Share this article

print logo

Driven to recover, West Herr's Scott Bieler feels gratitude

When Scott Bieler slipped on a rug in his West Falls home, fell, and injured his neck, he was in serious trouble.

He couldn't move his hands, and he couldn't walk.

So Bieler lay there. Alone.

Bieler's partner, Kathy Lasher, was in the barn on the property at the time, and it wasn't until she returned to the house that she discovered Bieler had fallen. He was taken by ambulance to Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo.

Bieler is a successful local business leader in Western New York, the president and CEO who has guided West Herr Automotive Group's growth into a car-selling powerhouse.

But as he lay in a hospital bed in January, Bieler had more immediate concerns.

Would he recover? What would the rest of his life be like?

During seven weeks at Mercy, Bieler would gradually learn the answers. He carries those experiences with him today.

***

West Herr wasn't always the mega-dealer group it is today, selling all kinds of brands of cars and trucks, at showrooms around the region. The business began as a single Ford dealership, in Hamburg. In 1975, Bieler applied for a job there as a salesman.

"They were making this decision if they were going to go to 10," he said. "And they interviewed me and they said, 'You're hired if we go to 10. But we're not sure we're going to go to 10.'"

Two weeks went by before West Herr told him he was hired. "I always wonder what would have been different in my life if they would have decided to stay at nine," he said. "But thank God, they didn't."

But really, how couldn't West Herr hire him? As a second grader, he created a new-car brochure for a class assignment, which he has saved. Even before he got his job, Bieler enjoyed buying used cars, fixing them up a bit, and selling them off the front lawn.

After a couple of months at West Herr, Bieler realized something. "I didn't like this job - I loved this job," he said, in his low-key manner. "I thought I would sell cars my whole life."

Bieler went on to become the state's No. 1 Ford salesman. But for all his success in sales, much more lay ahead in his career, and for West Herr's growth.

***

Bieler's situation was dire. Surgery was a must.

"They came down the night I was taken in and told me, 'If you don't have this surgery now, you're going to be like this for the rest of your life,'" he said. "So it doesn't take too long to decide, I've got to have this surgery."

Even after the surgery, Bieler couldn't move his hands or walk for a few weeks. That was expected, since the vertebrae he injured in his fall affected those nerves. But if he had any doubts about recovering, Lasher and his physical therapists at the hospital did not.

Lasher was "like a rock" from the moment of the accident, determined that he would recover, Bieler said. "She just kicked in, no hesitation that I was going to get better, never talked about, 'What if you don't go better?,'" he said. "Never brought it up one time."

His physical therapists at Mercy, Andrea Brockman and Emily Madeja, worked with Bieler, two sessions a day, six days a week. They assured him he was making progress, even when Bieler didn't see it.

Bieler began to eat with a specially designed fork. He was able to write, somewhat awkwardly, and clumsily use his cellphone. His movements improved to the point where he could get out of bed with the aid of a lift, and began walking 10 to 20 steps with the help of a walker. After six weeks, he could make laps of the hospital floor with the walker, and had full use of his hands.

He marvels now at the work physical therapists do. "I'm incredibly impressed with the difference they can make in people's lives. The difference they made in my life in seven weeks is unbelievable."

When Bieler wrote his name 50 times on a sheet of paper, Lasher hung the page on the refrigerator at home.

Scott Bieler and his partner Kathy Lasher, shown in 2016. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

***

In 1983, when West Herr was still a single-store operation, Brad Hafner, the sole owner, invited Bieler to become a business partner.

"For him to open up the door like he did for me at that age was another major blessing in my life," Bieler said. "I could have worked for a thousand other dealers and they wouldn't have done that."

West Herr began to expand in the late 1980s, buying small dealerships in Dansville and Eden. "In retrospect, we were probably too conservative," Bieler said. "But that's just how we were."

The Ford store in Hamburg had grown a lot. But the West Herr team realized that selling only one brand of car was limiting. "We weren't really going to be able to really sell all the cars in the family," he said. "We wanted to sell all the cars in the driveway, and that's between two and three cars in an average driveway."

As West Herr expanded, Bieler's star rose at the dealer group. He was named president in 1997.

***

While Bieler recovered at Mercy, support poured in from friends, family, customers and employees. Lasher hung all the get-well cards on the walls until they looked like wallpaper. Bieler's retired pastor sent him a letter, every day. "Not just a note, we're talking a full, typed page every day," he said. Bieler said he felt the power of the prayers hundreds of people were saying for him.

