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Gengras' car dealer success leverages philanthropic giving

BY Wendy Pierman Mitzel
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

5/26/2017
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever

Skip Gengras

Company: Gengras Motor Cars


Title: Chairman


Size of organization: 300 employees


Education: University of Hartford (didn’t graduate; left in 1966 to assist my father in his run for governor)


Previous job(s): Retail clothing, Connecticut Bus Co., Adley Trucking Co. 

Just about everything Skip Gengras does centers around four simple words: Do the right thing.

"It's the only way you're going to succeed," he said.

Gengras is the driving force behind Gengras Motor Cars, a giant in the Hartford auto sales industry with 10 New England franchises. Gengras sells and services Volvo, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Chevrolet, Honda and BMW automobiles, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

"The proof is in the pudding," said the mogul, born E. Clayton Jr., the son of a Hartford entrepreneur who kicked the family's legacy into gear with his own car dealership in 1937.

While his father went on to diversify his holdings, Gengras has stayed true to the car sales business and transformed it over the years with help from his sons, Chip and Jonathan. Now splitting his time between Florida and Hartford, Skip continues to have a say in big decisions, but Chip serves as president.

"I'm so fortunate to have both boys willing to come into the family business," he said. "At that point it became my job to give all of us the opportunity to expand."

Still, throughout the years, one thing has remained the same.

"When you're in the retail business you spend your life trying to satisfy customers," said Gengras. "That's where honesty and loyalty come to the forefront."

When it comes to buying a car, the experience is either "spectacular or disastrous," he said. "But it's never mediocre."

Gengras' formula is to infuse these qualities throughout the company and its people.

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression," he said.

The Gengras company employs nearly 300 people and sells more than 6,000 vehicles annually. That success allows Gengras to embrace his passion for philanthropy, supporting no less than 30 local charities. It's a tradition dating back to his father's day, and Gengras is proud his sons have maintained the commitment.

"We've all participated in giving back to the community and I think that's pretty special," he said.

A project near and dear to him is The Gengras Center School on the University of St. Joseph's campus in West Hartford. The private, special-education school serves kids with autism and other disabilities. The school was initiated by Clayton Sr. in 1965, and his son is just as committed to its success.

"Besides being very generous with gifts, Skip is an ambassador for the Gengras Center in the community, talking to families of potential students and helping us to find and then prepare grant proposals for potential funders," said Rhona Free, president of the university. "Each year almost 150 students receive an education and experiences that would not be possible without the support of the Gengras family."

An added benefit, said Gengras, is the hands-on learning the university students receive while working in the school.

He knows how important it is to learn practically, as well as in academia. Gengras graduated from Robinson High School, then spent some time at the University of Hartford before leaving in 1966 to help his father's ultimately unsuccessful campaign for governor.

"He needed someone he could rely on," said Gengras.

After that he jumped into running bus and trucking businesses and working in insurance, opportunities that crafted his business acumen. When he bought his first Mercedes dealership in the 1970s he was on a roll.

He is a two-time recipient of the Connecticut Dealer of the Year Award as well as a finalist for Time Magazine National Dealer of the Year.

It turns out Gengras, just like his dad, had a taste for politics. He served on the West Hartford Town Council in the 1980s and also ran (unsuccessfully) for lieutenant governor with candidate Julie Belaga in 1986.

"That was quite an experience ," said Gengras. "It taught me a lot about politics and people. I take my hat off to anyone who gets in that circle. It is not an easy one."

Gengras may have left the politics behind but he continues to serve in leadership roles as a member of the board for the Institute of Living and is chair of the board of trustees at the University of St. Joseph.

"Skip brings rare and valuable experience in business along with an understanding of higher education," said Free. "He is aware of the need to align the interests of students, parents, faculty and employers and he provides wonderful advice about the imperative to respond to changing demographic and market conditions without steering away from our mission."

Gengras' sons serve on boards of directors and Edie Gengras, their mom, is past chair of the board at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center.

"We created a family of philanthropists," said Gengras. "One of the proudest things any parent could do."

Gengras said his wife has helped drive his success. "She has ensured that I have done things right," he said. "We live by the rules of honesty, loyalty, charity and family. You have to be proud of yourself and your family."

On the job

Guiding business principle: No short cuts. Do it right the first time. Honesty and integrity must be present always.

Best way to keep your competitive edge: Listen and learn from others.

Proudest accomplishment: Winning this award for sure, but maintaining and growing a successful family business has no equal.

Goal yet to be achieved: Being under par every time I play golf.

Favorite part of the job: Being able to work with my two sons.

Personal touch in your office: A good sense of humor goes a long way.

Judgment calls

Best business decision: Getting into the automobile business

Worst business decision: Giving up on an automobile franchise too soon

Best way to spot trends: Pay attention to the customer.

Next big move: Acquire more dealerships

Your pet peeve: People who pass the buck

Personal side

City of residence: Hobe Sound, Fla.; Old Saybrook, Conn.

Favorite way to relax: Reading

Hobbies: Golf, tennis, grandchildren

Currently reading: "Dereliction of Duty"

Favorite cause: Gengras Center School, University of St. Joseph.