Kitty Van Bortel alleges Ford reneged on dealership purchase agreement

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Kitty Van Bortel claims Ford Motor Co.’s decision to allow the sale of Henderson Ford to a competitor instead of the four-dealership group she and her brother Howard Van Bortel run has sexist overtones.

In turning down her bid to add Webster-based Henderson Ford to the Van Bortel Auto Group’s East Rochester dealership, Ford reneged on an earlier verbal agreement to exercise its right of first refusal and assign the “purchase and sale agreement” for the Webster franchise to the Van Bortel Auto Group, the Van Bortels claims in a lawsuit filed in a Monroe County state court in mid-November and kicked to the Rochester federal court by Ford last week.

Noting that Van Bortel is “a female dealer who has owned and operated a Ford dealership in the Rochester area for the past 20 years,” the court complaint calls Ford to task for choosing instead to green light the sale of the Webster Ford franchise to West Herr Ford of Rochester, a rival dealership “owned and operated by a male.”

Van Bortel’s court papers detail a conversation in late October between herself and Ford’s Retail Network U.S. franchise manager, in which Van Bortel says she “explained how she has fought to establish herself as a successful female Ford dealer and the Ford official allegedly replied that for Ford, “minority dealers are not a priority right now.”

The Van Bortel Auto Group’s Ford dealership is one of four under its umbrella. Others are Subaru dealerships in Victor and Henrietta and a Wayne County Chevrolet dealership in Macedon.

Van Bortel began her ascent as an area auto dealer by founding the Victor Subaru dealership more than two decades ago. She later added the Ford and Chevrolet dealerships and the second Subaru location. The Van Bortel Auto Group ranks among the top auto dealerships in the Rochester area.

In her court complaint, Van Bortel accuses Ford of backing out of a deal she struck with the company in early September that was supposed make the Van Bortel Auto Group the buyer in the upcoming sale of Henderson Ford’s Webster Dealership.

According to Van Bortel’s court brief, she was first alerted to Henderson Ford’s intention to sell in early September by a phone call from the automaker’s regional sales and service manager, who promised that Ford would exercise its right of first refusal and then assign the PSA for Henderson Ford to the Van Bortel group. 

Roughly two months later, the same Ford official informed her in a phone call that Henderson Ford had reached a sale agreement with West Herr Ford of Rochester and that Ford would not exercise its right of first refusal, the court complaint adds.

The Erie County-based West Herr Auto Group runs more than a dozen auto dealerships in Erie, Monroe, Genesee and Onondaga counties. Brands it sells include Chevrolet, Ford, Nissan Subaru, Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, Infiniti and Toyota. 

In response to an email asking for comment on the Van Bortel Auto Group’s court action, West Herr president Scott Bieler sent a press release announcing West Herr’s acquisition of the Henderson Ford franchise with no further elaboration. 

Neither the West Herr group nor Bieler are named as defendants in Van Bortel’s court action. 

The Van Bortel group is “clearly the most qualified candidate to purchase the Henderson Ford dealership,” Van Bortel maintains in court papers, stating that the group has 3,000 existing customers in the Webster dealership’s service footprint. 

Qualifications the brief lists as bolstering a case for Van Bortel being allowed to add Henderson Ford to her group’s portfolio include sales for Van Bortel Ford that “exceeded other local dealership sales by at least 20 percent and customer service ratings beyond comparison” and the auto maker’s own recognition of the Van Bortel Ford franchise in the form of Ford Presidents Awards presented to the East Rochester dealership in each of the last 20 years. Ford has also presented Van Bortel Ford with other prizes such as the company’s Salute to Dealers and ONE Ford Elite awards. 

In addition, Van Bortel Ford has been a recipient of the Time Dealer of the Year Award, a national prize jointly handed out annually by Time magazine and Ally Financial Inc. to recognize auto dealers’ commitment to public service, the complaint adds. Van Bortel won the Time prize in 2016.

The lawsuit notes also that Van Bortel personally is a winner of the Athena Award, an honor that recognizes outstanding contributions of women to their communities. 

The court action seeks a court decree barring Ford from approving the sale of the Henderson franchise to West Herr. It also asks that unspecified financial damages be awarded to Van Bortel, who stands “ready, willing and able to proceed with the purchase of the Henderson Ford Dealership on the same terms agreed to in the West Herr purchase and sale agreement.”

Ford did not respond to an email requesting comment on Van Bortel court action.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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