A chat with Arlo Cota, owner of Imported Car Center Auto Sport
Dec. 15, 2011
By Steven Frank
The year was 1976. America was celebrating its bicentennial.
Gerald Ford was president.
“Rocky” was released in theaters.
And Arlo Cota moved his Imported Car Center Auto Sport business to Vermont 2A in Williston.
Thirty-five years and several surrounding commercial developments later, Cota’s auto repair shop and dealership still runs on plenty of fuel. Cota, 63, started the business in South Burlington in 1972 as an understated gas station and two-bay repair garage. Today, Cota employs a staff of 17 — including his 27-year-old son, Nickolas — that specializes in the sale and repair of European vehicles. Cota, a former endurance racecar driver, has an inventory featuring pre-owned Audis, Jaguars, BMWs and Mercedes.
A certified master technician often found in the shop with his black and white poodles by his side, Cota recently sat down with the Observer to talk about his automotive center.
Williston Observer: In 1976, there was not a lot of commerce in Williston. What brought you here?
Arlo Cota: I speculated that this was the area for future growth because of the interstate being right here. Also, the Pyramid Mall was supposed to come in here around 1980. I didn’t realize it would take 30 years (for business growth) but it eventually happened.
WO: Even though it took longer than expected, when you look back, are you happy you moved here?
Cota: The best decision I made in my life was to buy this property — I bought it for practically nothing. The property is very valuable now.
WO: With all the businesses you now see in Williston, are you surprised there aren’t more automobile places here?
Cota: (Williston Planning and) Zoning came in quite a few years ago and decided there could be no car places on (Vermont) 2A. You have to be where Berlin City is (Marshall Avenue). So we’re the only ones allowed to be here. That’s been a benefit.
WO: What led you to the automotive industry?
Cota: I’ve always been interested in cars. Living on a farm in Hinesburg, I liked to fix the tractors. We didn’t have a lot of money in those days… I was in the Army for three years (during the Vietnam War)… When I got out, in 1969, I landed a great job at General Electric. A wildcat strike led to me getting laid off…I then went to work for Almartin (Motors in South Burlington) as a British car mechanic. They were doing MGs and Austin-Healeys at that time. I worked there for about nine months and then decided to go to Vermont Technical College. I was really accepted by the faculty because I fixed all of their cars. That’s when I started thinking about starting my own business. I then went back to Almartin and eventually started my own business.
WO: What were things like at the beginning?
Cota: I started in the middle of 1972. I used a gas station on Dorset Street (in South Burlington). It was a two-bay garage with four mechanics. We outgrew that so we moved to another place (3060 Williston Road) that we made into a four-bay shop. We had six mechanics. We were there for three years before we moved here.
WO: Tell me about some of the bumps in the road.
Cota: Since I’ve been in business I’ve had Phillips (66) petroleum move out on me (eliminating gasoline sales). I’ve had Fiat (Italian auto manufacturer) move out on me — I bought that franchise in 1979 and they left the country in ’83. I then became the second-largest Peugeot (French auto manufacturer) dealer in the country, and they moved out on me in August 1991.
WO: What did you do?
Cota: I took on a partner, and added a Mitsubishi franchise (on Shelburne Road). So I had two locations. The partnership situation didn’t work out for me financially so I went back to just this one place.
WO: Tell me about Imported Car Center Auto Sport today?
Cota: We’re very heavy on European. I’ve been doing those cars all my life. Audi is 60 percent of my business. We also do a lot of Jaguars, Porches, Volkswagens, Volvos and Saabs.
WO: How many cars do you sell?
Cota: We sell anywhere from 250-300 a year. We have sold as much as 1,000 cars in a year… We sell just used cars and stock anywhere from 30-50. The inventory comes from all over; I usually buy on the computer (in online auctions). I buy mostly European cars but I’m also heavy into Subarus.
WO: What do you enjoy about this business?
Cota: I’m a people person, so is everyone who works here. We like people, and the automobile has always been a part of people’s lives. I’ve always been enthusiastic about making them go fast — even the tractors and lawn mowers when I lived on a farm. Between the enthusiasm for doing that and getting along with people, it gave me an advantage. My best friends have been customers who have patronized me for 20, 30 years. Now that I’m in my 60s, I realize how valuable that is.
WO: Why should someone come here, either to buy a car or get one fixed?
Cota: Because of the personal care and having a place to trust — where you won’t get sold things you don’t need. The average employee has been here around 20 years. We are a seasoned group. My youngest mechanic is 45 and most guys are in the their 50s. They are in good shape, though. They are the most-fit mechanics you will ever meet.
WO: What does the future hold?
Cota: Unfortunately, with the way Williston does business and the way the tax base is set up, it’s the type of thing where it’s best off to stay in business. This real estate investment was my retirement. I’m getting old. At one point, I wanted to sell it, but not anymore. I want to keep it.
If there’s a business owner that you’d like to see featured in “Following The Leaders,” let the Observer know by contacting editor Steven Frank at 872-9000 x17 or [email protected]