Setting the Stage for the Benz

Northern Kentucky’s newest auto dealer has a modest goal.

“We want to make it so when you drive around Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, you see more Mercedes than any other luxury brand,” says Bernie Moreno, president of Cleveland-based The Collection Auto Group. Moreno’s group is opening Mercedes-Benz of Fort Mitchell, Northern Kentucky’s first Mercedes dealership, at Interstate 75 and Dixie Highway in October.

Moreno, 46, isn’t just blowing smoke. Eight years ago, he took an under-performing Mercedes franchise in North Olmstead outside Cleveland and turned it into the largest Mercedes dealership among the roughly 80 in the central United States, out-selling Mercedes stores in Chicago, St. Louis and Columbus.

“We opened in April of 2005,” he says. “The old dealership sold 24 cars over four and a half months, and we sold 80 cars in half a month.”

Today, Mercedes-Benz of North Olmstead sells 1,500 new cars a month and another 1,000 used vehicles.

Moreno says he expects the Fort Mitchell store will sell 2,000 new and used cars to start.

“The question we ask ourselves is whether this dealership will be the number one dealership in the central region, or whether our dealership in Cleveland retains that position,” he says with a wink.

The Collection Auto Group also has grown from that single Mercedes franchise to 20 brands including luxury nameplates such as Porsche, Aston Martin and Maserati and more mainstream brands such as Buick-GMC, Nissan and Infiniti and Volkswagen.

This year, Moreno expects to sell about 10,000 new and used vehicles across all his franchises and have revenues of $500 million.

Besides the new Fort Mitchell location, The Collection Group is opening franchises in Akron, Boston and Coral Gables, Fla. Next year, Moreno says he expects to sell about 14,000 vehicles, new and used, and approach $650 million in revenues.

That’s pretty good for a kid who was born in Bogotá, Colombia, moved to Florida with his family at age five and didn’t learn English until he was seven.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the car business. For me, they’re works of art,” says Moreno, who is one of seven children of a distinguished surgeon who moved his family to the states because of the turmoil in Colombia.

Moreno isn’t the most famous of his siblings. His older brother Luis Moreno is president of the Inter-American Development Bank and former Columbia ambassador to the United States.

Another brother, Alex, is business partner of Northern Kentucky businessman Blevins Bowlin.

“The whole family is an American success story,” says Bowlin. “Bernie is a dynamic, hard-working person. He’s big on giving back to the community. He’s going to be a real asset for Northern Kentucky.”

In Cleveland, Moreno’s served on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the American Red Cross. He was named to the Cleveland State University board of trustees by Gov. John Kasich and was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in northern Ohio two years ago.

Bowlin has seen Moreno’s sales skill up close. More than a year ago, they were having dinner in Cleveland when they started talking about cars and Moreno offered to sell him a new Mercedes.

Bowlin said he’s not one to make a quick decision, but ended up driving back from Cleveland in a new Mercedes. “I couldn’t refuse him,” Bowlin says, adding his son has also since bought a Mercedes from Moreno.

“What’s interesting to me is people love cars, but they hate buying them. My mission is to change that,” Moreno says.

Moreno earned a business degree at the University of Michigan. He started working for General Motors Corp.’s revolutionary Saturn company while still in college and after five years moved to Boston to run a Saturn dealership for another car enthusiast, Herb Chambers, one of the nation’s largest auto retailers. Moreno rose to vice president in Chambers’ auto retailing empire, before Mercedes asked him to turn around the North Olmstead dealership.

When Mercedes approached him in August 2012 about opening a franchise in Northern Kentucky, Moreno said he jumped at the chance.

“This is a market very similar to Cleveland,” says Moreno. “The demographics are good. There’s a growing population and a lot of new retail.”

Moreno isn’t a total stranger to the area. His wife, Bridget, who he met in college, grew up in Indiana but her parents now live in Butler County, north of Cincinnati.

Bowlin also introduced Moreno to key Northern Kentucky businessmen such as Corporex’s Bill Butler and Wayne Carlisle, whose EGC Construction built the Fort Mitchell dealership in less than eight months.

Butler, says Moreno, “is a great guy. I can’t stress how helpful he’s been.”

As his base of operations, Moreno bought a luxury condo in Corporex’s high-rise Ascent in downtown Covington.

The $18.5 million Mercedes dealership, on the seven-acre site of the former USA Hotel, is a state-of the-art facility, with a number of green features such as all LED lighting, and some first-of-its-kind services.

Don Paparella, who has worked for Moreno in Boston and Cleveland, is managing partner of the new dealership employing 70 people.

“We’re taking everything we’ve learned about automotive retailing for the last 20 years and perfecting it in one location,” says Moreno.

There will be standard amenities such as valet service and a fleet of loaner vehicles, but new features as well.

For example, the dealership will offer a new express service, called the Mercedes Pit Stop, allowing customers to get an oil change, vehicle and tire inspection, car wash and vacuum in less than 45 minutes or its free.

“We’ll take that back to Mercedes and see if they’ll introduce it elsewhere,” he says.

The dealership is also exploring another new service, called “Service and a Sandwich,” allowing customers to pre-order a meal that will be waiting for them while their vehicle is serviced.

“Our competition isn’t Cincinnati’s Mercedes or Lexus dealers, but the best service our customers have ever received at the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons hotel,” he says.

And Moreno doesn’t expect to stop with just the Mercedes store. The new dealership will also offer Mercedes’ high performance AMG cars, which start around $50,000, and Mercedes’ Sprinter vans and light-duty trucks. Both are firsts for the area.

Ultimate Air Shuttle is one of its first Sprinter customers. The regional carrier will use a Sprinter van for it’s limo service between Fountain Square and its flights at Lunken Airport and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Over time, Moreno says The Collection Auto Group plans to add other franchises in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, but he says he’s not out to shake-up local auto retailing.

“Our mission is to deliver for our clients something they would never have expected from a car dealer. I don’t look at other dealers. They’ll do what makes sense for them,” he says. “We’ll do what’s right for our clients.”