DEALERSHIP SPOTLIGHT Helfman’s Italian job: redefine ‘premium cars’
Jack Helfman apparently didn’t just have goals and more than a little confidence when he began selling used cars six decades ago.
Turns out Helfman, who went on to acquire or open two Chrysler dealerships and a Ford store before passing away in 2011, may have been clairvoyant.
A grainy black-and-white photograph of that first modest enterprise shows a row of cars fronting Washington Avenue and a nearby sign proclaiming, “Helfman Motors Premium Cars Sold”
Fast-forward to 2014. The Helfman family opens an Alfa Romeo and Maserati store, made possible by Fiat’s gaining control of Chrysler for pennies on the dollar in the wake of the 2009 financial meltdown and Chrysler’s bankruptcy.
With their Italian styling, sexy exhaust sound and Ferrari-inspired engineering, the Alfa 4C sports car and Maserati Quattroporte performance sedan made it an entirely new ball game for one of Houston’s longest-running family owned new car dealers.
Now, should one of their longtime Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge or Ram customers have a powerful hankering for something luxe, the Helfmans can offer Maserati sedans, SUVs and grand touring machines that start at $75,000 and go up to $162,000. Then there’s the Alfa Romeo Giulia, Stelvio or 4C Spider in the $39,000 to $80,000 range.
Not so very long ago, the ceiling for Helfman’s premier cars would have been a special edition of the long-in-tooth Chrysler 300C that stickered in the mid-40s. There are, however, nicely decked-out $75,000 diesel Ram 3500 Limited Mega Cab 4x4s.
The Helfman organization has doubled-down on Italian style and verve, formally opening its second Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Fiat dealership on March 7. Serving southwest Houston and Sugar Land, the store has 13,200 square feet for the showroom, administration and service department.
The transformation from what was once a used car lot to the striking contemporary storefront that’s just across Helfman’s Ford dealership along I-69 reflects the close collaboration between Helfman and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA).
“If we wanted to be a premier, high-line store in this town, we needed to do something that set us apart — something you look at, and you recognize the Helfmans’ commitment,” said longtime general manager Jeff Smith. “The Helfman family hit a home run. When you’re looking to buy a vehicle like a Maserati or an Alfa, you’re also buying the experience. You appreciate it more.
“We have an enclosed service center, so if the weather’s bad — hot, cold, rainy, whatever — we have double doors and can bring everybody right in, get them out of the car and they don’t have to get wet. And they can pick their cars up right there too.”
The new store has an espresso machine, a wash rack and service customers can get loaner cars.
But it’s the commitment to customer service that’s most vital, said Jerry Hunter, Alfa Romeo’s regional manager.
“We want consistency out there. We want customers treated the way they should be,” said Hunter. “Any customer who walks in to the store today pretty much knows almost everything there is to know about the product because all the data is out there. Most customers shop 18 sites before they even go to the store. They know all the technical data, all the package data.”
FCA is out to make sure that the dealers have the right inventory “so our customers don’t have to drive hours to find another one because a local dealer doesn’t carry them in stock or is the wrong color,” Hunter said.
“The Helfman organization has been a great partner with us with their Chrysler, Jeep and Ram stores for many years, so it was an easy choice when we selected them to be the next Alfa Romeo store in the market. We love the family-owned businesses that go after it and have deep roots in the market. The Helfmans know everybody because they’ve been here so long.”
One is Marc Graubart, who has been getting his vehicles from Helfman for years, starting with a Ford F-450 he used to trailer up to a dozen horses. These days he’s enjoying the ponies under the hood of his gunmetal gray 2019 Ghibli and his wife Brooke’s dark metallic green 2017 Levante.
“We’re a three-Maserati family,” the River Oaks resident said. “My 80-year-old mother-in-law has a Levante as well, all bought from Helfman.
“I love my Ghibli S Q4. It’s fast. It’s sexy looking. I look forward to getting in it every morning. I love the way it sounds. It’s such a kick.” Graubart said he can get two sets of golf clubs into the trunk and that the sedan gets reasonably good gas mileage.
“It’s one of the best cars I’ve ever owned. The Italians know how to make cars.”