon Ford across the river and, given how Sykes Mountain Avenue is fast becoming the new auto hub in the Upper Valley — Prime Subaru recently moved to the corridor, will move there soon will be joined by Upper Valley Honda and a new Chevrolet dealership in addition to the Toyota and Hyundai dealerships which are already there — neither he nor the Halls expect employees will have much problem landing somewhere.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep those jobs in the Upper Valley,” Loschiavo said.

The Halls and Loschiavo said they are aware that many of Gateway’s clients have longtime relationships — even to the point of feeling proprietary — with either sales staff or mechanics and they said several of them will be continuing under the new owner. They praised Loschiavo for a smooth transition when he took over the former Flanders & Patch Ford dealership in Lebanon.

“From a standpoint of sales and service and people, John showed at Lebanon Ford how he handles that very well,” Allen Hall said.

“Customers don’t like to see changes and new faces,” Charlie Hall said. “They get to know personally the people who take care of their car. They have specific mechanics they want.”

Loschavio said “five or six” Gatweway auto techs will move to Lebanon, as is the dealership’s service manager, fleet manager and certain salespeople.

“And once we’re open and start to get our feet on the ground, we are going to be reconnecting with other” Gateway employees. Charlie Hall said he expects some longtime Gateway employees are using the sale as an opportunity to retire.

Not part of the sale and merger is the Gateway building and lot, which the Halls are keeping along with the neighboring car wash facility. The Halls said there are many options for the property, ranging from warehousing space to a depot facility and even development into an apartment complex. Given the cluster of auto dealers along Sykes Mountain Avenue, the site also could be home to another dealership, although the Halls said there have been no talks about that yet.

“We’ve had some inquiries already about leasing or renting the building, but we really haven’t marketed it at all,” he said.

John Lippman can be reached out at jlippman@vnews.com.