By Christine Bates | christine@mainstreetmag.com

Monday afternoons are a quiet time to test drive a car or talk to the head of a multi-brand auto dealership. Kristin Ruge, the President of Ruge Automotive talked to Main Street about her unconventional path from restaurant owner to managing the operations of a family business.

Ruge’s Automotive is a well-known Hudson Valley brand. Can you tell me about the backstory?

In 1935, my grandfather, Joseph Ruge, opened a General Motors Oldsmobile dealership in the center of Rhinebeck, NY. He and his brother shipped cars from the city via railway, and my grandfather unloaded them from the boxcars himself at the Rhinecliff Train Station! By 1938, he moved from his location directly across from the Beekman Arms just a quarter mile up Route 9 to our current Subaru location at 6444 Montgomery Street. And although customers initially said he’d gone “much too far out of town,” which is really funny to think about given today’s global economy, it was clearly a great move because we still operate there today.

My dad Lewis was born in December of that same year, and he went on to become a partner with my grandfather after serving our country as an officer in the United States Air Force.

In 1972 my Dad saw the market for a smaller economy car and brought Subaru into the mix – a timely decision in light of the gas shortage. Subaru had just entered the US with 4WD vehicles; today it’s one of our most popular brands.

What was it like for you to grow up in a family business?

It shaped me in many positive ways, and I’m really grateful for the unique childhood I enjoyed. Not only did I get to grow up in a small town where there was always a sense of place, but I got unique hands-on learning experiences that helped me understand business from a young age. Both of my parents worked there, and every day after school I’d report to the office, where I was given tasks to complete.

I had the chance to see my parents taking care of local employees and customers, and watched as they volunteered time and made contributions to community initiatives as well. I also witnessed their decisions to grow and expand when the right opportunities came along: my father bought the Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership just outside the village of Rhinebeck in the 1980s. And, in 2016, we added the Audia Motors Chevrolet Dealership in Mabbettsville, just outside of Millbrook, to our group.

What is your background? Tell me about your journey to becoming President of Ruge’s Automotive.

Our entire family has always worked in the business. After college, however, I took a different route from the automotive category, opening Blondie’s Restaurant where Pete’s in Rhinebeck is now. In addition, I owned and operated a concession stand at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds. Both were rewarding experiences, especially Blondie’s, which became a very popular gathering place. It had a comic strip theme, and when I’d go to work there, I was always reminded that food brings people together and, simply put, makes them happy. It was very hard work, but I met wonderful people and created many great memories.

As a working mom, though, I decided after ten years that it was time to shift gears; I knew I wanted a career, but needed a schedule more in line with my kids’ needs. So, I made my way back to the family business, enrolling in a one-year program at the Car Dealer Academy outside of Washington.
The education I received there gave me everything I needed to feel confident as a car dealer. We learned about effective management, financials, and all one could possibly want to know about new cars, used cars, marketing … everything. After I finished the program, I worked in all of the dealerships, and in 2015, I became President and the Dealer Principal approved by each manufacturer for the business my grandfather had started so many years ago. It’s very gratifying work; we have loyal customers, dedicated employees, and I love being a businessperson in the Hudson Valley.

Are some of your family members still involved in the business?

Yes. It’s pretty unique to come to work each day and see your family, and I’m lucky for that. My husband Scott is our controller, my father continues as vice president, my mom and sister work supporting business operations, and our son Tanner is one of the sales managers. Both of our younger sons are now studying business – it will be exciting to see where their roads lead.

Tell me about your team and workplace

Collectively, our three dealerships employ a total of 105 people. Because our staff tend to share our values/guiding principles, which is why they apply, most stay for many years. We believe strongly in providing ongoing professional development opportunities, and we’re committed to ensuring that ours is a positive atmosphere that maximizes the strengths of each member of the team. We all spend so much time at work – we want everyone to enjoy being here each day – to be healthy, happy, and to feel valued.

What is it like to be a woman in the automotive business?
It’s not easy! This has long been a male-dominated industry – but I think that progress is being made for women across the board, and I’m proud to see what’s happening in this space. GM has created the Women’s Retail Network of Women Owners. While there are only 260 of us out of literally thousands of GM dealers, which is very telling, the goal is to connect and support female leaders and create a more diverse dealership base. It’s great to be a part of the evolution, even though there’s still a long way to go.

