Denecker takes on first partner

FERRISBURGH — When he was 16, Mike Capra, then a Cornwall resident and Middlebury Union High School student, went to work for Miller Chevrolet on North Main Street in Vergennes.
Among those he called boss those 29 years ago were dealership owner Howard Miller and manager Robert “Cappy” Capra — whom Mike Capra also called Dad.
Mike Capra worked for four years in the Vergennes dealership’s service department, beginning a career in the automobile business that led him to dealerships in Rutland, Burlington, and Hooksett, N.H. Since 2002, Capra had been the general manager of a dealership with branches in Brattleboro and Keene, N.H.
In the meantime, Miller had sold his dealership in 1991 to Tom Denecker, who has been calling the shots solo — until just recently, when he struck a partnership deal with Capra that has brought Capra back to his automotive roots.
Capra, whose family moved from New Jersey to Cornwall when he was 12, said during all those years working elsewhere he never stopped thinking about coming back home.
“I have great friends up here, roots up here, of course. And I just love the area,” said Capra, who started at Denecker last week. “Tom and I got talking a few months back, and the opportunity presented itself and I thought it was a great fit.”
Of course, after almost 20 years of running the business on his own, Denecker thought carefully before deciding to take in a partner. One of the major reasons to do so was his July 2008 expansion into Ferrisburgh. His service department remained on North Main Street, but Denecker made a major investment in a new building at the junction of Monkton Road and Route 7.
Even though the two sites are not far apart, managing both sites proved a challenge, he said.
“When you’re one person running an entire dealership, you’re walking around and you’re putting out a fire here and you’re putting out a fire there. And as you’re doing that you’ve got an idea in your head, and you’ve got someone tugging on you’re sleeve,” he said. “You can only do that so long, even if it’s only eight-tenths of a mile.”
And Denecker believes a co-owner will be more fully invested in the operation than a manager. And he’s confident Capra is the right person.
“I have a guy I believe can more than do the job,” he said. “And I wanted some help, and there’s no better way to do that than have someone buy into the process, because they look things with a different head.”
Capra shared that sentiment in agreeing to buy in.
“To have an extra person as invested as you are … that absolutely had value to me,” Capra said.
The two got to know one another through arranging car swaps, a typical practice among dealers. If one dealer has a customer for a particular vehicle, he can find it at another dealership and trade for another car with similar value and marketability.
Both men said some of their peers are easier to deal with than others, and they had quickly learned they could trust one another, and they grew to be friends.
“When you’re talking with other dealers, you know almost immediately on the phone when you’re talking with them,” Capra said. “It’s like, ‘You know what, this is a good guy,’ or, ‘This is going to be difficult.’”
Most of Capra’s time will be spent at his old haunts on North Main Street in parts and service. Denecker will focus more on the sales end in Ferrisburgh, but there will be plenty of overlap.
“We’ll both be able to do each other’s primary function, obviously,” he said.
Denecker said all customers and employees will now have easy access to an owner.
“Mike has the same authority that I have and can just make the decision, and that’s just awesome for everybody,” he said. “It’s good for the customer, it’s good for the technician, it’s good for Mike, and it’s good for me.”
Both men acknowledge the past few years have not been the best for the automobile industry, and General Motors in particular.
Yet they also see reason for optimism: GM paid back its government loans in April, and in the first three months of 2010 turned its first quarterly profit ($865 million) since 2007. The company will make a public stock offering this fall, the proceeds of which are to be used to buy out the ownership stakes of the U.S. and Canadian governments. And it has new models due out this summer, including the all-electric Volt and the compact Cruise, which Capra said will be capable of 40 miles per gallon.
Capra said he has always had faith in the company’s quality, but believes it is better than ever.
“I bleed General Motors,” Capra said. “I think we have as good a product as anybody.”
Denecker said he would not “sugarcoat” the challenge of the past two years, but that the company has also cut its costs to the bone, while its employee count is now 16, down from a high of 25 three years ago. That downsizing, he said, was accomplished through natural attrition, not layoffs.
As a result of all those factors, he said Denecker Chevrolet is now well positioned for prosperity.
“The economy is going to start tweaking upward, and we’re going to be the recipients of a lot of people who couldn’t buy cars because they had bigger fish to fry,” Denecker said.
Capra’s presence will help, too, he said.
“Instead of me always having to be the leader of the pack, now I have Mr. Enthusiasm here,” Denecker said. “It’s great. I see him in the morning and he’s all charged up and ready to go.”
That remark drew a laugh and a retort from Capra.
“He keeps talking about Rome not being built in a day,” Capra said, “and I don’t understand it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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