Back Story

Jim VandenBerg

Owner, Maple Hill Auto Group
Encore-Magazine-Back-Story-Jim-VandenBerg-November-2016
At home Jim VandenBerg is surrounded by women, clockwise from top left: Ella Bellenberg and Rafaela Strussmann, exchange students from Germany and Brazil, respectively; daughters Abby and Paige, and his wife Monie.

Jim VandenBerg is the master of Plan B.

From overcoming a deadly illness that he contracted while in kindergarten to losing his father at age 9 to weathering turbulent times in the car business, VandenBerg knows a little something about adapting. The owner of Maple Hill Auto Group and father of two, who was born and raised in Kalamazoo, says it’s less about being malleable and more about learning.

“There’s a learning experience in everything we do,” he says, “and we have a responsibility to help and teach others who come along. We have to work each day as hard as we can because you never know what will happen.”

Were you into cars growing up?

Actually, I thought I was going to be a doctor. I went to Hope College for pre-med, which had a stringent reduction program because they guarantee placement in the end. The class started with 400 and ended up with nine. I didn’t make it.

In my junior year I needed a new major. My cousin did ground sonic testing for the oil exploration industry and said it was a great business, so I majored in geology. The year I got my degree the oil embargo (imposed against the U.S. by OPEC) went into place and 6,000 geologists were laid off, so I stayed an extra semester and picked up a business degree.

Why did you want to be a doctor?

When I was in kindergarten, I contracted bacterial meningitis, was in a coma, and ended up living in the hospital for a long time and I really admired doctors. This was in 1964-65, and at that time it was not considered survivable, but I made it.

As a result, there were a lot of repercussions from the meningitis. I spent a lot of time rehabbing. The right side of my brain was so swollen it affected the left side of my body. I was born left-handed, so I had to learn to do everything right-handed.

Also, I developed dyslexia and problems with my vision as well as having to take speech classes to learn to talk again. I used to have to leave my classroom and go to special classes for speech and reading and pretty much became the odd kid out at school.

But, you know, you just work through it.

What do you think gave you that kind of grit?

My dad died when I was 9, and I learned to appreciate every day and know that you aren’t promised anything. You work hard and adapt. I watched my mom, who was a nurse, become a single working mother, raising three kids in the 1960s. For awhile, we were on ADC (Aid to Dependent Children). But she put all three of us, with the help of our church, through Hope College. She’s a pretty cool lady.

How did you become a car dealer?

When I got out of college, a buddy talked me into trying car sales. I became a district manager for Great Lakes Mazda, covering Michigan and Ohio, and did that for several years. But I really wanted to get back to retail, so my wife and I started looking at buying a dealership in Ohio.

Then my bosses found out I was looking. They called me to meet them at the airport, and usually a call like that is not good. I looked at my wife that day and said, “This is probably it.” I had all the stuff in my car — my computer and files — to give back at termination.

At the airport, my boss, his boss and the chairman of the company got off the plane, and I thought, “They’re bringing in the chairman? What did I do?” They said, “We found out you were looking for a dealership and leaving the company. Well, we’d like to partner up with you.”

They wanted to buy a store in Kalamazoo that sold Chrysler, Volvo and Hyundai. They had the resources, and I had day-to-day operations. That was in 1995, and they are still my partners today. I’ve worked for them or with them for 34 years.

Your dealership has changed a lot since then.

We had to reinvent ourselves after ’09 and the bankruptcy of General Motors —780 Chrysler dealers were eliminated, and we were one of them. At the time, Chrysler parts and services were 60 to 70 percent of our back-end business. We had to lay off employees, and it just tore us apart. Those were pretty dark days.

But we buckled up and started rebuilding ourselves as an import dealership — not by choice but by situation. And it’s been great.

What are you passionate about?

Kids. Helping kids that have to get through everything they have to go through. I think I checked every block of what kids might have to go through so I understand. I support Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes because they help families who don’t have a whole lot. I lived through that and I know what that is. Most of my meals were macaroni and cheese and pancakes. We thought that was cool, not knowing it meant we were down to limited food.

I also love animals and am the president of the SPCA board. Our company also works to support The Arc Community Advocates. My wife’s brother is mentally and physically impaired and he came to live in Kalamazoo after her parents died and now works in our car wash.

What was your first car?

A 1969 Chevy Nova. Bought it for $500. It didn’t have two fenders on it. I rebuilt it and did the body work.

What’s your dream car?

I have a 1967 VW bus that I’m refurbishing. It’s the ultimate ’60s hippie machine, with a surfboarder decal in the back window and peace sign hanging from the mirror. We’ve repainted it blue, gray and white, and we’re putting in a new interior with pop-up TVs and wraparound lounge seating. It’ll have a throwback look but modern technology. Think I’ll have to grow a ponytail, though.

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Evolution of a Dealership

"We had to reinvent ourselves after ’09 and the bankruptcy of General Motors —780 Chrysler dealers were eliminated, and we were one of them. At the time, Chrysler parts and services were 60 to 70 percent of our back-end business. We had to lay off employees, and it just tore us apart. Those were pretty dark days.
But we buckled up and started rebuilding ourselves as an import dealership — not by choice but by situation. And it’s been great."

—Jim VandenBerg, owner Maple Hill Auto Group