When Mike LaFontaine began selling used cars in 1966, his dream was to one day own his own dealership.
Mission accomplished—and then some.
Business is good for the LaFontaine family, whose 19 LaFontaine Automotive Group franchises spread across 10 locations in Michigan, including LaFontaine Toyota Scion Kia Suzuki Hyundai and LaFontaine Honda in Dearborn.
Their latest dealerships—selling Ford in Lansing and Volkswagen in Dearborn—are set to open soon, while their locations in Highland, Saline, Dexter, Howell and Ann Arbor are thriving. LaFontaine said they sold 15,000 cars in 2011.
And they’re a family business through and through.
“My dad was a used car salesman, so I decided I was going to sell cars, too,” LaFontaine said of his beginnings selling Volkswagen vehicles in 1966. He bought the Dearborn Toyota store in 1980 and “we’ve been here ever since.”
Maureen LaFontaine, Mike’s wife, is “my right arm,” he said. Sons Ryan and Mike Jr. are bboth owners and general managers. Kelley LaFontaine, his daughter, is owner and business-to-business director, while his nephew, Matt, is general manager of the Ann Arbor Buick GMC dealership.
“We wanted to stay in the state,” he explained. “And with the growth of the dealerships, we’ve been able to grow our talent, too.”
Of the companies hundreds of employees, many of them live and volunteer in the same city as the dealership they work for.
The company's philanthropic presence is felt throughout southeast Michigan, too. They encourage employees to volunteer, and do their own fundraising for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society—a cause they’ve raised $600,000 for over the past three years.
“I’m a firm believer that you have to support your local communities,” LaFontaine said. “We give back, and we try to hire locally.”
They’ve also been pioneers when it comes to green technologies. Their Highland dealership is has gold certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and their new VW dealership in Dearborn will be green, too.
“We go through a great deal to make them green,” LaFontaine said. “It’s important to the future of our situation.”
And great for business. Son Ryan LaFontaine told Crain’s Detroit Business in 2011 that they expect to recoup the $2 million costs from green building by 2013 for the 2008-built Highland dealership, thanks to increases in sales from green-conscious buyers.
"It really solidified that the green aspect was the right way to go," he told Crain’s.
VW shoppers in Dearborn can expect the same standards at the new dealership on South Telegraph Road, which is slated to open by the end of 2012.
Mike LaFontaine said that like his other dealerships, he can’t wait for it to open.
“The car business is coming back stronger than people realize,” he said. “Fourty-six years ago I started with VW. It’s like coming home.”