It’s one thing to say you’ll support your community, but it’s another thing to do it.
If what we do inspires one other person to do something good to support the community, then it’s worth it.
No one can say that dealer Art Schaller, Jr., of Schaller Auto Group, New Britain, Conn., only pays lip service to charitable opportunities. Consider the many organizations that benefit from his support –– The Rotary, Klingberg Family Centers, The Community Foundation, the local Humane Society and that’s just for starters.
As impressive as that is, his latest charitable endeavor, working with the school district to provide WIFI for needy students at home, is arguably one of the most important. And while newspapers are full of stories about businesses that squandered government relief given during this pandemic, Schaller used the money to help his community.
We recently spoke with Schaller, whose business includes an auto body shop and in-house Allstate Insurance agency, about what inspires his philanthropy, why this WIFI program was especially important to him, and how he hopes others will respond to his story.
Q: You’re a third generation auto dealer. Was that something you always wanted to do?
A: No, I grew up wanting to be a doctor. I wanted to be a surgeon. And then when I studied up on it, I decided that I didn't want to be in school till I was 30. So I looked at my dad and thought “He has a pretty good life.” If I could live half as good a life as he has, I’d be very happy. So I changed tracks my junior year of high school and began to research business schools. And when I was accepted by Babson College (a top business school in Babson Park, Mass), I let my father choose some of my classes.
Q: I don’t think many teenagers would have done that.
A: Well, I was going to come into the business he spent his life in so I knew he’d choose courses that would be valuable. So, if I was choosing between an extra course in accounting versus a course on organizational behavior, I’d ask him what he’d choose.
Q: And of those two, what did he choose?
A: He chose the accounting class because he wished he’d had more accounting training. Still, I’d like to go back sometime and take some psychology courses
Q: This WIFI help you’re giving students is certainly not the first time you have given back, in a major way, to the community. Is that kind of community involvement something your dad did, too.
A: Absolutely. That is the key to our history. My grandfather was the same way. He was born in 1900 and immigrated from Switzerland. He was a farmer and was 1 of 10 kids and he was 52 at the time he became a car dealer.
We had a fellow who worked for us for 46 years and he loved to tell this story about my grandfather. They were digging a hole on the property for some reason and my grandmother went out to check the progress. Whoever was digging it was getting tired and my grandfather jumped in the hole and said, “Give me the shovel,” and started digging. My grandmother yelled at him that he’d ruin his suit. My grandfather looked at her and said, “I’m sure they make more than one suit.” He always finished that story by saying “I loved your grandfather.”
My dad and his brothers grew up around that and continued to have that attitude and mentality about work and other people. I’ve been fortunate to absorb that. I’ve been a Rotarian since 1995. The Rotary’s motto is “Service Above Self.” It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another to do it.
Q: Is that how you started this program to provide WIFI for kids so they could do their schoolwork when the schools were closed?
A: I'd love to take credit, but it was not my idea. The school system called me looking for support which many school systems across the whole country, the whole world, needed as this pandemic spread. Our school system found themselves in the position of sending kids home for remote learning, but then found out within a couple of weeks that about 10% of the student population did not have Wi-Fi. So they gave out a bunch of devices so kids could do their schoolwork but they were no good because the kids couldn’t connect to the Internet.
The school district went to work to figure out how to solve this problem. I can’t tell you step-by-step what they went through, but I'm sure it involved various ideas about how to solve the problem. But at the end of the day, I received a phone call from the school superintendent’s office seeking a partnership.
They called and asked me how much it would cost them to rent 16 cars and drivers. They came up with a solution. They found a Wi-Fi device broadcasting device that could be put in cars and wanted to know if I’d be interested in this project.
I said, ‘Well, of course I'd be interested. Absolutely.’
Q: How much did it cost them?
A: I told them ‘It’ll cost you nothing, because I got a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan. If I recall correctly, this happened in April. At that time, we had people who had been on furlough for a couple of weeks but were being put back on the payroll despite being told to stay home. So this would be a good way to get people out of the house and back into action doing something meaningful.
