The 1920s - Starting Up
The story of Berger Chevrolet begins in Jenison, Michigan, with the founder, William (Bill) H. Berger II. A third generation farmer, he sensed troubles for his vocation on the horizon, and took a position at a local Chevrolet distributor in downtown Grand Rapids known as Wilcox-Kuennen. He loved his new job and rose up through the ranks quickly. Seeing opportunities in the automobile industry that had dried up in agriculture, he became the Branch Manager of Wilcox-Kuennen's new East Side Branch at 1034 Wealthy Street in 1925. A year later, in August of 1926 he founded the W.H. Berger Motor Company at the same location. The building had previously belonged to Ebling & Son Blacksmiths, a business that still thrives to this day.
The first building was small with the Service Department directly above the main floor. Starting his new Chevrolet business proved to be a challenge because any kind of automobile was considered a luxury, with the horse-and-buggy being the main mode of transportation. It also didn't help that most "roads" at that time were mainly dirt or stone and smooth roads were rare. Bill Berger rose to the challenge often foregoing his own paycheck when sales were thin so he could pay his employees. His new enterprise sold around 125 cars a year and a new Chevrolet sold for about $700.
Sales picked up when Bill purchased an additional property on Wealthy Street to capitalize on the growing used car business. It paid off: by the end of the decade, three or four used cars were selling for every new car that drove off the lot, a trend that would continue.
The 1930s - A Couple of Bumps in the Road
Selling automobiles in the middle of the Great Depression was tough. Supporting a wife and raising three sons while managing a farm and a dealership would be almost impossible, but Bill Berger pulled it off while uprooting his business to a new location. In 1933 Berger Chevrolet moved to 1451 Lake Drive, what is today a U.S. Post Office location. The new store housed a four-car showroom and 15 service stalls. Bill's eldest son, Dale, joined the family business at age 18. That year also marked the Grand Rapids Auto Show in the brand new Welsh Civic Auditorium. Record attendance made for a great commercial success in an economically challenged time.
In spite of it all, sales volume had gone up to 400 cars a year with the staff growing to 30 full-time employees. The extra help was needed as war loomed on the horizon. People knew that if the United States joined the fight overseas, automobile production would grind to a standstill as the factories that made them began cranking out tanks, planes, and munitions instead. The result was a boom of consumers rushing to get their new vehicle before they, quite literally, couldn't get their hands on one.
The 1940s - War's On, Cars Off
The United States joined World War II on December 8th, 1941. With the New Year, automobile production ceased to aid the war effort. Plants that made cars now cranked out tanks, planes, and jeeps. With new cars no longer available, Berger Chevrolet sold Hotpoint appliances to make ends meet, in addition to selling used cars, used parts, and car service. To complicate things further, the war effort's rubber shortage meant that tires were also nowhere to be found. If one of the most common road problems stopped a car in its tracks, there it sat until the war was over. To combat this, Berger Chevrolet stepped up and bought several two-wheel trailers solely for the tires to keep their customers on the road.
In 1944, Dale took over management of the dealership at age 30. During that time, a huge latent market had been created for automobiles. Halted automobile production resulted in orders for new cars from dealers around the country being put on mile-long waiting lists, while a newly-employed American workforce was itching to spend their money on them. By 1949 the dam had broken. With the war being over, soldiers wanting to start families, and with the introduction of a new line of Chevrolets, business boomed. Around this time, the "By Berger" logo was created to showcase the Chevrolet dealership.
The 1950s - Back on the Road
The big business boom continued into early 1950, but when the Korean War began, automobile production was halved to accommodate the war effort. The conflict ended in 1952 and business picked back up.
The year 1953 was a landmark for both Berger Chevrolet and the Berger family. Chevrolet introduced an American legacy, America's first mass-produced sports car: the Corvette. That same year, Dale's son, Dale Jr., entered the family business at age 15. After graduating from East Grand Rapids High School, he attended General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) to educate himself further on the automobile industry.
Due to growth in their used car business, in 1954 Berger opened a second used car lot at 1564 Division Ave., the busiest street in Grand Rapids. Despite this upturn and the introduction of the Chevrolet Impala, another recession hit the industry in 1958. Hoping to spike sales, the City of Grand Rapids allowed all of the city's car dealers to display their vehicles on Monroe Avenue as part of the "You Auto Buy Now" campaign. At this same time, in the tradition of his father and grandfather before him, Dale Jr. graduated college and began work as a parts counterman. The next year saw the economy improving. By the end of the decade there were 33 full-time employees and around 450 cars sold per year.
