For more than 30 years, Jerry Seiner's name has been among those synonymous with automobile sales in Utah.
But now the veteran dealer is getting ready to call it a career, having recently sold 80 percent of his business to son-in-law Chris Hemmersmeier, who now heads the Jerry Seiner dealerships as president and chief executive.
"Most of my time is now spent on estate planning and coaching employees, letting them know that this is what we did [to make a success of this business] and why we did it," the 72-year-old Seiner said. "I'm still working 20 to 25 hours a week but that will taper off eventually."
Seiner was a young advertising sales manager for The Wall Street Journalin Detroit in the early 1970s when he started to get the inkling that a career as an automobile dealer might be a better business than publishing.
Among his clients at the time, were the big three Detroit automakers. "When I called on their executives and talked with them, I realized they were encouraging their own kids to become automobile dealers," Seiner said. "And I thought, 'Well if it is good enough for them it will be good enough for me.' "
He began his career in the automobile business in 1975 when he bought a Chevrolet-Buick dealership in Cadillac, Mich.
"I went into that business with four days of training," Seiner said, indicating that he quickly learned the value of good customer relations and the importance of being part of the community. "I owned that business for five years and when I decided to leave everyone was surprised."
But a larger market Salt Lake City was waiting with the opportunity to buy a 17-acre Chevrolet dealership that previously had been owned by Duane Brown. To hear Seiner tell it, he arrived in Salt Lake City a "multi-millionaire" he owed millions.
In the 33 years since, Seiner built his business to include three locations Salt Lake City, South Jordan and North Salt Lake with seven different franchises: Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, GMC, Kia, Isuzu and Nissan.
Seiner said in one aspect, the retail automobile business has changed a lot since he bought his first dealership.
"The way we communicate with our customers has changed email, the Internet," he said.
The part that hasn't changed is the importance of maintaining a relationship between the dealership and customer a relationship that is reflected in a mutual love of automobiles, he said. "What is really exciting is when someone gets in a car and you see that smile on their face. That's something that can't happen over the Internet."
Craig Bickmore, executive director of the New Car Dealers of Utah, said Seiner will be missed.
"When you look at the longevity of dealers like Jerry Seiner it is obvious that they developed business models that worked extremely well," Bickmore said. "He was in the business a long time. He employed a lot of people and served a lot of customers. And icons like Jerry Seiner will be hard to replace."
Seiner, though, said he is confident that Hemmersmeier will take the business to higher levels of success. And he has no reservations about stepping away from the day-to-day grind.
"Chris has worked hard to get in the position that he now is in," Seiner said, noting that his son-in-law joined him in the business 21 years ago and worked his way up to his current positions as president, chief executive and majority owner.
"It is to the point now that when people come in there are a lot more of them asking for Chris than there are asking for me."
Hemmersmeier, who is married to Seiner's only daughter Sandy, credits Seiner over the years with teaching him the ins and outs of the automobile business.
"There are a few things that Jerry taught me that stand out in my mind. One is that you really have to listen to and take care of your customers," he said. "Salt Lake isn't a big enough town that can forget about someone after you sell them a car. You have to make sure they're satisfied with the service that you give them" and if they aren't you have to do all you can to fix it, he said.
Also, Hemmersmeier said his father-in-law impressed upon him the value of long-time, dedicated employees. The Seiner dealerships have about 300 employees. "And he taught me about being financially conservative not spending money you don't have."
Seiner and his wife, Shari, live in Salt Lake City with their son Jimmy, who is studying physics at the University of Utah.
Their oldest son, Jerry Seiner Jr., earlier this year purchased Adcrafters Communications from his father. It is the advertising agency that handles the marketing for the Seiner dealerships. "If you're going to do automobile advertising, you have to have a great understanding of the business, and Jerry has that," Seiner said of his oldest son.
Looking forward to his retirement years, Seiner said he feels lucky that at 72 he remains healthy, which will give him the opportunity to continue his involvement with community organizations that include the Make-a-Wish Foundation, where he served as Utah president, the MS Society and the Utah Down Syndrome Foundation.
"When I came to Utah I knew that if I could quickly sell everyone a car I would be rich in four years," he said. "But I also knew that if I didn't take care of people I'd be bankrupt in 10."