People, innovation power new Chevy dealership

It’s no coincidence that Chevrolet of Columbus owner Leo Portaluppi named his first dealership for the city of Columbus and not after himself.

“Most places tie in their name to the name of the dealership,” he said in his office at the new west-side dealership, the first new dealership in Columbus in 30 years and the first re-appearance of the Chevrolet dealership brand in Columbus since 2012.

“I made the decision that the most important thing is to bring in the community,” Portaluppi said.

Chevrolet of Columbus opened with a private party early in May, followed by several weeks of grand opening promotions going into June.

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It’s been more than a year’s journey for Portaluppi and his staff, who had set up shop in the former Wiese dealership at 3560 N. National Road in 2014 and then set their sights on a new location on Columbus’ growing west side, off Jonathan Moore Pike near the Interstate 65 interchange.

The $4.2 million auto dealership is now located on 4 acres there, at the western tip of Merchant’s Mile near Sam’s Club.

Portaluppi had been selected by General Motors Co. to bring the Chevrolet brand back into the city in a big way — a new building featuring GM’s new dealership branding look, a new philosophy of having salespeople who don’t work on commission and an ongoing commitment to give back to the community in large and small ways.

In an interview in 2014, Portaluppi said everything he had is invested in the new dealership, and there is no Plan B.

“This is my first dealership on my own,” he said then.

Tim Jones, a regional manager for General Motors from Chicago, said at the groundbreaking last August that Portaluppi had done well in Columbus in the temporary dealership location on National Road, far exceeding the company’s expectations for the first year for the dealership.

“We were dark for two years in Columbus,” Jones said, referring to the summer of 2012 when Wiese GM Center and General Motors parted ways, resulting in customers traveling to Franklin, Seymour and North Vernon to buy and service Chevy vehicles.

Service to the community

As Portaluppi and his employees began more than six months of preliminary work to obtain the necessary permits for the new site with city officials, the dealership made its presence known through a variety of community service efforts — a fundraiser for Columbus’ Josh Speidel, who had been seriously injured in a car accident, parking cars for charity at The Commons and a partnership with YES Cinema and the Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Center.The Columbus Philharmonic is raffling off a Corvette from the dealership as a benefit, and the dealership stepped up as a first-year sponsor of the Columbus Craft Beer Fest coming up in August at Mill Race Center.

Portaluppi and his marketing manager, former Columbus mayor Fred Armstrong, attended planning, zoning and city council meetings as dealership officials sought a taller “interstate” sign for the dealership in Columbus Crossing, which has restricted zoning requirements as a planned unit development, and also sought a tax abatement for the $4.2 million facility.

The city balked on the tax abatement, but offered to help on the sign issue, which was eventually approved, with the dealership being granted a 47-foot freestanding sign on the side of the property facing I-65.

In the midst of the back and forth with the city, which involved conflicts between the city’s rules and what GM required for its dealerships, Portaluppi forged ahead and purchased the 4-acre property in Columbus Crossing for $1.76 million from Menards.

When it rained on the groundbreaking celebration last August, Portaluppi maintained a sense of humor while donning a hard hat as leaders of GM congratulated him on beginning construction. “Nothing I do here is easy,” he said, smiling at the rain. “But that’s OK.”

But months later, the rain clouds were gone and Portaluppi invited the GM brass back to showcase a truly original take on a GM dealership — one that follows the pattern required by the company but contains details unique to Portaluppi’s vision of what his business would look and feel like.

A 360-degree vehicle lot

The first difference between Chevrolet of Columbus and other branded dealerships is the lot is 360 degrees — customers will find cars on all sides of the facility, including looking down from I-65. Portaluppi added GM’s signature blue arch in the back for those interstate drivers, something unique to Columbus.And in Armstrong’s office, you’ll find another nod to individuality — an accent wall in his office is orange, a color that isn’t too common at car dealerships.

Even though GM requires certain dealership items to be identical — for example Portaluppi’s desk is a standard GM desk you will find at all dealerships — he did have a choice of three colors on accent walls — gray, blue and orange.

It turns out Portaluppi is the first, and perhaps only dealership owner, to choose orange for an accent wall, Armstrong said.

The dealership is also sponsoring a travel Babe Ruth All Stars team, Armstrong said — and laughs as he mentions that this team has orange uniforms.

“What Leo doesn’t tell you is that he wants to do more than sell cars,” Armstrong said. “He wants to be part of the community.”

Columbus decor

There are other original aspects to the dealership decor — an entire wall is filled with photos of Columbus’ architectural treasures — with Chevrolet vehicles parked in front of The Commons, Cummins Inc., the Bartholomew County Courthouse, Columbus City Hall and Columbus North and East high schools.As car and truck models change, Portaluppi said he’s thinking about donating the large photographs to the businesses, schools or government buildings. The dealership has its own marketing employee who works on social media, video, still photography and more in-house.

And there is the dealership’s coffeemaker in the customer waiting room, something Armstrong was assigned to find. He went high tech, with a machine that is computerized as far as a customer’s selection process. Some customers stop in for a cup even when their cars aren’t being worked on, Portaluppi said with a laugh.

“He really wanted a wow factor over the coffee,” Armstrong said.

The coffee machine is just one of the smaller things that Portaluppi believes add up to bigger customer satisfaction, something he hardwired into the design of the building.

The waiting room also will soon feature a Columbus corner showing some of the products Columbus makes, along with Chevrolet items including shirts, hats and other merchandise, similar to a Cummins store.

A dealership on camera

Dealership staff are finalizing the connections that allow customers to watch their car being worked on in the shop while they wait, or online if they are dropping off their vehicle and heading to work.And there’s no appointment needed for oil changes, with a separate area in the shop devoted to 30-minute oil changes, and drop-offs for vehicles are in a weather-protected garage to keep customers out of rain and snow.

The dealership has 28 employees with an average salary of $40,000, and Portaluppi hopes to add seven to 10 new employees. The new dealership was built by two local construction contractors, Dunlap Construction and Milestone.

Portaluppi set up a time lapse camera to capture the construction process, which is now being edited into a record of how the new dealership took shape.

It’s a long way from when he started with General Motors at age 18 cleaning the floors in a Texas car dealership, running parts to technicians and learning the ropes of a car dealership.

Portaluppi followed in his father’s footsteps into the dealership service department — his father works as a service technician for a Honda dealership in Texas — and says his father is very proud that his son now owns a dealership.

“I gave him the password and he watched the dealership being built every day,” Portaluppi said. “He was watching it all the time.”

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What: Chevrolet of Columbus dealership

Building site: 4 acres at 400 Merchants Mile on Columbus’ west side in Columbus Crossing, near Sam’s Club

About the dealership: 21,800-square-foot dealership has a service department, car wash, a showroom, office space and the lot which surrounds the dealership for inventory.

Building cost: $4.2 million

Lot cost: $1.76 million

Number of employees: 28, with the new dealership; an additional seven to 10 employees may be hired.