Michael Puetz is one of a select group of 49 dealer nominees from across the country who will be honored at the 107th annual National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 3, 2024.
The TIME Dealer of the Year award is one of the automobile industry’s most prestigious and highly coveted honors. The award recognizes the nation’s most successful auto dealers who also demonstrate a long-standing commitment to community service. Puetz was chosen to represent the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association in the national competition – one of only 49 auto dealers nominated for the 55th annual award from more than 16,000 nationwide.
“The most rewarding aspect of my job is ensuring that people with limited resources who need a car for their family and older customers who are vulnerable get a fair and trustworthy deal,” nominee Puetz said. “We help guide them financially and steer them in the best direction. They trust us, and we do not disappoint them.”
A 1979 graduate of Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester, Minnesota, where he studied carpentry, Puetz started his retail automotive career in sales at Walz Buick Oldsmobile GMC in Winona in 1996.
“I saw an ad in the newspaper that read, ‘Sell cars and make $40,000 per year,’” he said. “Secretly, I always wanted to sell cars! I applied, went through training, and was hired. My father was not very impressed that I had to quit working for him on his turkey farm, but he said it was a good job for me, and I knew I could never turn back. I decided to do whatever I could to survive and grow in this fast changing business.”
By 2003, Puetz was named general manager of Chrysler Winona and had invested in a Kia franchise in Wisconsin, which he eventually sold in 2005. That year, he left the Chrysler store to run Sugar Loaf Ford Lincoln for Bill Hutmacher, the owner. He eventually purchased the dealership from Hutmacher and later added Chrysler Winona to his portfolio.
“Bill took me under his wing, taught me the business, and mentored me until his death in 2015,” Puetz said. “He encouraged me to make the best decisions for the sake of our employees and showed me how to build a wonderful, loyal staff. Even today we enjoy virtually no turnover in a business known for that.”
Hutmacher also urged Puetz to hire his son, Andrew, in 2012.
“I was hesitant because we see so many dealers hire family just because they are family,” he said. “It turned out to be a good move, and I am proud that Andy will lead us through the next series of changes and into the future.”
Puetz’s drive to create an employee-centric culture at his dealerships is widely recognized. Sugar Loaf Ford Lincoln was named the Best Place to Work 2022-23 by the Minnesota Retailers Association and also received the Above and Beyond Award from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, which recognizes and honors employers of military families.
“We continue to build our business with a serious focus on employee and customer satisfaction,” he said. “It's the great products that bring customers to our storefront but it’s the relationships we develop that make dealerships the best distribution network in the world.”
And his stores are an integral part of the Winona community. Puetz is an active member of the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce, where he has served on the board of directors. In 2020, he was named the Chamber Supporter of the Year for his good works and for his annual contribution of a vehicle to the organization’s car raffle.
“We gladly give to virtually every organization and usually under the radar,” he said. “With the Chamber, we sponsor numerous events such as Family Night on the Farm to bring together the community to experience rural life and to learn how agriculture affects everyone.”
Puetz also works to promote the automotive industry as a viable career path for students in his region. He is a member of the automotive board for Minnesota State College Southeast in Winona and has been a guest speaker at Winona State University.
“I helped set the college’s automotive curriculum to prepare technicians going forward,” he said. “In addition, many high schools would not let technical colleges present their opportunities, so we worked to promote our technical schools locally. I love to educate students about the opportunities available to them in our industry.”
Dealers are nominated by the executives of state and metro dealer associations around the country. A panel of faculty members from the Tauber Institute for Global Operations at the University of Michigan will select one finalist from each of the four NADA regions and one national Dealer of the Year. Three finalists will receive $5,000 for their favorite charities and the winner will receive $10,000 to give to charity, donated by Ally.
In its 13th year as exclusive sponsor, Ally also will recognize dealer nominees and their community efforts by contributing $1,000 to each nominee’s 501(c)3 charity of choice. Nominees will be recognized on AllyDealerHeroes.com, which highlights the philanthropic contributions and achievements of TIME Dealer of the Year nominees.
“At TIME, we are proud to uphold the decades-long tradition of honoring automotive dealers who make a positive impact and show dedication to their communities through our TIME Dealer of the Year award,” said TIME CEO Jessica Sibley. “We are excited to keep this tradition of applauding these community contributions together with our partners at Ally.”
Doug Timmerman, president of dealer financial services, Ally, said, “Auto dealers nominated for the TIME Dealer of the Year award have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to not only the industry but to their respective communities through volunteerism, sponsorships, and supporting charitable causes, no matter the market climate. Whether their clients are purchasing a first car or upgrading for a growing family, these selected dealers have successfully extended their relationships beyond the showroom and have been steadfast in driving their communities forward.”
Puetz was nominated for the TIME Dealer of the Year award by Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association. He has four children.