If you live in Niagara, chances are you have purchased a vehicle from Performance Auto Group. The company is deeply rooted in the business landscape of our region. As the Niagara community has grown and changed, Performance Auto Group has evolved in kind and, this year, celebrates its 50th anniversary.
It all started in 1964: two friends, Cam Champion and John Mann, who both had a passion for sports cars, decided to parlay that interest into a business. They had just finished travelling through Europe together following F1 Racing and visiting European automobile factories.
Cam Champion notes, “It was an interest in sports cars and racing that led us to opening our car business.”
Upon returning to Niagara in 1964, these long-time friends opened Performance Cars on a little lot on Lake Street offering brands such as MG, Triumph, Jaguar, Lotus, and Sunbeam.
In 1965, they began selling small Honda motorcycles and sports cars, which was the rage at that time for young people looking for their first transportation, from the Glenridge Plaza in St. Catharines.
The following year, they built their first new dealership naming it Autotrend and selling Volvo, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, and Porsche.
In 1969, Charles Taylor & Co. was acquired and re-named Checkpoint Chrysler adding Dodge, Plymouth, Chrysler, and Fargo trucks to the product line. In 1972, Performance Collision Centre was established to service the needs of a growing family of automotive dealerships and customers.
In 1976, Performance Cars was appointed the exclusive dealer for the full line of Mercedes-Benz cars and medium trucks in Niagara.
The year 1987 saw the opening of the first luxury car dealership for a Japanese manufacturer when Honda introduced Acura. Performance Cars was appointed the exclusive Acura dealer in Niagara and was the first dealership opened in Canada.
In 1989, BMW of Germany approached Cam and John to represent their luxury autos exclusively in Niagara and a new facility for sales and service was built at the Performance Auto Complex on Lake Street in St. Catharines. When BMW acquired the manufacturing sites for the British MINI and Rolls Royce automobiles, Performance built a new showroom for MINI adjacent to BMW.
In 1990, John and Cam approached Dominey’s Toyota, which was one of the first Toyota dealerships in Canada dominating the sports car and small truck market, and successfully negotiated the purchase of that franchise. The following year, Toyota established a luxury brand of cars to compete with Acura, and Cam and John were asked to represent, because of their luxury automotive experience, their Lexus line of cars in Niagara, as they launched this new venture in Canada, then one of 22 exclusive dealerships in Canada. Their original new facility on the Lake Street Auto Complex was increased to accommodate the Lexus-Toyota brands. An additional small showroom was built next to this facility for Scion, which was a new youthful brand designed by Toyota for North America.
The company added youthful, nostalgic product lines between 2004 and 2011, bringing MINI St. Catharines, smart Centre St. Catharines, Performance Scion, and Performance FIAT into the fold.
Hyundai, the large South Korean conglomerate, added their franchise to Performance Cars in 2002, with new facilities being completed in 2009 and, as a result, they were offered the opportunity to expand in Grimsby with a large, new facility in 2012, addressing the consumer growth needs of West Niagara.
In 2013, Performance Collision was moved to a much larger location at 342 Ontario Street in St. Catharines to once again address the growing collision repair needs of the Performance dealership family, but also to meet an exciting new need in the marketplace for vehicle restyling, including vinyl striping, coloured headlight lens tint, bed liners, paint protection film for vehicle hoods, and a variety of tints for windows.
While John and Cam have spent the last 50 years expanding and growing their business, it has been because of dedicated and committed employees who have supported their journey.
John Mann notes, “We have been very fortunate over the years to have hired the right people at the right time. It’s all about the people, and we have very good people working for us.”
Many employees have made Performance their long-term career choice. Some started out as part-time clerks or washing cars and are now department managers or General Managers.
A prime example is Bill Anderson, the company’s Executive Director of Product Marketing, who joined Performance Auto Group in 1965. He wrote his last exam on a Thursday afternoon and started working Friday morning.
Performance has done a great job creating worthwhile opportunities for employees wanting to remain in Niagara. These jobs include retail sales, service, parts; collision and paint repair; vehicle restyling; management; accounting and administration; human resources; marketing and communications, including graphic design, photography, videography, digital media, and web technology; and the list goes on. There are opportunities in so many areas.
