Houston Chronicle Sunday
Luxury auto sales rev up in Houston
Luxury car empire, growing with Houston’s wealth, serves customers ‘where budget is not a factor’
‘Disneyland of Porsche’ latest in fleet of high-dollar car dealer projects.
TODD Blue, a former real estate developer and executive at a family business, started collecting classic cars about 15 years ago, which soon sparked loftier automotive ambitions.
On Saturday, he opened the doors on a new company headquarters for his 14-store, Houston-based group of luxury car dealerships — a two-story Porsche store designated by the German brand as one of six U.S. flagship locations.
“This is literally like the Disneyland of Porsche,” he said recently, strolling the 60,000-square-foot facility in a blue Italian suit as work crews attended to finishing touches. Blue built his new wonderland next to the Lamborghini dealership he also owns, the top-selling Lamborghini dealership in the country, according to a ranking of 47 dealerships by the brand. And Blue, the 48-year-old CEO of indiGO Auto Group, envisions greater growth ahead.
Even the incessant oil slump hasn’t taken the edge off Houston’s market for high-end toys — and the new Porsche North Houston comes amid several high-profile, high-dollar luxury car projects emerging across town.
The national dealership empire Sonic Automotive plans to build a midrise, multibrand luxury showroom on U.S. 59, across the street from its seven-story Audi dealership. The Post Oak Hotel, under construction near the Galleria, also plans to
feature a glass-cased twostory showroom with RollsRoyce and Bentley brands. Houston’s Helfman Auto Group recently finished a new Maserati dealership on the Katy Freeway and is preparing for a total renovation of its Sugar Land Fiat location to incorporate the Maserati brand.
“That’s a pretty good indicator of what the luxury car market has been and what we anticipate it will be,” said Steven Wolf, CEO of Helfman and president of the Houston Auto Dealers Association. “Seems like everything is moving in the right directions.”
It’s a market for the top tier of spenders in Houston, a city noted for America’s fastest-growing population of multimillionaires in 2014 at the height of the shale boom. Boom gone, wealth remains, and the highest level of income earners has seen disproportionate growth in recent years.
In Harris County, 7.3 percent of households took home more than $200,000 per year in 2015, the latest year with available data, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was more than double the rate of 10 years prior, 3.5 percent in 2005.
Over that same period, Houston’s median household income grew 30 percent to just $56,629, and the largest single income block remained those earning between $50,000 and $75,000, constituting about 17.5 percent of county earners in both 2005 and 2015.
The median earner probably aren’t the ones fueling the market for luxury cars.
“We have services for the customer where budget is not a factor,” Blue said. “It’s Houston businesspeople. You take care of them and they’ll take care of you.” Blue beginnings
Blue’s affinity for automobiles sprouted far from the luxury sector, at a family owned Kentucky steel mill, in constant company of heavy metal and industrial machines. As a kid, he watched as auto plants sold scrap steel to be melted down at his family mill.
The family business was sold in 1998 while Blue was executive vice president, so he took the money he made and bought some classic cars. It started with a 1976 limited edition Bicentennial Cadillac El Dorado and a 1969 Maserati Ghibli Spyder, and Blue paid a variety of specialty shops to restore the engines, the bodies and the interiors.
“I said to myself, ‘To afford this hobby, I better make it a business,’ ” Blue said.
He auctioned off the restored Maserati for a profit, and the business was born.
Blue founded indiGO Classic Cars in 2006, buying rides and even importing them from Europe, then selling them at auction. But he set his sights on a storefront.
So Blue posted a classified ad on the online forum of the Young Presidents Organization, a club for chief executives. He was looking for a high-line dealership in a big-city market, he wrote. A member from Atlanta, who had recently bought a portfolio of stores, answered his ad. He offered a store he’d acquired in Houston but did not want. So Blue bought it.
In 2010 Blue moved into a 13,000-square-foot Porsche store on the North Freeway, about 2 miles south of the budding Grand Parkway.
“Houston happened by accident, and I’m grateful it did,” Blue said. “There’s something in the water that is celebratory of the entrepreneur and of businesspeople that take a risk. Other cities are not like that.”
Upon arrival, Blue called Kelly Wolf, a member of the tight-knit luxury automotive clique in Houston whom Blue had met at a Porsche brand meeting in Germany. The two got together,and Blue outlined his vision to expand his newly acquired dealership into a national group.
“I thought, clearly he’s a dreamer. I had a lot of questions about his plan,” said Wolf, 39, and now the chief operating officer of indiGO. “If I hadn’t taken that chance, I’d have regretted it forever.”
In 2011, indiGO Classic Cars became the indiGO Auto Group with the purchase of the Lamborghini dealership just down the highway. Blue tapped another local luxury auto insider, Zack Lawrence, as general manager. He shook up the staff and brought annual sales there to 78 vehicles in 2016, up from 12 in his first year. Never say no
Today, Lawrence, now 37, is looking for a spike in sales next year after Lamborghini releases its first SUV in two decades. At the dealership, cars go for between $200,000 and $600,000.
“We don’t just sell cars — we sell a lifestyle ,” Lawrence said.
IndiGO applied that philosophy onward, turning its stores into a customer experience where no buyer is told no.
In 2013, indiGO bought a nine-store group in Rancho Mirage, a suburb of Palm Springs, Calif., which includedRolls-Royce,Bentley, Aston Martin, Maserati and more. In 2015, the company bought and consolidated both Porsche dealerships in St. Louis, and in 2016 bought BMW of Palm Springs.
The company sticks with Porsche as an anchor tenant when it starts in a new city, Blue said, because Porsche “has found the perfect equilibriumbetween supply and demand. Porsche always builds one less car than there is demand.”
That enthusiasm in part earned indiGO a designation as a rare Porsche flagship, a store with extraclose factory ties, access to premium limited lines like the Porsche Manufaktur division and extra options for customization.
“The all-new Porsche North Houston will be one of the largest Porsche dealershipsin the U.S .,” Porsche Cars North America said in a statement. It will“be a prototypical dealership, which showcases Porsche’s latest design scheme.”
Construction of a flagship dealership required meticulous detail aimed at consistency of the German company’s self-professed corporate image. Specifications detailed down to the tile, paint and the Alucobond aluminum exterior panels.
The facility will include two stories of showrooms, a Porsche simulator, a clothing and accessory boutique and a customer waiting room with glass windows overlooking an air-conditioned, 26-station service shop that more resembles a hospital than a garage. Blue hopes to build a stand-alone car wash on site, too.
“It’s just another great sign of really positive economic development in the area,” said Greg Simpson, president of the North Houston District, who put the dealership second in terms of scope only to Amazon’s new North Houston fulfillment center among recent business projects in his district.
Blue said he aims to continue buying dealerships around Houston and the nation and will remain“disciplined and focused on staying in the luxury segment .”