Car sales are not really my forte,” Jeff Wyler is saying in a remarkably candid moment.
 
The occasion is an interview with a reporter, and Wyler is apparently unaware — or unconcerned — that he’s just uttered what must be the moral equivalent of, say, Winston Churchill revealing “You know, I’m not really very good at fighting Nazis.”

Wyler just laughs. As Greater Cincinnati’s pre-eminent auto dealer, you’d think the man would live and breathe showroom deals and automotive wrangling. In truth, Wyler concedes, “I haven’t actually sold a car in at least 16 years.” And even back in his car-dealing heyday, he stayed away from the showroom floor as much as possible. “I’m just not knowledgeable enough about all the various products. My role is not as a salesman. I’m the CEO of a company.”

And what a company it is. The Jeff Wyler Automotive family operates 27 new car and truck franchises in the Tristate, employing 650 people with annual sales exceeding $500 million.

What make of cars does Wyler sell? Everything from Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac, Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep, all the way to Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, Kia, Hyundai and more.

How Jeff Wyler branded himself, his name, is a story in itself. At a recent Northern Kentucky University business class, students were read the statement “Cars, like eggs, are cheeper in the country.” A full 80 percent recognized the line as a Jeff Wyler staple slogan (with its cutesy spelling of “cheaper”), even though Wyler says he hasn’t used that tagline in television commercials since the 1980s — that is to say, years before many of these students were born.

What’s more, almost all the students in the classroom recognized the Jeff Wyler name as something to do with auto sales, even though most of the kids have barely bought their first car.

“Yeah, my marketing guys say ‘You, Jeff, are a brand,’” Wyler notes. “It comes from 35 years of doing commercials.”

Even so, Wyler is somewhat mystified at his almost legendary, if not iconic, status. “It’s really amazing to me. It’s surprising that youngsters who weren’t even born yet (know the Wyler egg tagline).”

The car dealer’s own marketing department has compiled research indicating he has a 95-percent name identification in the Tristate market. “It’s good for me, I guess, it’s good for what I do. We do sell a lot of cars.”

Ironically, when Wyler first started his Clermont County business in the 1970s, he was not allowed to advertise, at least not in the Cincinnati newspapers (word was that certain Hamilton County auto dealers had cut some kind of an exclusivity deal with the dailies).

So, Wyler decided to place the majority of his marketing budget in local television, a medium relatively untried at the time, by new car dealers (who tended to rely on Detroit’s Big Three and their slick national TV commercials). The purely local commercials paid off, as did Wyler’s early brainstorm to locate in the “country.”

TAKING A BACK SEAT TO NONE

Wyler points to the sea of paved asphalt around him, displaying miles and miles of brand-new cars, and observes: “When I first came out here, these were all beanfields.” His decision to build on the rural outskirts was, in hindsight, smart economics. He believed that the eventual completion of Interstate 275 would create an audience willing to drive all the way out to the hinterlands. Land was cheap out there then; now, with the development of Eastgate Mall and burgeoning retail and housing units along state Route 32, the land he sits on could well be as valuable as his dealerships.

Wyler experimented with another unique concept early on. By acquiring multiple dealerships, he steered the car-buying experience away from any one particular make. Consumers were going out to Wyler’s “auto-mall,” a mega strip where the car brand was de-emphasized, where you could test-drive multiple makes and models. This convenience, partnered with price, made a difference, Wyler believes.

Succeeding in business has allowed Wyler to indulge in a personal passion. Noting that, as a college student, he worked the Reds ticket office in order to earn tuition money, he plainly states, “I love baseball.”

In 2006, he took the opportunity to buy shares in the Cincinnati Reds. The process of achieving minority-owner status through Major League Baseball, however, was brutal. “It was the most thorough background check that anybody has ever done on me,” Wyler reveals.

Despite a hectic travel schedule, Wyler makes sure to pencil in the first Monday in April, Opening Day of the Reds season. “My dad had a great quote. He always said, ‘Son, you need to live your life so that if your funeral is on Opening Day, it will still be well-attended.’”

Actually, working as a Reds ticket-seller is just one of the many jobs Wyler took, sometimes as many as three at a time, to work his way through the University of Cincinnati. From insurance investigator to hotel desk clerk, from accounts receivable auditor for a trucking company to myriad other posts, Wyler began to amass his life experience early on. “I even graded papers for the finance department. Any chance to make a dollar, I would try to do it.” (The one thing he wouldn’t do is take an 8 a.m. class; he detested the early hours — so now, as the boss of his business, he gets up at 6 a.m. Go figure.) Often earning just $43 a week, Wyler learned the value of a buck, as well as the value of a UC education.

Upon graduation with a degree in finance, Wyler interviewed with some major companies — Shell Oil and Smith-Barney among them — but wound up with General Motors.

After managing a Chevrolet dealership in Newark, Ohio, the Cincinnati native returned to his hometown in 1973 — at the tender age of 30 and amid the nation’s first full-blown gas crisis — to open his own Chevrolet dealership in Batavia. He had a total of 12 employees and, even though he was saddled during a fuel shortage with an inventory of vehicles that plodded along at nine miles to gallon, still managed to sell 300 cars that first year.

BACK ON CAMPUS

While appreciating his UC education, it might have surprised even Wyler himself that one day he’d find himself back on the Clifton campus — albeit, in a totally different context.

Wyler assumed his role as chairman of the board of trustees at the University of Cincinnati in 2001, taking over from another legendary brand name, congressman and former Enquirerpublisher Bill Keating. “It’s been one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” he says.

Wyler, as it happens, also chaired the presidential search committee that brought Nancy Zimpher to town in 2003. “She’s a very gracious woman, and she will be missed,” Wyler observes of the departing Zimpher.

Wyler has also served in a variety of roles on local chambers of commerce, Rotary, United Way and other agencies. “I’ve always felt that, as much as I can, it’s important to give back to the community,” he stresses, adding that his motives aren’t entirely pure. “Certainly, it’s part of what makes us successful. We don’t work in a vacuum.”

Lesser known, perhaps, is his role in helping found C Bank, a private lending institution located downtown. Wyler rattles off the names of his cohorts in the operation: “There’s Larry Sheakley, John Wyant, Oh, and ‘Bo’ Wood. He’s a lot of fun.” (“Bo” is better recognized by the general public as Frank Wood, the driving force behind WEBN radio’s glory days.)

When he finds the time, Wyler’s hobbies include golfing, racing (he owns a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Team based in North Carolina), collecting Franklin Mint miniature cars, and travel. He’s just returned from New Zealand, and is off to Mexico and Las Vegas (the latter for dealership trade shows).

Adding to his travels are Wyler’s other homes, in Phoenix, Naples, Fla., and northern Michigan.

More and more, Wyler is attempting to find time for his passions and civic work. He is quietly handing off some of the management responsibility to the next generation. His son, David, is company co-president (along with Wyler son-in-law Scott Bristow) and is now taking a higher profile.

In a March speech to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s Legacy CEO luncheon, in fact, David Wyler took on the economic challenges facing the Big Three and auto dealerships in general: “People are scared to death to spend money,” the younger Wyler noted. With a GM or Chrysler bankruptcy looming and the stock market in crisis, the Wyler heir still believes in optimism: “We’re well-positioned to grow” while adjusting inventories. Yes, staff has been cut, “but we haven’t reduced our advertising.”

Proving that the son really can take a lesson from the father. Imagine a whole new generation of catchy commercial slogans to top “Cars, like eggs, are cheeper in the country.” And even while “the country” isn’t the country anymore, the Wyler brand name remains.