He missed his work, interacting with West Herr customers and employees. After his fifth week at Mercy, Bieler borrowed a conference room to convene a meeting of his key people and catch up on business matters.

"I wanted them to see I was going to be able to come back," he said. "I think that was my main reason."

West Herr ran well in his absence. He credits that to having the right people in the right roles, like his longtime executive assistant, Annette Smith, and the directors who oversee the different segments of the dealer group.

On Bieler's final day in the hospital, a man who had cleaned his room during his stay gave him gifts: a metal cross and a spiritual booklet. Bieler was awestruck by the gesture.

"Of all the fantastic people I met in that hospital, I cannot forget that guy," he said.

***

In 2000, Bieler became the majority owner of West Herr. Hafner, now 91, along with John Wabick and Bill Loecher, remain his partners in the business. And Stan Kicinski is the dealer group's longtime chief financial officer.

West Herr now has more than 2,100 employees, selling 20 automotive brands at 23 locations. Automotive News ranked West Herr No. 25 among all dealer groups in the country, based on the number of retail new cars it sold in 2018. The publication said the dealer group sold a grand total of more than 75,000 vehicles, when counting new, used, fleet, and wholesale. Its revenues across all departments, including service, totaled $2.1 billion.

How did West Herr get so big?

"It seemed like a store would come available about every year, year and a half," Bieler said. "We we were ready to take on another one. We didn't have to buy them all at once. It was kind of a gradual growth."

Beiler would call some other dealers, maybe once or twice a year, asking if they would consider selling. The same dealer might turn him down for five or six years in a row. Then one year, the answer might change, or the dealer might even reach out to Bieler, saying it was time.

"I think we've been able to prove if we do come knocking, and we say we're interested, we haven't had a deal yet that we've not closed," Bieler said.

Scott Bieler meeting with a customer, in 2014.(Mark Mulville/News file photo)

West Herr has concentrated on acquiring dealerships in Western New York, broadening that territory in 2010 to include Rochester. When employees get promoted, they don't have to leave town.

"Most auto groups our size are spread over three or four states, so that person getting that same promotion's going to have pack up the whole family and move to another state, and start new schools," Bieler said.

Bieler sees creating opportunities to advance as one way to keep good employees, a message he shares at the orientation sessions he always attends.

"What I tell them is, we want you here for life," Bieler said. "The goal of this company is career paths, so you can see a career path, so you can say, 'I'm going to put roots down here and I want to stay here.'"

***

Bieler left the hospital in late February. By the first week of March, he was back at work. When he returned to stores for the first time, he was overwhelmed by the response.

He walks pretty well and no longer needs a cane. He estimates his hands are back to about 85% of where they were before the accident. He still undergoes physical therapy.

Bieler hands out copies of an inspirational book called, "Be the Sun, Not the Salt," by executive coach Harry Cohen. The book's message resonates with Bieler. "There's a lot more people out there spreading the sun than spreading the salt," he said.

***

As West Herr has grown, Bieler has made it a point for West Herr to give back. West Herr customers who ask for donations to a charitable cause receive one, he said. The donation might take the form of a flat screen TV for a raffle, for instance.

"I don't feel like it's a gesture, it's an obligation," he said. "It's how we feel. They've been so supportive in this community, that it's an obligation that every year this company exists, we've got to be able to look back on the year and say, 'The community got better because West Herr is here.'"

Bieler is active with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. He serves on the board and led a fundraising drive for its clinical sciences center. Bieler added a personal donation for that center, on top of West Herr's contribution. Roswell surprised him by naming the building after him.

Scott Bieler (left) is an active supporter of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

***

Bieler is back to the work routines he loves. Three out of four Saturdays a month, he drives around to West Herr stores to chat with customers and employees.

At age 65, he is hands-on and looking forward. He doesn't believe in doing his job halfway.

"My mission is to do it now 10 more years, and God willing, I can," he said.

Bieler reflects on all of it – the fall, the lengthy hospital stay, the recovery made possible by his medical team and countless others – and he feels gratitude.

"I don't look at it as a bad thing," Bieler said. "I look at it as a blessing, I truly do. I think I appreciate life more than I ever have. I appreciate the people in my life more than I ever have."

Story topics: / /

There are no comments - be the first to comment