Curry Automotive's Employees Are Driven to Succeed Thanks to This Motivational CEO
As the third-generation leader of Curry Automotive, Bernard F. Curry III knows exactly how to motivate employees, keep customers loyal — and make a difference in his community.
Photography by Stefan Radtke
Each day, Bernard F. Curry III emails a quote to his team of 125 departmental and general managers within the Curry Automotive dealership fleet, a daily missive that runs the gamut from Stephen Covey-inspirational to Yogi Berra-humorous. A recent proclamation from Curry Automotive’s CEO comes from author/educator Booker T. Washington: “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”
The quotes let employees “know that I’m in touch and stay connected with them,” explains the affable 66-year-old Rye resident and third-generation Curry to oversee the vehicular empire his grandfather B.F. Curry Sr. founded in 1919. “If you bond with your employees and your customers, you’ll get longevity from your staff and loyalty from your customers. That’s the value of our franchise: It’s making sure we do all the little things right.”
The company, whose roots began with a single Chevrolet dealership, has been doing the little things right for nearly a century. From its modest origins in New York City, Curry Automotive has widened its current footprint to include 12 dealerships in four states. In addition to its founding cornerstone of Chevrolet, Curry Automotive’s brand portfolio now features Acura, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota. Signs showcasing the various Curry dealerships have dotted the Westchester landscape since B.F. Curry Sr. ventured north from Manhattan and opened Curry Chevrolet on Central Avenue in Scarsdale in the late 1950s.
Curry Chevrolet dealership in Manhattan, 1919
The company, which sold more than 26,000 new and pre-owned cars in its previous fiscal year on sales that approached $800 million, employs a workforce of roughly 1,000, including 450 in Westchester. Outside the home markets of Westchester and Putnam Counties, the Curry dealership venues include locations in Connecticut; Chicopee, MA; and Atlanta.
“Whether you operate one dealership or 12, it’s still all about fostering relationships and being an integral part of the community you serve,” Curry says.
His devotion to community outreach and local philanthropic efforts have been equally noteworthy. Starting in 2007, as a board member of what was previously known as Peekskill Community Hospital, Curry helped engineer a turnaround by teaming with the hospital’s then-CEO, John Federspiel, in transforming the underperforming local facility (to which Curry once deliberately avoided sending an employee who’d suffered an on-the-job injury) into what has now become NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital, a gleaming facility that features a cancer center, all private rooms, a digestive-health center, and a new emergency room. While no longer a member of the board, Curry remains the sponsor of the hospital’s annual charity golf outing.
Curry, along with his wife, Cynthia, also became a founding board member and benefactor, helping create the Westchester Children’s Museum at Rye Playland, a 22,000 sq. ft. interactive learning facility designed for ages from birth to 13 that opened in 2016 at the site of the vacant bathhouses. He currently sponsors an exhibit there called Toddler Beach, which features cognitive-motor-skill development challenges. On a more local level, Curry’s charitable efforts have also encompassed uniform purchases for various Little League teams and funding a new weight room at Yorktown High School.
Curry’s equitable mix of entrepreneurship and philanthropy recently earned him a nomination for TIME 2019 Dealer of the Year Award, where he and 51 other candidates were selected out of a universe of some 16,000 automobile dealers across the country. Nominees were picked on the basis of longstanding track records of business success, as well as their commitment to community service. Curry was honored this January in San Francisco during the 102nd annual National Automobile Dealers Association Show.
“If you bond with your employees and your customers, you’ll get longevity from your staff and loyalty from your customers. That’s the value of our franchise: It’s making sure we do all the little things right.”
—Bernard F. Curry III, CEO, Curry Automotive
“Bernie has done an amazing job fostering both loyalty and service excellence,” explains Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association (an association of more than 400 dealership franchises) and the person who nominated Curry for the TIME award. “He’s been in the business over 40 years and is demonstrated to be an exceptional leader, not only with the dealerships but within the community, as well.”
