Revving up a luxury market

If you ask Richard Koppelman about the car that he drives, don’t be surprised if his answer is merrily evasive.

As the co-founder and president of Greenwich-based Miller Motorcars, Koppelman’s company sells and services a nonet of the world’s most celebrated luxury automobiles: — Alfa Romeos, Aston Martins, Bentleys, Bugattis, Ferraris, Maseratis, McLarens, Paganis and Rolls-Royces. And Koppelman is not one to play favorites.

“Which car don’t I drive?” he asks back, with a gentle laugh. “I drive everything. When someone says, ‘Which is your favorite car?’, I say, ‘Which is your favorite child?’ If you really love cars, not one car does it for you.”

Indeed, the word “love” seems to permeate the Miller Motorcars operation, especially when potential customers are able to turn their long-held wish of owning a smart, sexy automobile into a reality.

“When people come in, they can be very emotional,” Koppelman continues. “They’re not just buying transportation — they’re buying a dream. Some people say, ‘I saved all of my life for this.’” 

And on some occasions, Koppelman closes the sale with a Champagne party to help the new car owner savor the joy of making a dream come true. But it wasn’t always Champagne and luxury cars for Koppelman, who literally began his automotive career in the dirty end of the business. 

“I worked at a car wash when I was in high school,” he recalls. After graduating from college, Koppelman made the move from soapsuds to showrooms, selling Dodges out of a dealership in West Hartford. His wife, Cyndi, was also in the business, selling Triumphs and Fiats. The Koppelmans decided to create their own business, and in 1980 opened a West Hartford dealership selling pre-owned BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. 

Years later, the Kopplemans still work together, with Cyndi as the sales manager of Miller Motorcars’ Aston Martin operations. (She received the 2003 Aston Martin International Sales Person of the Year Award and the 2007 International Viscount Downe Memorial Award by the Aston Martin Heritage Trust and is on the Aston Martin Dealer Advisory Panel for the U.S.) 

For Richard, his greatest accomplishment after four decades in business is the ability to maintain a sense of joy and wonder in his company. “We have a lot of fun doing business,” he explains. “We sell great cars to nice people. People come in here and become happy and excited.”

And Miller Motorcars ensures that the excitement continues even after the sale is completed. “We have rallies for our customers,” Koppelman continues. “We pick a destination here in Connecticut that would be reached by a circuitous route, mostly through the backgrounds. When we get there, we bring them to visit someplace special, maybe a museum, and then to a lovely inn for lunch.”

But keeping this distinctive corporate culture alive requires special people within the company, and Koppelman is particular about who is part of his team. “We need to have somebody who can relate to the clients, who is honest and who loves cars,” he insists. “And they must have a passion for what they do.”

F. Bailey Vanneck, Miller Motorcars’ general manager, notes the Miller Motorcars staff is willing to go that proverbial extra mile for current and future customers. “When children come in here, we love to talk to them about cars,” he says. “We had a 13-year-old who was fascinated about how engines work. So we took him back to the service section where we are working on engines.”

Vanneck adds that the love for the Miller Motorcars’ brands even expands across cyberspace. “We get quite a bit of business through the internet,” he says, recalling customers from Boston, Florida, Texas and California. Some of the distant inquiries are based on the exclusivity of certain vehicles. Some of the manufacturers might only turn out a mere 50 vehicles in a single line, Vanneck says, with Miller Motorcars being among the rare dealerships to offer these prized possessions.

The thrill of the classy vehicles helped to lure Olga Litvinenko from running her own marketing agency to becoming Miller Motorcars’ marketing manager. “It seemed like a perfect fit. I’m loving it,” she says, adding that she has quickly acclimated herself to the Miller Motorcars culture. “I wouldn’t say that I’m a petrol-head, which is the term for people who are very, very geeky about cars. But growing up here (in Greenwich) and going every year to the Concours (a local, annual vintage car festival), and being fascinated by technology and engineering, there was always an inkling to get involved and want to get to know more.”

Of course, it would seem the Miller Motorcars’ inventory could sell itself, given names like Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce. Yet Litvinenko observes it is not quite that easy.

“Every person has their own unique desires and personalities, and a car is the same way in that sense,” she explains, noting that community events and an online presence — not just social media sites, but videos — are essential to differentiate the various brands’ respective appeals. Litvinenko points out that customers can range from those looking for daily transportation to those seeking an investment vehicle.

“Some people buy an Alfa Romeo for $40,000 to $50,000, while Paganis and Bugattis can cost up to $3 million,” Vanneck adds. “Some people are looking for transportation back and forth to work. Some just put it aside as their special weekend car.”

And Koppelman, ever the car salesman, offers a friendly, see-for-yourself invitation to help erase any lingering modicum of doubt: “If you ever need to come for a test drive, we’re here.”

MISS CT’S TIPS FOR TRAVEL COMFORT

In addition to being the marketing manager at Miller Motorcars, Olga Litvinenko was crowned the 2017 Miss Connecticut USA last November. This is not her first foray into the pageant world — she was Miss Connecticut Teen USA in 2007 while still a junior at Greenwich High School — and her duties representing the Nutmeg State have required a great deal of travel, including the Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas last month. So how does she keep her vibrancy while traveling?

“Number one: Stay positive,” she says. “There are so many wrong things that can happen when you travel. You could get held up in security and miss your flight; you can lose something; you can be dragged off a flight. But, for the most part, the people working in the airport facilities are trying to make it as comfortable and convenient for you to get from Point A to Point B.”

She also stresses the importance of staying hydrated during long trips and maintaining a sense of emotional serenity in unfamiliar surroundings. “Be sure to bring something with you that makes you feel comfortable,” she continues. “I bring a blanket and my neck pillow and my laptop. I like to do my work or do some reading.”

Litvinenko also recommends having an upbeat routine when acclimatizing to unfamiliar hotel surroundings. “Have a nice dinner. Make sure you are satiated and feel full,” she adds. “Take a shower before you get into bed. Take a good book with you or put on a good movie before going to bed. Hotels can almost be like a second home — and every hotel that I’ve been in has been happy to provide extra pillows.”

Furthermore, she stresses, make the best of a different environment rather than complaining about perceived problems. During a recent trip to Pakistan, she realized that it would be difficult to indulge in her passion for running. (She completed last year’s New York City Marathon.) Instead of taking to the streets, she hit her hotel’s gym and was able to maintain her exercise regimen.

Optimism is key to Litvinenko’s outlook and it permeates her work as Miss Connecticut USA, in which she uses her celebrity to call attention to several nonprofit organizations, including the T.J. Martell Foundation for cancer research and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. She politely disagrees with the notion of pageants as being anachronistic, noting that they “promote and empower young women and allow them to amplify their message.”

As for the most upbeat aspect of being Miss Connecticut, she laughs and answers with a question: “Can I say everything?”

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