Inspection time

Rick Shrum

The cost of renovating his complex was a lot to bear for Mark Baer. He declined to provide a figure, perhaps because he was still calculating it.

“Let’s say it’s a lot,” the owner of Budd Baer Auto said last week, during a tour of the sprawling facilities that straddle Murtland Avenue on Washington’s northern border.

Investment of time on this project was formidable as well – two years from the start of planning to end of construction. But the renovation was necessary and much more than cosmetic.

“Manufacturers (of cars) have minimum requirements we have to fulfill,” Baer said. “We ran out of space. We got to a point where we were so crowded, we were unable to service customers the way we needed. We doubled our service capacity by doing this.”

And now it’s time to show off his larger, spiffier, LED-illuminated dealership. Mark Baer, son of the original owner, unveiled his upgraded operation during a grand opening/open house Sunday.

The four buildings of this dealership will be open on a day when Baer Auto, and virtually all of its competitors, is closed. But Monday will be business as usual.

Mark Baer, appropriately, is a driven entrepreneur. He turned 70 two weeks ago, yet displays the energy of a 7-year-old as he circulates through those buildings: Subaru, Buick/GM, Mazda and the collision center. The renovations, and they’re not small scale, excite him. And the work did not curtail business, which he said has increased 15% to 20% this year.

Budd Baer Auto has about 100,000 square feet of operating space on a 14-acre site brimming with activity. “About 1,000 cars come in and go out each day,” the owner said. “We’re just getting into collision season, and October was our best volume month ever at the collision center.”

He estimated the workforce at “about 135,” and expects that figure to grow. “We have added jobs and anticipate adding more,” Baer said, adding that the company trains employees and has apprenticeship programs in three departments.

Baer’s personal office sits in the Subaru structure, an older facility that, he said, was “the first Subaru dealership in Pittsburgh to go green.” That building underwent an expansive redo. “We did the whole front. Inside, we have new flooring, ceilings, lights, bathrooms. The building has the same shape, but it was totally gutted.”

One distinctive item endures in the showroom there. It’s a red, 1923 Buick seven-passenger touring car known as Josephine, named after the Budd Baer family dog, who rode the running board.

The owner is especially proud of his company’s environmental initiatives, which he said includes 100% usage of LED lighting. “We do everything we can to be as green as we can be.”

His dealership is cruising toward a half-century at the Murtland location. “We’ve been here since Aug. 14, 1975,” said Baer, a Peters Township resident who has an encyclopedic memory of the family business, which actually goes back 73 years. He has a gallery of photos on a wall outside his office, chronicling the history.

His father, Henry “Budd” Baer, got into auto sales in 1946. He started at a used car lot in Dormont, where he raised a family while tending to a family of vehicles. Budd moved that dealership to West Liberty Avenue in the borough, then with brother-in-law Buzz Scheimer, bought a dealership specializing in new cars. Budd’s career then accelerated, leading to purchases of other dealerships in Crafton Heights, Heidelberg and Washington.

The car culture gripped an adolescent Mark in the early 1960s. “From the time I was 13, I worked for my dad or uncle. I worked Monday for $1 a day. When I turned 16, I got 30 cents an hour, then thought I was a millionaire when I got to 35.”

Mark graduated from college in 1974, but remained in the family business. Ten years later, he bought out his dad, then followed Budd’s lead: expanding his business through acquisition.

Mark purchased a Subaru dealership on Route 18 in Canton Township, then relocated it to Murtland. He followed that with a series of other purchases, including a couple of brands that are no longer produced. Mazda came on board in 2005.

Two years before that, on a mid-October morning, devastation struck. A fire destroyed the body shop, parts department and general office, causing smoke damage to the rest of the building. Damage, according to Mark, was estimated at $4.5 million. There were no injuries, however, and only two cars – both in the body shop – were damaged.

Mark Baer was in Atlantic City, N.J., at the time, attending a Subaru dealership conference.

The dealership not only survived, it rebounded, and 16 years later its remodeled operation is on public display.

Budd Baer Auto, from all appearances, will continue to be a family business. Mark, who has nine granddaughters yet no grandsons, has five family members on the payroll: sons Bryan (general manager) and Adam (assistant GM, parts and service director, all brands); daughter Samantha McVicker (events, marketing); nephew Gregg Cron (general sales manager) and son-in-law Greg McVicker (manager, collision center).

For 70-plus years, the old bromide – “Success Is Relative” – has certainly applied to the Baers.