Curry’s long-tenured employees agree. “Bernie has this ability to speak to anyone from the lot valet to a manager, and that’s one of his greatest strengths,” explains David Girolamo, who worked with all three generations of Currys during a 46-year career with the company, which included 36 years as general manager at Curry Honda in Yorktown before retiring in 2016. “He let me run the dealership the way I thought it should be run, but he also expected results. He was not an ivory-tower guy — he was very involved because he worked in every facet of the business, growing up.”
“Bernie is not about just sticking people on the floor,” adds Michael Miele, general manager at Curry Acura in Scarsdale and a 23-year employee of the company. “He empowers them with the tools to succeed. Once the processes are in place — whether it’s sales, parts, service, or financing — he makes sure we have what we need.”
“If you’re good, I’m going to make it very hard for you to leave me,” echoes Curry. Proof? Average tenure for dealership general managers at Curry is 21 years.
Curry, who attended high school in Lake Placid, NY, and later graduated with a business degree from the University of Denver in 1975, grew up in Edgemont and worked at the family dealership as of age 15 — assigned to positions ranging from lot valet to working the counters at the service and parts departments. A passionate skier to this day, he would take off the winter quarters in college to teach skiing in Steamboat Springs, CO, and played lacrosse for the university in the spring.
Shortly after graduation, B.F. Curry Jr. persuaded his son to work in the family business for at least one year, where he served in various capacities, such as pre-owned-car manager, general manager, and eventually director of dealership operations. “People think I got to where I am because I was the owner’s son, but I had to prove myself. Let me tell you, nothing was ever given to me. I earned it,” Curry says.
In the mid-1990s, the two generations of Currys clashed on management styles, and the younger Curry left the company and ventured off on his own, acquiring a Honda/Isuzu dealership in the Springfield, MA, market in 1998. “My father was more of a traditional manager, and I was like a coach,” explains Curry. “On a personal level, we got along very well, but we just didn’t see eye to eye on how to run the business.”
After nearly a decade away, he returned in 2002, eventually acquiring his father’s dealership holdings. In 2004, the same year the elder Curry died at age 84, he assumed the chief executive reins and spearheaded the acquisition of the expansive 5.5-acre Geis Auto Mall in Cortlandt Manor, which added Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan, Cadillac, Buick, and Pontiac to the Curry offerings. But like with any business, Curry encountered imposing obstacles, as well as success — arguably none bigger than when the recession hit in 2008.
“The industry went from selling over 17 million cars a year to just over 9 million, literally overnight,” he remembers. “There were some tough decisions to make. We wound up giving back Ford and Kia, and laid off about 100 employees. But we came out leaner and meaner in every way. The next year, 2009, was our second-best in terms of net profit up to that point.”
In addition, the advent of the Internet and its ease of access to online auto research and model reviews changed the process of car-buying completely, forcing traditional dealerships across the country, including Curry, to adjust accordingly to court a more sophisticated and knowledgeable consumer base.
The Internet “is the biggest disruption ever seen in this industry, no doubt,” says Curry. “All of a sudden, these startups are allowing consumers to buy a car online without ever stepping foot in a dealership. Customers are checking pricing every day because they can. So, you’d better be on the first page in an online search, or you won’t get noticed.”
But Curry says there are still many advantages to buying a car at a dealership. “Cars today are so complex that customers sometimes think they’re broken when they’re not. The truth is, they’ve never been taught how to operate them,” he says. “If you buy a car online from someone other than a traditional dealer, how do they plan to service those cars once you own them? They never tell you that.”
The proud legacy established by Bernard Curry III has pretty much been cast in stone in Westchester and beyond, though whether that legacy will be perpetuated by a fourth Curry generation remains undetermined. Yet, the father of three is, as he has been throughout his life, optimistic.
“Never say never. It may happen someday,” he says. “But the bottom line is: After all these years, it never gets tired. There’s something so rewarding about owning your own business. It’s a time when you’re seeing a lot of dealers exiting the business, but I feel too connected ever to leave. It sounds like a cliché, but I love coming to work every day.”
Bill Carlino is a freelance writer living in Armonk. He took out his first-ever lease at Curry Chevrolet in 1985.