The 1960s - Taking the Lead
The sales boom of the late 50s continued until late 1960, when an 11-week strike at GM brought new car sales to a standstill. In its wake, Berger Chevrolet began to notice the new "mobility" of car owners moving out of the big cities and into the suburbs. In addition, the multi-car family was becoming more and more prevalent. With this, the 3 generations of Bergers knew it was time to expand their business on a scale it had never seen before. Even if they purchased an entire block where their dealership was currently situated, it wouldn't be enough. So in 1965 Bill purchased 5.2 acres of property on southeast 28th Street. At the time it was enough land to build a brand new, state-of-the-art facility. In January of 1966 the new dealership was completed. Just two months afterward, Berger Chevrolet became the #1 Chevrolet dealer in West Michigan. In the first 90 days at the new facility, Berger nearly doubled their team, from 40 to 75 employees.
During that time, performance cars and drag racing were becoming increasingly popular and Berger was not one to buck the trend. Berger Chevrolet became a nationally known outlet for all of Chevrolet's high-performance cars and parts, being featured in numerous muscle car and enthusiast magazines. The COPO (Central Office Production Order) program found a regular home at Berger, selling some of the most valuable custom models of Camaro, Corvette, Nova, and Chevelles. Even today, collectors seek those prized automobiles.
In 1967 the new High-Performance Parts Department would get 50 pieces of mail daily for catalogues and parts orders, and ship parts across the U.S. and internationally. Several racing cars carried the "Prescribed Power by Berger" logo, and Berger's reputation even reached General Motors world headquarters. GM created a training film based on Berger's high-performance parts operation. By the end of the decade, sales had more than tripled, including over 1700 new vehicles sold per year.
The 1970s - Shifting Gears, Moving Forward
Not to be outdone by the 60s, the year 1970 started out with the biggest order in Berger's history: 293 cars for the City of Grand Rapids. A truly staggering number, but one they happily met. In addition, Dale Berger Sr. was elected President of the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association and won the "Time Magazine Quality Dealer" award.
After seeing his business become nationally recognized and lauded and having grown his dealership from an old blacksmith's shop to a state-of-the-art 5-acre facility, William H. Berger II passed away in October of 1972. He was survived by his greatest legacy: a loving and successful family.
In 1973 the first expansion of the Body Shop and Service Department took place. During the time of this expansion the country experienced its first oil embargo. Ridiculously expensive gas prices made the high-performance, low-mileage trend of the last decade screech to a halt. That same year the High Performance Parts Department closed to focus on wholesale parts business growth. The small car market was enjoying a favorable upswing. In 1975 Berger Chevrolet was the fourth dealer nationally to receive the "Chevrolet Service Supremacy" award after satisfying stringent requirements.
Dale Berger Jr.'s son, Matt, began his work with the family business at 15, the age that his father started at the dealership. In 1977 Dale Berger Sr. retired from the business. With the end of the oil embargo and fuel prices stable, compounded by the truck and CB radio craze, 1978 and 1979 saw record sales volume. The booming business resulted in the need for more expansion, and 3.2 acres were purchased west of the main facility for a much larger used car center. By the end of the 1970s, sales were 3,000 new and used vehicles per year and Berger Chevrolet now had over 100 employees.
The 1980s - A Rocky Start (With an Amazing Finish)
The 80s began with massive inflation, 21% interest rates, and, not surprisingly, very little business. High gas prices meant the truck craze had seen its end with customers trading in their 4X4's for 4-cylinder gas sippers. Throughout the decade, Berger focused on the growing used car market and the service and parts business, increasing their inventory and staff.
In 1981 due to health issues, Dale Jr. gave day-to-day management of the dealership over to his son, Matt. The 22 year-old General Manager quickly brought about several changes, the most notorious of which featured a talking horse. The dealership's new television commercials garnered Dale Berger Sr. a good-natured ribbing from his friends after seeing the Berger name posted on a horse's back-end.
1985 saw a huge increase in the new car sales business. Matt wanted to make sure those who bought from Berger stayed with Berger. His plan was for the Sales Department to sell his customers their first car with the quality of the Service Department earning the opportunity to sell them their next car.
For the first time, manufacturers began offering incentive programs to stimulate sales. Interest rates as low as 2.9% had customers rushing to the showroom, and not always in a neighborly fashion. At one point, people actually came to fisticuffs over the new arrivals. During that time a new record was set for the dealership: 69 new cars sold in one day!
