A STAND UP GUY
Howard Berliner has been with Competition BMW for almost a decade and was named to the top spot three years ago, following a lengthy career at Jaguar.
He literally took a funny path to reach Competition BMW, via Catch a Rising Star, the legendary New York comedy club.
In the 1970s, Howard’s cousin was the pianist at the comedy club and invited Howard to come to Catch a Rising Star’s amateur night.
Howard’s late father had worked in the garment industry, and his stories gave Howard fodder to write his own jokes.
“I called myself the Suburban Comedian,” he says, “my material was about growing up on the Island.”
Howard had a great experience that night. “When you can speak and get a reaction from people, it’s infectious,” he recalls. “I was in love the moment I stepped on stage.”
Not only did he enjoy performing but he also made great connections.
“I met Rodney Dangerfield, one of my all-time favorite comedians,” Howard says. “Dangerfield would be there on Monday nights trying out his new material. He actually bought three of my jokes and paid me $75 apiece. He was a very funny and honorable man.”
The laughter from that night may have long since faded into memory, but Howard hasn’t forgotten that basic management principles can parallel performing on stage. That stage training and timing proved invaluable to make the transition from stand-up comedian to a successful career in sales.
A LEADER OF LEADERS
“Three years ago, I took over as General Manager at Competition BMW from someone whose nickname was Dr. No,” he says.
Howard wasted no time in changing the culture at the dealership and implemented an open-door policy.
“There are two basic managerial philosophies,” he says. “You can choose to be a hard ass or a nice guy. In either case, you’re going to have people who respond to you and others who will reject you.”
Howard knows what he wants.
“My basic nature is being a nice guy,” he admits. “I’m aware of the pitfalls, and I manage accordingly. I credit everyone for being an adult until proven guilty.”
He is constantly aware of the atmosphere at Competition and strives to keep his staff on an even keel.
“You have to check your personal stuff at the door, no matter what you’re feeling,” Howard says. “You might be having a bad day and think it’s not showing …. It’s showing.”
To ensure a productive work environment, Howard offers “mental health days” to the employees.
“Everybody gets to a point, especially living on Long Island, where they are stressed out and sometimes you just need to take a day to get away from it all,” Howard explains. “I encourage that, without repercussions, because I need people to come to work with a clear head. I don’t want my people driving to work with a stomach ache and driving home with a headache.”
For Howard and his team, when they walk through the doors of Competition BMW, it’s like they’re on stage.
“I truly like the people we have working here,” Howard says sincerely. “Our employees find they have a home here. They are encouraged to be productive and we help them succeed.”
He says the hiring process is unlike that at other dealerships.
“It’s informal,” Howard says. “I want to get job candidates to talk about themselves during the interview. I don’t have a list of questions. People reveal themselves conversationally once they’re at ease. My whole MO is to get people to relax.”
When Bob Bellucci took over Howard’s job as General Sales Manager, he asked Howard to distill the GSM job down to one good piece of advice.
“I told him the job is about personalities, and that 75 percent of his time will be spent dealing with people,” Howard recalls. “A few weeks later, Bob came to me, and he said, ‘You’re wrong: It’s 80 percent.’ Bob understood. You need to find out what motivates people and then get the best from them.”
COOL IN COMMAND
“My job at Competition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Howard says earnestly. “I’m very lucky to work for Joe Buzzetta, an owner who put his faith in me to run the dealership the way I see fit.”
Howard truly appreciates the latitude he has been given.
“Most owners are micro managers unwilling to relinquish any power, whether it’s over the checkbook or philosophy,” he explains. “They want everything done a certain way, and if you don’t conform, you’re history.”
That’s not the case at Competition BMW, and Howard is grateful.
“Joe is secure enough to say, ‘Let’s do something different!’ He’s truly a man for all seasons and he’s comfortable in his own skin,” Howard says.
“In the nine years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen him angry, even in situations that justified anger,” says Howard. “Never saw him lose his cool.”
TAKE MY BMW, PLEASE
Ensuring that Competition’s customers always encounter the ultimate service experience is one of Howard’s goals.
Going that extra mile is worth it.
“One of our clients always ordered their new BMW with the comfort access option,” Howard recalls. “Unbeknownst to the salesman, the option codes changed, and he ordered the car without it. The client had the vehicle for about month, and called to say how unhappy his wife was with the car.”
That customer’s unhappiness was unacceptable.
“I took the vehicle back, restructured the lease and reordered the car with the option,” says Howard. “It cost the dealership some money but I viewed it as a long term investment in good will.”
Howard’s quick assessment and action to correct the situation even surprised the client.
“He couldn’t believe that I took the car back and Joe didn’t question what I did because he knows that I made the right decision.”
Through his actions Howard not only retained the client, he gained seven more customers through referrals.
“It’s impressive in this day and age that you can still deliver that level of service,” Howard says. “You can’t pay for it anymore—it’s a lost art.”
“Our livelihood comes down to providing premier treatment for our customers,” Howard says. “They tell me that when they come to Competition BMW, they feel different and that’s important.”
There’s something special in the atmosphere.
“Besides selling cars, we’ve created a vibe or an attitude to differentiate ourselves,” he says. “Not only do we have the best people working here and a forward-thinking business model, we have hands down, the best state-of-the-art service facility on Long Island.”
Howard says that incomparable service is what they strive for.
“We have an ‘above and beyond mentality’ that no other dealership approaches,” Howard says, “and the experience begins the moment you walk through our doors. No other dealership emphasizes that or sees it as valuable enough to duplicate.”
What Competition BMW offers is hard to match—and they like it that way. They want to establish a different kind of dealership experience.
“The cars are the same,” Howard says. “You can negotiate a price, but you can’t replicate the environment we have here, and more than anything else, I want to keep that edge.”