A Winning Formula

What began as a way to gain management experience before entering medical school became a life's calling for Mark Saba

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Mark Saba, owner of Formula Ford in Barre and Rutland, has a process for creating repeat business.

Your word — your reputation — is everything. Don't promise anything you can't keep." These thoughts season everything Mark Saba says. He offers them as advice, as warning, as words to live by.

"It might sound corny," says Saba, the owner of Formula Ford in Barre and Rutland, "but it's something my wife teaches our kids every day."

A stickler for training, Saba has instituted finely tuned sales and service procedures for his employees to ensure that both they and their customers have fun and are treated with respect. It's a system that encourages employees to walk the talk, with giant steps.

It's also a system that has won three consecutive President's awards for customer satisfaction from Ford Motor Co. "We missed it last year by a half a point," says Saba with a grin. "We're on our way to our fourth one for 2004." Ford was impressed enough by Saba's approach that it recommends it to other dealers as a model, he says. The corporation featured Formula Ford in a four-page spread in the May 2004 issue of Dealer World, its glossy monthly magazine.

Happy employees mean happy customers, he says, and happy customers mean repeat business. "Vermont is too small to sell only one vehicle; we need repeat customers."

Saba's enthusiasm is infectious. "There's nothing to me as exciting and high-powered as the automobile business. I really love what I do, coming to work every day. But it's fun to be at the top of your game, to have people respect what you do. I enjoy gaining that respect."

Respect is another recurring theme for Saba, who's the antithesis of Rodney Dangerfield: He gets plenty of it and is quick to offer it. As the son of first-generation Americans his grandparents came to this country from Lebanon he says he learned his work ethic "from my grandparents on both sides and certainly my father, who worked day and night to provide for his family."

His grandfather on his father's side owned a grocery store in the Methuen/Lawrence area of Massachusetts, where Saba grew up. His mother's father was a car dealer from the 1920s until he retired in 1965. "Everything they had, they worked for," he says.

Saba's father, a pharmacist, owned a drugstore in Methuen for 50 years. "I can remember my father would give medicine to people because they had no money to pay," he says. "Even when he was approached by CVS to buy him out, he was not interested," Saba says. "He thought it would be the end of him, because they were going in right down the street, but he kept every customer he had." It's a lesson Saba learned well.

Hoping to gain a good background for medical school, after graduating from prep school in North Andover, Mass., Saba enrolled in the University of Vermont's College of Engineering, where he began a five-year program toward a degree in bioengineering. "I basically learned a great respect for engineering students," he says with a chuckle.

He found his life's calling by accident. Not ready to settle into medical school, he decided in his senior year to gain business experience he thought would serve him well in a medical practice, and took a job selling cars at what was then Chittenden County Volkswagen, Porsche and Audi on Shelburne Road.

"Basically, I just fell in love with the car business and selling," he says. "It was just something I wanted to try, and it took off for me."

He was still at it four years later, when he saw an ad in a Boston area newspaper for a truck sales manager at Rodman Ford, "which is right across the street from the stadium where the Patriots play," he adds gleefully. "I knew if I was going to stay in the auto business, the goal would be to gain the experience to own my own store."

Despite what Saba says was a phenomenal education in the business, he missed his friends and the lifestyle in Vermont, so a year after the move to Boston, when Ross Anderson at Nordic Ford contacted him about an opening for a truck manager, he leapt at the offer.

He was at Nordic four years, building the truck department to the third largest in New England. Realizing that there was no avenue for ownership there, Saba began to look elsewhere for an opportunity.

He and South Burlington auto dealer Bill Shearer, friends for years, had chatted about getting into something together, says Saba. "In 1989, we teamed up to buy Barre Ford. Bill was into auto racing and I was into what we call formula boats. He said, 'What do you think of the name Formula?' and it was a no-brainer, because you could use that in a number of ways."

Saba and Shearer worked together until 1995, when Saba bought him out.

"It's funny," says Saba. "When we had originally done this partnership, the understanding was at some point, I would buy him out; but now it was time for me to go to the bank, and the banks were very skeptical about, 'Who is Mark Saba?'"

He credits his wife, Karen Paul, the owner of Paul Financial Services in Burlington, with ensuring the buyout would happen.

