Bridging the generations with the Grappones

The Grappone family has been in the auto business since 1924, when Rocco Grappone opened a gas station at 167 N. State St. in Concord. Today, the Grappone dealerships at the junction of Interstates 93 and 89 are a landmark in the New Hampshire auto industry, celebrating their 80th year of doing business this year.

The family today owns seven dealerships, employs 350 people and has sold more than 11,000 vehicles in the past year, generating some $226 million in annual revenues.

New Hampshire Business Review recently spoke to representatives of the second, third and fourth generations of the Grappone family — Rocco’s son John, 84, his grandson Bob, 60, and one of his great-grandchildren, Amanda, 30.

NHBR: John, how did Grappone get to where it is today?

John Grappone: My dad began as a stonecutter, an engraver. In those days, stonecutters didn’t wear masks, so they commonly developed “stonecutter’s consumption” from breathing in granite dust. My mother was concerned about that, so she decided that she and my older sister would get jobs to save money so we could go into some kind of a business.

They took jobs at New England Cable Company, where they made ignition wires for the Model T Ford. Wheels for the Model T were also made in Concord at the old Abbott & Downing Company, the same company that used to make the big wooden wheels for the Concord Stage Coaches. Hoyt Electric made the instruments and meters for the Model T right here in Concord too. Henry Ford specified how he wanted them packaged and shipped. He designed the shipping container such that after they were emptied of their contents, the containers would then be installed as seats in the Model T’s. He was a very intelligent guy.

Anyway, in 1924 my dad bought a filling station with the money my mother and older sister had chipped in. In 1925, he took on selling Oldsmobiles and its sister car, the Viking. In 1930, he gave up the Viking line and took on Pontiac, which we sold for about 60 years. Meanwhile, my dad also became the sole distributor of DeSoto and Plymouth in New Hampshire. In fact, the franchise that Carlson’s has today, my dad gave to the father of the current owner.

During World War II, we retreaded tires, and that’s how we kept the business going until my brothers returned from overseas and things got back to normal. We sold Fords beginning in 1958.

NHBR: The economy improved greatly after the war ended.

JG: Oh yes. Things improved enough in the ‘40’s to where my dad owned a few racehorses, which he raced out of Rockingham Park, Suffolk Downs and Tropical Park in Florida. But listen, as far as the economy goes in New Hampshire, you know about how they talk about recessions? Well back then, New Hampshire had never really felt a recession because we were in one all the time, so it seemed. Of course, today it’s a little different, but that’s about what it was like in those days.

NHBR: So what drives you to continue to come to the dealerships, even today when Bob and others are running things?

JG: You have to get some satisfaction from what you do. It also depends on how the business goes too. If it’s discouraging, after a while that takes its toll you know, but I’ve always been sort of an optimist. I figure eventually something good will happen, and it generally does. Nothing stays the same.

NHBR: What kind of cars do you personally drive?

JG: I drive a Focus so nobody will try to borrow it from me. They have plenty of muscle, they handle well, ride well, easy to park and easy on gas. What else do you need?

Bob Grappone: For years, I never paid special attention to any particular models. When a new model would come out, I’d try it so I’d be familiar with it and could talk about it. But when the restyled T-Bird came in 2002, I really liked it. It’s the first car that I’ve ever personally registered. I also like the new Ford GT that’s coming out soon. They’re only going to build 1,500 of them initially, but we’ll have one here on display for our customers to see this spring.

More than ever, manufacturers are under the gun to change models, to freshen up their lines and be good technologically with the best quality possible. I’ve been in the business long enough to have gone through some very poor quality years. No manufacturer has ever been able to avoid it. When I first got into the business in the ‘60’s, Ford had some horrendous years, and Pontiac was terrible, but people bought them anyway because they needed them. The quality in cars today vs. the old days is the difference between night and day.

NHBR: What about you, Amanda? As the fourth generation of the family to be involved in the business, what’s your passion, other than your Toyota 4-Runner?

Amanda Grappone: I think it’s very interesting to see who chooses what model and why. There are so many new vehicles — the Eurovan, the hybrids, they’re all so much more personal vehicles than they used to be vs. just providing transportation.

NHBR: You grew up around the family car business and worked in it while in high school, college and a couple of times after college, but you basically shied away from it. At what point did you decide to join the business?

AG: When I turned 30 and my dad turned 60. Finally the weight of responsibility settled in on me, and I realized that my dad’s been working hard, doing what he has to do to take care of the family, the braces, the college education, all the things that many aren’t fortunate enough to have, or maybe take for granted. The vacation was over, it was time to come back to the business and be serious about it.

NHBR: Now that you’re back, what do you like most about it?

AG: I was recently telling a friend about what a tremendous amount of money has to be generated just to cover our overhead and allow us to generate even a 2 percent return on investment. My friend asked me why we go through all of this when it might be simpler just to put the money in a savings account that would bring a better ROI. What you have to take into consideration first and foremost is the 350 families you’re supporting along the way. Maybe that’s not as quantifiable, but that’s a huge part of it for me. If we didn’t have any kind of history of giving back to the community, I think I can honestly say I wouldn’t be here.

BG: Even our salespeople sometimes think “the Grappones can’t be stupid, they must be making more money than this” on this car, but there is a misperception about how much money we make per car. There’s a misperception on what it takes to run the business.

JG: We make about 1 to 1.5 percent on sales. You can’t make too many mistakes, you know? You can see what we have to go through just to get that 1 percent.

NHBR: So your business truly relies on volume to be profitable, which in turn comes back to servicing the customer.

BG: The customer is the silent supervisor because if we don’t take care of him or her, somebody else will.

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