Dealer Steve Kalafer, critic of stair-step incentives, dies at 71

Steve Kalafer — a minor league baseball team owner, Academy Award nominated filmmaker, and longtime car dealer and advocate for auto retailers — died Wednesday.

The cause was cancer, according to a colleague. He was 71.

Kalafer got his start in auto retail in 1976 at the age of 26, selling out of a one-car showroom inside a Mobil gas station with seven employees. He expanded the group, Flemington Car & Truck Country, in Flemington, N.J., to eight dealerships selling 16 brands. He also had Honda and Jaguar Land Rover stores outside the Flemington brand.

In his nearly 45 years as a dealer, Kalafer bluntly denounced automakers for business strategies he thought disadvantaged dealerships. In 2016, Kalafer sold a profitable Nissan store, citing “the complexity of doing business with them” among his reasons for ending the relationship.

Stair-step programs were chief among his concerns. The incentives forced dealerships to accept inventory they didn’t need, he said, and offer inconsistent and noncompetitive vehicle pricing.

“It’s very destructive,” Kalafer told Automotive News in 2019. “What FCA, Infiniti, Nissan and GM have done has created havoc with their dealers, havoc with their customers and havoc with the value of their brands.”

Kalafar produced 16 films, mainly documentaries, on a variety of topics. Three of his short films — 2004’s “Sister Rose’s Passion,” 2000’s “Curtain Call” and 1998’s “More,” were nominated for Oscars.

Kalafer also was chairman emeritus of the minor league baseball team, the Somerset Patriots in Bridgewater Township, N.J., a team that just become a AA affiliate of the New York Yankees.

Like a coach
Steve Kiley, general manager of Flemington Infiniti, worked with Kalafer for 38 years. He called his boss a “very driven man in so many positive ways, and he had the ability to make people better around him, almost like a coach in a sense.”

Kalafer would give his employees special coins that included his motto: “Be kind, be fair, work hard, earn money and do good,” Kiley said.

“He lived it. He lived it every day of his life,” Kiley said, describing Kalafer as a humanitarian who helped many people over his lifetime, including numerous people anonymously.

“We are completely heartbroken by Steve’s passing,” Patrick McVerry, Somerset Patriots president and general manager, said in a statement on the company’s website. “Everyone who ever came into contact with him over the years knows just how special a person he was.”

“He built his dealerships and this team from the ground up with the customers, employees, his family, and the communities served always as his top priorities,” the statement also said. “He taught us all the value of doing things the right way, of taking the time to build long lasting relationships, and making a difference wherever you can.”

Dealership colleague Kiley recalled Kalafer, long before the cell phone era, returning voice mail calls logged on a yellow legal pad while on a dealer trip to Hawaii. He once found Kalafer, wearing a robe, returning those calls at 3 a.m. from a phone booth.

“It’s hard to fathom our company without Steve Kalafer,” Kiley said. “He’s the greatest person I’ve ever known.”

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