MICHIGAN CITY — On the desk of Rich Newenhouse sits a framed photo of himself as a student at Michigan City High School as he jokingly places “bunny ears” behind the head of his speech class teacher Sandy Cipares.
Years later, she gifted him the photo, along with a note that read: “Who would have thought that this guy would grow up to be a successful businessman? It must be attributed to the great people skills he developed in his 10th grade public speaking class!!”
As the co-owner of Great Deals on Wheels, the Michigan City native’s speaking skills have come in handy since he said he “loves talking to people.”
“He’s always had the gift of gab,” agreed his wife, Denitta Newenhouse, who is his partner in their family business.
For nearly as long as he can remember, Rich has also had a passion for his future profession. His father, Jack Newenhouse, began in the business of selling used autos at age 21. He and his wife, Patricia, have owned and operated their Portage business, Homestead Motors, since 1979.
“I was nine years old trying to sell cars before we would even open in the morning,” recalled Rich. “I had a passion for it. I love selling cars and buying cars.”
“He grew up in it – that’s all he’s ever known,” added Denitta.
In 2001, Rich and Denitta opened up their first Great Deals on Wheels location on U.S. 421 in Otis. A Michigan City location at 2114 Franklin Street followed in 2003. Next, the entrepreneurs ventured into La Porte with another dealership on the corner of Lincoln Way and Detroit Streets. Finally, in 2013 they purchased the building at 2210 Franklin Street separated by Decatur Street from their other Michigan City location.
All of their locations, with the exception of the last which previously housed a Dunkin’ Donuts, were former gas stations.
“I would drive by here and think about how we could make it work,” said Rich about their latest acquisition.
“It’s a shame when people tear them down. Why not use what’s here?” explained Rich about his desire to repurpose buildings in the community.
Rich and Denitta’s desire to help others also spurred their desire to start up a local business.
“We want to help other people enjoy their life. You have to work somewhere so you might as well enjoy it and be happy as you’re doing it,” said Denitta. “We had the small business dream. If we can help our friends, we want to.”
They employ 15 at their combined four locations, and employee retention is a top priority. Their team member, Debbie Hunt, joined Great Deals on Wheels in 2004, and several others have worked for the Newenhouses for more than a decade.
“Some of our drive is that our employees count on us,” said Rich. “We like to see others succeed in life and fulfill their dreams.”
About 200 vehicles are available at one time on Great Deals on Wheels’ lots.
“We sell just about everything,” noted Denitta, mentioning motorcycles and dirt bikes, boats, classic cars, and more. “People come to us for something different – something unique that you don’t see everyday.”
“We are known as the ‘big boy toy store,’” added Rich, mentioning that his business specializes in Suburbans, Tahoes, Escalades, Denalis and other high-end SUVs. He explained that the Great Deals on Wheels’ Otis and La Porte locations especially have a reputation as the place to go to for diesel and farm trucks.
“He definitely has the knack for finding unique vehicles,” said Denitta. The two recalled the “Fish Car” with metal fins welded to its sides, a Ford Taurus painted to resemble an octopus and a yellow Chevy monster truck previously owned by Guy Fieri of the TV series “Diners, Drive-Ins and Drives.”
“I want stuff that is different,” said Rich. “If you want that unique vehicle, we have it.”
Denitta said that Rich visits auctions three to four days a week and “if someone is looking for something, he can go and find it.”
In addition to offering unique vehicles, Rich said, “We’ve hit a niche at the (Michigan City) stores with helping rebuild people’s credit through our established connections.”
Great Deals on Wheels offers competitive rates with financing for up to 84 months and warranties as long as four years.
“I always say that we get everybody approved, as long as they are purchasing within their means, or it’s free,” Rich said.
The Newenhouses said that although their customers come from across the nation, they still see a large number from La Porte County.
And they try to be a good neighbor to that community through membership in the Michigan City Chamber of Commerce, sponsoring school-based and other sports teams, and donations to local non-profits groups including the police and fire departments.
Rich is keenly aware of the stereotype that used auto dealers face.
“I’ve always tried so hard to beat that,” he emphasized. “Be real. People can appreciate that. Be honest, be truthful and have integrity.”
The hours of operation for Great Deals on Wheels’ locations are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 219- 873-4770, go to www.greatdealsonwheels.us or look up “Great Deals on Wheels” on Facebook.