Generation Game

Rosenthal Automotive

By the time you read this it is quite likely Rosenthal Automotive, of Berri in the Riverland region of South Australia, may have won Holden’s prestigious Grand Master Award awarded to only 32 Dealerships in Australia each year. Again.

One thing is certain. The birth of a granddaughter in November last year has ensured there will be a fifth generation to look after this unusual and extremely long-established car dealership.

This is South Australia’s Riverland region, a scattered community of some 35,000 people in five towns of which Berri is the centre. Renmark, where the company set up its business an amazing 105 years ago, is some 20 kilometres away in this fruit growing area. Rosenthal used to have dealerships in both towns, but four years ago the two were consolidated into a single all-new centre in Berri, featuring Holden, Hyundai, Mazda and Mitsubishi in a single operation.

This, of course, is not something the multinational automotive giants particularly like. Multi-franchising is discouraged almost everywhere, not least because it reduces the dealer’s and manufacturer’s perceived ‘hold’ on the customer. It’s in the consumer’s interest, of course, to have more of a free choice and to be able to compare brands without a trek from one dealer to another, but that cuts little ice with the OEMs. However, in some areas there is no option but for the OEMs to accept the economic reality that with a customer base of 35,000, no one could sustain four complete separate dealerships.

There has to be compromise, and all four brands would much rather be represented by Rosenthals than by a competing dealership. “You have got to be realistic in this size market,” says Jim Rosenthal. “A single line franchise would not survive in this market. We have invested a lot of money in our facilities and we have to have volume throughput; this is the only system that will work in this kind of environment.”

Jim has done plenty of travelling and has seen what other countries have to offer and is proud to say that, “We have been judged one of the best country dealerships in Australia. There is nothing like this in Europe.” Jim and his brother Phil consciously put a lot of the best features they saw on their travels into this facility, which is frequently visited by counterparts from other regions to learn the keys to success.

The team set out to create something that would have the feel of ‘standalone’ outlets, each of the four showrooms having its own premises and staff (putting multiple brands in a single new-car showroom is still well beyond the tolerance of the OEMs, and it would also dilute the individual brands’ DNA). Holden Mitsubishi and Mazda showrooms are delineated by transparent history walls depicting heritage buildings in both Renmark and Berri. This gives the feel of separate displays under the same roof which enable maximum efficiency of staff and support facilities like aftermarket, finance and insurance. It is truly a one stop shop which shares the behind-the-scenes functions like parts, service and accounting to realise the economies of scale needed in rural situations. The Hyundai Showroom is a standalone facility separated by the service entrance. The result is that the Riverland gets top-notch representation for four highly popular brands, all run to the same high standard.

Despite its small population, there is plenty of competition in the Riverland. Jim says Toyota and Nissan are strong, there are three Ford dealers, and two further Holden outlets – and that just accounts for the major brands. “It’s very crowded. That’s because it’s not one big town like Mildura; the towns here are still a little parochial, although that is changing.”

Having such a traditional position in the local community is a huge advantage, says Jim, but it would count for little if you were not competitive. “People don’t come and buy just because it is us – they still want value for money. But we are providing them with quality premises and quality people – long-term employees who have been working with us in some cases for more than 40 years.” Rosenthals have won a string of awards, nationally with Holden, although the company is also high up in the Mazda dealership charts. “Quality service is something we have concentrated on for 105 years,” says Jim.

Rosenthals have tried many things over the years to diversify and reduce the burden on new and used car sales – caravans, trailers, trucks, motorcycles and outboard motors, boats and even lawnmowers – but after 1980, once the original Holden dealership had been joined by Mazda and Mitsubishi, most of those lines were divested, although the company still offers battery powered mobility vehicles. Currently, the precarious position of the horticulture industry is affecting the local economy quite a lot. “We have been battling that for many years,” Jim shares. “We also went through ten years of drought, which affected us. We make the most of what is out there and ensure we are super-competitive so we can survive.”

There has been some recent restructuring of the company’s ownership, Jim having purchased his brother’s share. “My side of the family is coming into the business – my son-in-law is General Manager and my son is currently Used Car Sales Manager. My daughter is now Business Manager. She has just had a baby, so we have the new fifth generation of the family here to carry on. I’m very happy with what the fourth generation is doing.”

Jim says the company tailored the business to suit the market and if the local economy ever improves after so many difficult years, it could be boom time given that Rosenthals can turn a decent profit even in the lean times. “We are working extremely hard. We benchmark our dealership against others; we are in a benchmarking business development group with Holden.” Keeping track of changing consumer tastes, Jim says the internet can either help or hinder. “We have had to change the way we market; we have a separate website for Holden in addition to our general website.”

Essentially, anyone expressing interest in Holden via the main carmaker’s site enters a postcode and is then directed to Rosenthal’s Holden-only pages. “It’s up to us to handle that customer from there on in. We have to make sure we are right up with the latest trends. In used cars, too, we have to make sure we are up to date on the web.” However, he says that people do still like to visit the showroom, touch and feel the vehicles, drive them, kick tyres. “The day may come in the future when people buy their vehicle off the internet but generally people still want to try before they buy. But we are changing with the times.”

After decades of stability the company went through a “huge transition” over nearly four years, selling the old dealerships and premises and assets in both towns to build the present-day facility on its 16,000 square metre plot. “We also built a public car wash which is part of the complex.” Rosenthals Berri Bubble Wash also features not one, but two dog washes. “That provides a service to the town too,” says Jim. Two panel shops were put together to further streamline the business. “It’s very successful – rated one of the best in South Australia. We are part of the Dupont Performance group, rated in the top four.”

It’s easy to see why Rosenthal Automotive has been among the top dealerships and voted one of Holden’s best dealers three times in a row. It might have been easier for Jim and the family to sit back and bask in the glory of their century-plus traditions in the area, but they knew that would not sustain the future. So they set about making the centre one of the most progressive in Australia – metro or not.

The result is a perfect combination of ancient and modern, you might say, a blend of new and old that goes against the rules. That the OEMs let Rosenthal get away with (and these days encourage) such marketing ‘heresy’ as a four-brand multi-franchise centre speaks volumes for the scale of the company’s success.

For more information about Rosenthal Automotive, please visit

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 6:43 AM AEDT