Performance is preparing for the future everyday in not only constantly updating their facilities, but in making sure that the employees who will be taking over the company when the founders retire will be committed to holding up the same level of customer service.
Rein Knol, one of the current Vice Presidents of Performance says, “Consumers are very knowledgeable about the vehicles they are buying. So what Performance has put into place is what we can control the most, which is the experience.”
There are certain qualities Performance management looks for in hiring employees and chief among them is the commitment to “the Performance Experience,” which lends itself to a friendly and comfortable shopping, buying, and servicing experience that is a high point of satisfaction for many guests. It is important to note that customers are treated and referred to as guests.
A testament to their continued excellence, Performance Auto Group was a repeat winner of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies program in 2003 and 2004.
Today, the re-branded Performance Auto Group is the leading automotive company in Niagara as well as Southern Ontario, offering 16 of the most sought-after manufacturer brands and a wide selection of quality used vehicles, and employing more than 400 full- and part-time people who have made Niagara their home.
As the company and community have grown, Performance Auto Group has given back in countless ways supporting the people and organizations contributing to the quality of life in our region. These organizations include United Way, Brock University, Niagara College, Niagara Health System, Niagara Symphony, Music Niagara, Kiwanis, Niagara Children’s Centre, Child Advocacy Centre Niagara, and Youth for Christ to name but a few. Performance Auto Group has also partnered with a number of Niagara-based institutions to offer greater value to its guests, including Meridian and PenFinancial Credit Union for the company’s well-known annual One-Day Car & Loan Sales.
So what does the present and future hold for automotive and Performance Auto Group?
“Industry experts indicate that, in future, there will be only five or six automobile manufacturers worldwide,” states Mann.
Mann notes that the current consolidation of manufacturer franchises is the result of the enormous costs of research and development of new technologies facing the new car manufacturers. Examples of consolidation include the addition of FIAT to the Chrysler group, MINI to BMW, and smart for two to Mercedes-Benz and this has kept Performance Auto Group expanding its facilities and investing in new technologies, equipment, and computers.
“They say there are more computers in a car today than the first rocket that landed on the moon,” states Champion.
Automobiles have increasingly more computerization. And automotive technicians have become more like engineers. There is a whole new skill set needed to be able to work on cars these days, and it is specialized for every different car model.
There is a welcoming trend toward more fuel-efficient cars and trucks as well, giving consumers an ever-increasing choice of hybrid, diesel, and electric cars. Vehicles are also being built with aluminum and other lighter-weight as well as organic materials. “It’s quite exciting,” notes Mann, but it also requires dealerships with the specialization and equipment needed to service these vehicles, which is why we are continually investing in our facilities and in our people.”
One of the fastest growing segments in automotive electronics is Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). ADAS are systems developed to automate/adapt/enhance vehicle systems for safety and better driving. Adaptive features may automate lighting, provide adaptive cruise control, automate braking, incorporate GPS/ traffic warnings, connect to smartphones, alert driver to other cars or dangers, keep the driver in the correct lane, or show what is in blind spots.
While the automotive industry is constantly evolving, both Mann and Champion believe that automobiles will remain the primary source of transportation, at least for the foreseeable future. “The investment in highways and roads would indicate that the need and the demand for cars will continue to increase, despite improvements in public transportation, etc.” states Champion.
Performance Auto Group feels they have positioned themselves competitively for the future with the 16 brands they represent. They have also established seven separate and distinctive pre-owned operations to competitively serve the community.
For 50 years, Performance Auto Group’s business model has embraced a customer for life philosophy. “We have guests to whom we have sold their very first car, then their first car after they got married, then the first car for their kids, and so on as their needs change,” states Mann, “We have had customers for life, and that’s what we look to do.”
The future for Performance Auto Group is unlimited. With so many great things happening in Niagara and within the automotive industry, Performance will continue to adapt, change, grow, and contribute, always honouring its slogan, “for people going places.”