Chris Pfaff: Passion, Pride And Performance
Pfaff Automotive Partners is setting the standard in the high-end automotive field in Canada.
An individual’s passion for an interest can take many forms. Michelangelo was passionate about painting, but disliked the process (perhaps months lying on your back painting a chapel’s ceiling had a thing or two to do with that), yet Churchill used the act of painting as a physical and emotional release for a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Lennon and McCartney were passionate about songwriting, but not performing (especially when they couldn’t be heard above the screaming), yet B.B. King once played 362 concerts in a single year.
Chris Pfaff is passionate about cars, selling cars and auto racing, though not necessarily in that order. As president and CEO of Pfaff Automotive Partners in Concord, north of Toronto, he has grown the company from a single family-owned dealership to one of the most recognizable names in the car industry and an upscale automotive emporium with operations across Canada. And he recently found time to spearhead the winning team at the renowned 12 Hours of Sebring endurance road race.
Chris’s passion about the car business is in his blood as the son of Hans Pfaff, a German immigrant who came to Canada in the 1950s with a deep love of cars. Hans started by washing Volkswagens at a dealership in midtown Toronto in the early 1960s, until his boss put him on the sales floor, where he excelled. A common trait of successful salespeople is that they always have their sights set on loftier goals, and in 1964, Hans bought a Volkswagen dealership in Newmarket, just north of Toronto.
Hans Pfaff ’s name is legendary in car sales as one of the best there ever was. Many stories abound about his abilities, keen people skills and sales techniques, a favourite being about a young man who just got his driver’s licence and came in to ogle the new cars. Despite knowing the kid had no intention nor ability to buy, Hans took him out for a spin. Years later the same man, now a doctor, returned and bought a Porsche. Young Chris was introduced to the business under the master tutelage of his father.
“I was literally born into the business and spent summer jobs and part-time jobs there from the time I was 12 or 13 years old,” says Chris recalling his early career. “I then worked four years at Mercedes-Benz Canada in the retail division, which was a great learning experience and self-confidence booster, where I realized I could do the business on my own if I needed to or wanted to.”
That day unfortunately came all too soon, as in the early 1990s Chris returned to Pfaff Auto when his father became ill, and following the death of Hans Pfaff in 1993, Chris bought the business from the family. Later in that decade, he began to grow and expand the business by adding other dealership franchises, body shops, forming Pfaff Leasing and offering tuning and collision repair.
Today, Pfaff Automotive Partners employs more than 950 people with dealerships in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, London, Guelph, Ont., and Montreal. This year, it opened a fourth Porsche dealership in Ontario, which Chris feels will be successful due to its surrounding marketplace of Markham, Ont.
“It’s exciting, as it’s a brand-new store and new retail concept in the way we do business right from the start. Markham is such a fantastic marketplace, and we know the Markham clientele are really going to embrace the Porsche brand,” he says.
Pfaff Automotive Partners now sells a full range of cars, from exotics like McLaren and Pagani, to upscale models from Audi, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and MINI, to traditional brands such as Mazda, Subaru, Toyota and the complete Fiat-Chrysler-Alfa Romeo-RAM truck line. True to his character, however, Chris is quick to share the credit with his team when speaking about the company’s growth and success.
“A large part of it is our people, as I was always focused on getting good people and having them grow along with us,” says Chris, “making sure that we interacted professionally, but also that we have a lot of fun at it. It is the people at Pfaff who have really grown the business. We’ve also had some great partners with the different brands that we represent — Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW — so all of that has been the biggest help for us as well. We always wanted to grow and be the best and be really good at it.”
Chris Pfaff ’s interest in cars also extends to motorsports and car racing, a passion he shares with many notables. The famous actor Steve McQueen, who channelled the “cool” of James Dean and Bobby Darin and brought it into the colour of the 1960s, once said about auto racing, “Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”
McQueen acted in cars in some of his movies, such as Le Mans about the famous 24-hour annual race in France, and, of course, drove during the car chase in Bullitt. Often imitated but never duplicated, most car fans agree to this day it stands alone as the greatest car chase in motion picture history. That chase scene sits at a Table for One, and all other movie car chases can please stand in a line outside the door, and we’ll seat you when we can, which will be never.
Endurance racing was a passion for McQueen, which Chris also shares. In fact, along with his partner Peter Revson, McQueen won in the three-litre class of the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring in Florida, an accomplishment Chris now also shares after Pfaff Motorsports won in its class in one of the world’s most famous endurance races this past March.
Starting the race in second-to-last position, the Canadian-based Porsche team won the GTD class driving a Motul Porsche 911 GT3 R. Despite having to listen in on the team’s radio from his kitchen in Canada and watch it remotely on television due to border travel restrictions, it was a thrill Chris will never forget.
“That was only our second year entering and we won it, so it was a great accomplishment on behalf of our team and Porsche, and it was a really exciting weekend,” says Chris. “I’ve watched that race since I was a teenager, so it was a very personal experience for me to be part of that race. Being a car guy and doing a bit of racing myself with my brother when I was younger, we’ve always been involved in motorsports. There is a lot of employee involvement, and the manufacturers like it. And we’ve learned a lot, which we’ve extended into our business model in terms of timing and efficiency. Motorsports is a natural extension of the car business, and I think it helps our branding.”
Chris is always driving the company forward with new partnerships and initiatives. Last year, the company launched Ontario’s first Porsche NOW pop-up store at Markham’s Markville Mall, offering Porsche enthusiasts, prospects and customers a memorable experience with the famous car line.
Earlier this year, Pfaff Marine, a division of Pfaff Leasing, announced a new relationship with Tecnomar and The Italian Sea Group, a global leader in the yachting industry. Pfaff Marine will now be bringing in the exclusive made-in-Italy yachts and offering Tecnomar’s collectible and high-performance creations to the Canadian marketplace.
In March 2019, Pfaff Automotive Partners was chosen as the exclusive Eastern Canada retailer for Automobili Pininfarina, which has unveiled the Pininfarina Battista, a landmark 1,900-horsepower electric hypercar and the most powerful road car ever designed and built in Italy. It is one of many changes Chris sees happening in the automobile industry that he is staying on top of and actively participating in.
“Now we’re getting into electric cars. And right now I have two green cars in the family at home, and we enjoy them a lot,” says Chris. “They’re very smooth, they’re very quiet; the power is instantaneous. The electric car will become more and more a part of the landscape, but the challenge in the Western world is whether we have enough electric power in the grid to satisfy the demand. However, newer biofuels are emerging which are 70 per cent cleaner, so we may see a bit of a hybrid.”
“It Is The People At Pfaff Who Have Really Grown The Business” — Chris Pfaff
Knowledge, expertise and emotion are three trademarks of Chris Pfaff. As history shows, whoever you are, or whatever your interest, he is another example and a shining testament of a person who has succeeded through the power of passion and by building his company and honouring his family by being driven by performance.