It has been a difficult year for Lexus, the luxury division of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March caused production disruptions that Lexus is only now fully recovering from.
But the brand has a flashy new home in Amherst, thanks to the $8 million dealership Northtown Automotive Cos. opened in June, replacing the older, smaller location it operated across Sheridan Drive.
Mark S. Templin, Lexus group vice president and general manager, dropped in for a visit this week. He said that despite the adversity Lexus has faced this year, the brand is well positioned for 2012.
"I think there's a huge potential for us here in the future, and I think the timing's perfect for these guys to build a facility like this, because after the economy tanked in 2008, and the auto industry fell 40 percent over a two-year period of time, now we're back in growth mode," Templin said Wednesday. The 50-year-old executive is based in California.
Next year, Lexus plans to roll out nine new or updated vehicles, he said.
But this year, Lexus' 229 U.S. dealers had to cope with vehicle shortages as the natural disaster in Japan impacted car manufacturing.
"We are almost back to the exact same number we had in dealer stock in March when the tsunami hit," Templin said. "So we're in really good shape. We've got lots of cars."
Templin described the Buffalo Niagara region as a medium-size market for Lexus, compared with big luxury car markets like New York City, Miami and Los Angeles. "But this is a good, profitable market for us, and we're happy to be here with a great partner who's making this kind of a commitment to our brand for the future," he said.
Templin presented Northtown a Katana sword to acknowledge the investment and the improved customer experience. The dealership, the only Lexus location in Western New York, has 78 employees.
Scott Wracher, general manager for Lexus' Eastern Area office in New Jersey, arranged Templin's visit to Amherst. Templin was traveling to New York City and New Jersey to attend catered dinner parties with Lexus owners, which are held in customers' homes.
"They provide feedback -- what do you think about our products, what would you like to see?" Wracher said. "It's like a focus group, done luxury style."
This was only the second time that Lexus' top executive has visited Northtown's dealership, said David J. DiPasquale, the general manager. DiPasquale said he is relieved to see Lexus' production recover. "We did lose a lot of business because of the tsunami, but now the manufacturer's up to full capacity, and cars since the last two weeks have been coming in from Japan and Canada."
Local Lexus sales averaged 45 units per month through September, compared with about 57 per month in all of 2010, according to Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association data. The dealership is targeting sales of about 750 units for 2012, or a monthly average of 62.5 units.
Nationally, Lexus sales through September were down 17 percent from the same period a year ago, to about 136,000 units.
Templin was asked about Lexus' place with other top luxury brands. "We're in the position where we're in the end of the life cycle for many of our products, at the same time that some of our competitors are bringing out all their new products," he said. "So it's a little bit of a timing issue for us.
"But the nice thing is, now that we've gotten through those production issues that came from the earthquake and tsunami, and we've started the pipeline back and we have new products coming, we get to be the challenger brand," he said. "We get to go out and have fun again, like we did 22 years ago when we came into the marketplace."