It’s been a topsy-turvy year for Rob Engel, who is once again an automobile dealer, pursuing the business that’s in his blood.
Engel has just opened the doors to his new dealership, Tenafly Kia. It is on the site of his old dealership, Tenafly Chrysler Jeep. In between is a story of despair and good fortune. It’s a family saga that began with escape from the Holocaust and continues with success on these shores.
A year ago in May, Rob and his brother Rick, who ran dealerships in Tenafly and Wyckoff, were abruptly told they were being dropped as Chrysler dealers. This came as a shock, because, as Rob explained at the time, they “exceeded the requirements in service, sales, and parts.”
Rubbing salt in the wound, according to Rob, was the way the Engels were notified by Chrysler that they were being dropped-a curt phone call followed by a FedEx letter.
“I demanded to know their reasons, but they refused to meet with me,” Rob Engel said when interviewed last year.
At the time, struggling in the grip of the recession, Chrysler was grappling with bankruptcy and moving to close 789 dealerships nationally, leaving 2,400. Thirty-one of the affected dealerships were in New Jersey.
Although they and other dealers vainly fought Chrysler in court, the Engels made their fallback plan – to keep the businesses open as service and tire centers, and also sell used cars. That never happened, and Rick pulled up stakes and went to work as the controller at another dealer, Rob said.
Nine months out of business was a tough span, Engel said. He had mortgaged his house to pay for improvements on the Tenafly property, and he still had that obligation.
Then two things happened. One was a reality check from Rob’s wife, Ileesa. “What are you worried about? Your father and mother had it far worse,” she said, referring to the fact that the elder Engel had escaped from the Nazis.
Also, while the emptiness of the Tenafly building added to his gloom, in walked a ray of hope in the form of a marketing representative from Kia, a South Korean carmaker, Rob said. Kia was looking for new dealerships.
Rob then did some research. He visited the Kia assembly plant in West Point, Ga., where he met with workers. “There was a real chemistry that they were working together,” he said.
He spoke to other Kia dealers and came away very impressed. “Without exception they said Kia was great to work with,” he continued.
At the time of this interview, Tenafly Kia had been open five weeks and had sold 50 cars, an impressive start, Rob said. “The product is very fresh.” Kia has been sold in the United States for 15 years and has made major headway in the last three years, he said.
Kia is now part of the Hyundai auto group, and is a model of corporate growth, having started out as a bicycle manufacturer, Rob said.
Rob reflected on his family saga. His mother, Elizabeth, fled the Nazis in her native Germany. She went to England, where she worked as a welder in an aircraft plant. There she met Peter, who was to become her husband.
The senior Engel had fled Austria, walked across France, and joined a Czech unit serving with the British Army. He worked as a Jeep and tank mechanic during World War II.
The car business has been a thread in the Engel family ever since.