He and Paul had met in 1991 through friends and married in 1992. By 1995, they were the parents of two children. To make the buyout work, the Sabas put a second mortgage on their Burlington house, sold a vacation home and put all their savings into the deal. "We were over our heads in debt," he says.

The couple decided to do everything possible to pay down the debt. "Within four years, we paid it all off," says Saba, grinning.

This is not atypical, according to Chris Turley, vice president of the Howard Bank in Montpelier, who's worked with Saba for almost 10 years. "If Mark says he's going to do something, he absolutely does it to excess," Turley says with a wry chuckle. "He's incredibly driven, incredibly focused, and if he says he's going to move X number of cars this month, he'll do it plus. If he says he'll get something to you, you get it the day before. He's a wonderful customer to have."

A strong sales department in Barre allowed Saba to spend time getting Rutland up and running. Dennis Foley (left) is general sales manager; Dan Dunbar is a sales consultant; and Stephen Sayce is business manager.

Saba's focus really came to the foreground once he was on his own. "I started hiring people who were different than we would have hired as a partnership, started training them a little bit differently. I had processes I knew would work, so I installed a process in sales and service with a goal for complete customer satisfaction." Among other things, that means empowering the employees to do what's necessary. "'I'll have to talk with the owner': We don't have any of that," he says.

Saba is adamant about keeping employee turnover low. With his processes beginning to reap rewards at Barre, he was eager to find a way for his employees to advance. Owning another dealership, he believed, would provide opportunities for Barre employees to advance both through transfers and filling vacant slots created by transfers.

In 2003, Saba learned that Seward's Ford and Lincoln-Mercury business in Rutland was for sale. "Actually, it had already been sold," he recalls, "and I was disappointed, because I knew Rutland was a good area; there are 65,000 people in the area. I called one of the owners, Randy Kinne, and said, 'I understand you sold the dealership, but I also know nothing is ever a done deal until the papers are signed and the money is passed. If for some reason, this doesn't come to fruition, please call me, because I would be interested.'" Two weeks later, Kinne called, and Saba closed the deal.

"His ability to expand and grow is amazing," says Turley. "We all have great ideas, but some of us are better at execution than others."

The first thing Saba did in Rutland was to "call the employees together and give them our goals, what we're looking to do." Next was a facilities upgrade.

"Last year was a big change, not only from renovation and structure, but also in process and culture. We've increased sales in Rutland over 200 percent in our first year!" Saba exclaims.

Opening Rutland has required a lot of Saba's time in the last year. One reason he felt comfortable with that is his Barre team. Marie Rock, the controller, has been with the company 15 years "since the beginning," he says. "She has been instrumental not only in our success in Barre, but also in bringing Rutland along. She knows what happened in Barre and how that was done.

"Then I have a parts and service director, Jack Castellaneta. He was one of the ones able to grow with this acquisition, to go down and get our service and parts department set up in Rutland. He's been traveling back and forth."

Of great help in the transition, says Saba, were three managers in the Barre sales department, Dennis Foley, Mike Gosselin and Steve Sayce, "who have really run the sales department to insure that we didn't miss a beat."

With the Rutland purchase, the company's employees have grown to 90. Total sales are approaching $50 million, Saba says. The goal is $75 million.

Getting Rutland in shape means Saba can think about more time with his family, which has grown to three children. Andrew, 11, plays baseball; Adam, 9, is into biking; and Caroline, age 5, loves art, says Saba. Together, the family enjoys boating on Lake Champlain and visiting museums.

Mark Saba has instituted finely tuned sales and service procedures followed by Marie Rock, controller; Jack Castellaneta, parts and service director, and Chris Woodruff, parts manager.

"I'm chair of the Burlington Fire Commission; on the Vermont Chamber board; a member of the Vermont Business Roundtable; and past chair of the Vermont Ford Dealers' Council," says Saba. "Other than that, at this point, I tell people I'd love to serve, but it would take away from my family."

Less time in Rutland has also given him time to think about the future. Formula is now a brand, he says, well known in central Vermont and now in Rutland, "and in Chittenden County, because a lot of people come to us from there. It certainly would be nice to have a store to put the name Formula on in Chittenden County," he muses; "just if something were to come available."

Originally published in December 2004 Business People-Vermont