And the truth is, women tend to do very well in this business; I wish more women would apply for sales and service jobs. You just need to believe in yourself and use your natural skill-set as a platform to shine. Like anything, it’s all about feeling confident that you’ve got exactly what it takes to get the job done. I want to see more women develop that confidence so that they can enjoy the incredible opportunities that exist in this business.

There’s also an advantage if you officially become a Woman Owned Business Enterprise in New York State, which qualifies your dealership to compete for minority spend on large contracts. We are in the process of gaining this designation.

You entered this business just as the economic downturn began, was that difficult?

With challenges come opportunities. We did what all businesses have to do during tough times; we stayed strong and maintained our focus on the future. Our relationships with our customers and the broader community have always sustained us, and, in times of economic prosperity, catapulted us to success – so even when tough times come along, we know that those connections will keep us solid.

What aspects of the business are you most involved in?

Well I don’t know how to repair a car, but I can tell if a mechanic knows what they’re doing! And I really spend most of my time making sure that my team has what they need to create a stress-free, easy-to-navigate experience for our customers, and that our customers walk away feeling very happy about their decision to work with Ruge’s. Beyond that, of course, I’m collaborating with my team in an ongoing way to plan for future business development.

What’s the biggest change you have seen in the industry?

The internet has changed everything, except for the desire to visit a dealership and test drive a real car. Most people have shopped online before coming into one of our dealerships. The internet provides access to comprehensive information on performance, features, pricing, trade-in values – everything. By the time a customer heads to our dealership, they are pretty clear about what they want to buy.

They also know a great deal about the Ruge’s name and what we represent; our commitment to paying it forward, the expertise of our staff,
and the signature ‘small-town feel with big-brand appeal’ experience we deliver. So the internet allows them to make very deliberate decisions, not only about what they’ll choose to test-drive, but the kind of company with whom they want to forge a relationship.

What’s most rewarding about your work?

I’m a people person; this is the perfect business for people who like people. In addition to the fact that I love developing long-term relationships with our customers, and I really enjoy our employees. Their security and well-being is very much tied to their work, and I take that very seriously and enjoy being a part of their lives.

I also really value the connections our business has forged with our community. It’s fulfilling to be a part of various volunteer efforts that enhance quality of life for others; I serve on the Boards of Northern Dutchess Hospital, The Rhinebeck Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Millbrook Business Association. We sponsor the Play for Pink Golf and Tennis Tournament, Meals on Wheels, and a number of nonprofit organizations who are doing great work to support locals. Seeing convertibles and Jeeps as part of parade lineups also makes me feel good. There’s a great sense of community, and I’m fortunate to be in a role that ties me to so many people and causes.

What do you think of ratings in Consumer Reports magazine?

I feel that customers do their own research based on what’s important to them. Is it price, safety, power, prestige? Most people have an intuitive sense of what they most need and want for themselves and their families; their instinct is far more meaningful than any ratings supplied by publications.

What sorts of industry gatherings do you attend?

On an annual basis, I attend the National Auto Dealers Association, NADA, gathering, which is held in a different location each year. It gives us the opportunity to explore new products, learn from inspiring keynote speakers, and network with industry colleagues.
Subaru also hosts a gathering, which is much smaller as there are only 650 Subaru dealers nationwide.

Is this region a good place to sell cars?

To truly enjoy the roads of our beautiful Hudson Valley region, you’ve got to have the right vehicle. It’s a great place to be in this business; it’s rewarding to figure out what each customer needs and get them a set of keys to something they’ll love. Whether we’re helping a family find the right 4WD option for their skiing and canoeing excursions or upfitting a Chassis Cab for a contractor, it’s great to offer lines that have everything a Hudson Valley resident could possibly want or need!

What car do you drive?

At the moment, I’m driving a Chevy Tahoe, but I’m always trying out new models!

What do you do for fun?

I love to travel, and I play tennis whenever, wherever I can! Typically I’ll spend my free time on the courts in Saugerties, Kingston, or Poughkeepsie. I love every moment out there. And I’m really pleased to see more and more businesspeople paying greater attention to their health; I think it’s very important to balance hard work with healthy, relaxing activities. We’re all at our best when we’ve given ourselves that free time…we have much more to give to others.