Toward the end of the decade, Berger Chevrolet was chosen as a pilot dealership for a major facilities remodeling and upgrade. It was well worth it. The Berger team had grown to a staff of 125 employees, selling 3500 cars annually.
The 1990s - Breaking Records
The used car building doubled in size in 1990. Berger Chevrolet now ranked number one in total sales volume for both new and used cars in West Michigan.
Sadly, that year Dale Berger, Sr. passed away on Labor Day at the age of 76. His near 50 years in the automobile industry saw two expansions of his family's business, and its lasting success in West Michigan. In addition, Berger Chevrolet placed 11th in new car sales nationwide. Berger ranked ahead of 4400 other Chevrolet dealerships, a remarkable feat.
The next couple years saw Berger's growth continue. A total upgrade was given to the body shop, with cutting-edge paint booths, air compressors, an air make-up heating system, and frame straightening equipment. A new body shop office was built in 1993 with technology that completely computerized the estimating process. Because of steady growth, Matt purchased three more acres of property behind the used car facility, which allowed a much needed access to Breton Road.
More space was required as Berger shattered all sales records in 1994 and the number of employees reached 150. The dealership was routinely selling over 4000 vehicles per year, with annual gross sales over $100,000,000. Berger Chevrolet officially cemented itself as one of the most experienced and largest volume Chevrolet dealers in the country. As the decade came to a close, another complete overhaul of existing facilities began. With great products, committed employees, and a dedication to total customer satisfaction, Berger Chevrolet was ready to launch into the next century with an all-new look.
The 2000s - Accelerating into a New Century
Improvements at the dealership included a brand new showroom, service reception area, and quick-lube facility. Matt also made sure to include amenities for the customers, including a waiting area with a TV, a business center with PC access and phones, a children's playroom, a café area with vending machines and free Wi-Fi. Throughout the extensive process, office trailers dotted the lots and the misplaced Berger Chevrolet team continued to work through the renovation, which was completed in January 2000.
Chevrolet announced that the Camaro would be discontinued after 2002. Wanting to celebrate Berger's rich history with the iconic sports car, 100 special edition "Berger SS Camaros" were planned for production in those three final model years. The limited edition Camaros soon became part of car collections coast-to-coast.
In the wake of 9/11, General Motors unveiled their "Let's Keep America Rolling" campaign, with the highlight of the program being interest-free loans for up to 60 months. This generated a massive upturn in sales, resulting in Berger Chevrolet being selected for the first of their three "Dealer of the Year" awards. During that time, the Service, Parts, and Body Shop grew at a rapid rate and continued to be the backbone of the dealership throughout the decade.
In October of 2007 Matt began a third storewide renovation of the facility, which was completed in March 2008. Steelcase, a Grand Rapids-based renowned global leader in office furniture, provided the new furnishings. All new signage, amenities, and finishes were also purchased. The Collision Department achieved I-Car Gold Certification for its state-of-the-art equipment, training, and client satisfaction. The paint booths were replaced in October 2009 in favor of a waterborne painting system. Their reduction in chemical emissions contributed to ongoing efforts to make the business more environmentally friendly.
The success of the Parts and Service Departments necessitated construction of a new warehouse. The dealership broke ground in November 2008. Demand for Berger quality was already high, but when a few competitors closed their doors, business increased from very busy to controlled pandemonium. The Parts Department team balanced the construction of a 45,000 square-foot warehouse with the demands of being the biggest GM parts dealer in in the area. Once it was completed in May 2009, they were able to accommodate the increased sales volume more efficiently, as well as refine logistics to better serve the needs of their clients.
During that time the Service Department also received major changes. By the year 2000, the dealership employed 35 technicians, including 18 certified ASE Master Technicians, and the reception area had grown to include 7 full-time Service Consultants. The dealership certainly has come a long way from 1925, when the entire Service Department consisted of one person. The Service Department continues to be the dealership's anchor, employing over 70 full-time workers completely committed to delivering quality service.
Since 1925 the Berger team has always made sure that their clients' buying and ownership experience is their top priority. Berger Chevrolet hit the ground running in the first few years of the 21st century, and continues their dedication to offering a high performance team and state-of-the-art dealership to satisfy the needs of their clients. Now and always, they are committed to making sure that "It's Always Better at Berger"!