It was perfect timing because we were only open for remote business at that time. Our doors were locked. So we selected some used cars, the employees just got in the cars, took the cars home, and went to their assigned spots at specific times.”
Q: Did it happen quickly?
A: It took a while to get it up and running because, as I'm sure you're aware, the logistical services in the United States and around the world weren't exactly performing at normal speed. So it took quite a while to get there.
The devices came as four pieces. There's the cigarette lighter adapter. There's the device itself. There's the SIM card that makes it work. And then there's the antenna. And they all shipped separately. The school system really did all the legwork (and bought the devices). All I did was provide the support.
They assembled them and then they delivered them to me. So all we had to do was pick the cars, plug them in and pick the drivers and go. It was around mid-May that we that we finally got the cars on the road.
Q: Was it difficult to choose the cars you’d have out there?
A: We chose used cars with cigarette lighter adapters that could power the device when the car wasn’t running. We didn’t want to burn more gas than necessary. But fortunately for us, Hondas and Subarus, which are our two biggest volume brands, all function that way. So we just took a bunch of Certified Used Cars that we had duplicates of, that we could afford to not have here, and used those. I maintain a list of all the cars that are out in service. The managers each get a copy. We update it whenever we swap out a car.
Q: How did you know where the cars should go?
A: Ultimately, the school district mapped out where are all the students who didn’t have internet lived. So the school system did a tremendous amount of work to determine where they were clustered. The device itself has a range that reaches a radius of 100 yards from the antenna. So then they went to work on how do we reach the most kids with the fewest spots possible to control cost.
They came up with a list of 31 locations. I couldn’t provide 31 cars and drivers. So we decided 16 cars would go out on the road. There was one location that had a 97 kids in an apartment building. So we decided that was an all-day location. In other locations we had cars there from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Then the cars would go to another location from 12:15 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. We told families what we were doing and when the cars would be in their locations.
We told them there will be no charge as long as PPP money was available. After that, we will revisit the program.
Q: How long did you say you’d continue this program?
A: We committed to get them through the end of the school year, so I said we would commit to this until about the second week of June.
Q: How do you know it was successful?
A: I received a phone call from this superintendent's office in early June telling me that they had some of their preliminary numbers in and 94% of the students who didn’t have WIFI are now able to do their schoolwork because of the program. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. We’re actually making a difference. Our drivers are really excited to hear that because, you know, it's pretty boring sitting in a car for hours.
Q: So the program is continuing now?
A: They asked if we'd be willing to continue, because some of the kids have to do lessons for summer school. I'm happy to provide the cars and I'm happy to provide the service, but I can't afford to pay these people. For summer school, I only have 10 cars out now. I needed my people back, because business has really picked up. So I hired young college people who needed work. There aren’t a lot of jobs around for them now, so this worked well for them.
Q: How do you let people know that a car outside their homes or in their neighborhood is not there for negative reasons?
A: The school district made up signs in English, Arabic and Spanish that gives descriptions about why the car is there and what we’re doing. We tape those to the cars.
We also put together a list of the makes, models, and colors of the cars and the license plate numbers, the driver's cell phone numbers and their location. We share that list with the Chief of Police and the school district office. So if there's a problem with the car, they know who to call.
The drivers all have a list of phone numbers for the school district in case they have a problem, too.
Q: You have quite a busy work life with the dealerships, body shop, and insurance agency. A lot of people would say that’s enough, they can’t do any more. I know you talked about your grandfather and your father, but the business has certainly grown in the past decades. Why do you keep supporting the community in ways such as this?
A: It's our responsibility. We run a nice business. I think we provide a great service to our customers, but it’s our duty to give back to the people who support us. As long as we're successful enough to be able to afford it, we're going to give back when we can. If what we do inspires one other person to do something good to support the community, then it’s worth it.