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October 2001

Brad Hafner -
Humble, Humane Humorist

by Joseph RADDER

When Brad Hafner learned we wanted to do a cover story about him, he agreed only on the condition that we’d give full credit for his success to the people around him. He said, “If it weren’t for young people like my partner Scott Bieler, West-Herr wouldn’t be operating 16 different automobile franchises. Scott is the salt of the earth and is as good-hearted as the day is long. Even though he’s still building his nest-egg many of the philanthropic things we do are Scott’s ideas.” This is typical of Brad Hafner’s humility...his desire to share the credit with others.

He’s humane as well. Webster defines the word humane as, “marked by compassion, sympathy and consideration for others.” That certainly describes Brad Hafner, whether he’s talking about his family, his business “family” or those less fortunate than himself. As people walked in and out of his office during our interview it became clear that he loves everybody.

Hafner’s humor shines through in almost everything he says. “Laugh early, laugh often,” is his motto. When he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Hilbert College and made the commencement address to the Class of 2001, he said, “A sense of humor will help you be successful at work, home and play. People who always have a joke to tell and are always laughing are going to be around a long time. I really do believe humor helps you live longer.”

Brad Hafner’s humor shows when he talks about his childhood. “I grew up in South Buffalo during the depression,” he said. “You didn’t have to lock your doors in those days because nobody had anything worth stealing.” He has fond memories of Public School 70 on Buffum Street where, “the teachers were absolutely wonderful.”

“My father was killed in an automobile accident when I was quite young,” Hafner told us, “but my mother, a real saint, went to work scrubbing floors to hold the family together.”

Brad quit Technical High School in his senior year to enlist in the Navy Air Corps. “But I went back to school three years later to earn my diploma at Veteran’s High School. I made a lot of good friends in the service and would love to see some of those guys today.”

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Brad Hafner, 1945.

In 1954 Brad Hafner married Marie Aquilino. “The Irish girls of South Buffalo wanted no part of a German Lutheran like me,” he says with that signature twinkle in his eye. But he’s been glad ever since because he and Marie have had a very happy marriage of 47 years. Their two children, Paul and Lynn have given the Hafner’s “two wonderful grandchildren, Molly and Michael. They’re the apple of my eye,” he says.

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Brad’s wife, Marie.

Disney 2001, Grandpa, Michael and Molly.

“I love golf even though golf doesn’t love me,” he says. “But I’d drop plans to play golf in a minute if I can spend time with my grandchildren.”

Brad Hafner entered the automobile business almost by accident. After having several jobs...at the post office, on the railroad, at the Ford assembly plant and at Bell Aircraft, he found himself out of a job as the result of the 1958 recession. “I answered an ad for a salesman at West-Herr Ford even though I didn’t have 5 minutes of sales experience,” he remembers. “They hired me and I was scared to death when I talked to my first customer. But after I sold a few cars I said to myself , gee, I can make a living by talking, and that’s something I love to do.”

Truly a people person, Brad Hafner has made thousands of wonderful friends through the business. “I’ve been doing it now for 43 years,” he said, “and I plan to keep on doing it until I get it right.”

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Grandson Michael, son Paul and his wife Patti.

Granddaughter Molly, daughter Lynn and her husband Paul Balbierz.

West-Herr is probably the most successful automobile group in Western New York. “We have 16 stores,” he said, “including the number one Ford dealership in New York state for the 20th consecutive year and the number one Saturn dealership in the entire United States.” Not bad for a company started by two young fellows who had been running a gas station, and who made a very smart move by hiring young Brad Hafner.

When talking about West-Herr’s success, Hafner is again quick to credit his associates. “My partner, Scott Bieler, and Ron Slisz, who had to retire for health reasons, are really the ones who built this business into what it is today. As the business continued to grow, some other people were brought on as partners. Those being, Bill Loecher, John Wabick and Paul Hafner. With that said, in addition, our organization has been blessed to attract the most talented group of managers and employees of any automotive group in the state.”

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Brad Hafner and Scott Bieler.

Now in his seventies, Brad Hafner looks like a man in his fifties. Obviously his golf, his swimming and his bike riding have paid off. He’s chairman of the board but he has a very humble office, not unlike all the other sales offices in the Ford showroom. He’s there every day, and it’s clear he still plays a major role in management.

Hafner’s civic involvement includes more boards of trustees and boards of directors than we have room to list. One, however, must be mentioned. He has been a trustee of Hilbert College for over 30 years.

He has won many awards and honors over the years. One he is very proud of is the Theodore Roosevelt Award given to him by the foundation which operates the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Historic Site. “Roosevelt was one of my heroes,” he says as he points proudly to the bust of T.R. on his office shelf.

He’s the quintessential self-educated person. “I love history and I love to read,” he said. “I haven’t read a novel in years, but I read books I can learn from and I read every day,” he said.

Other than reading, golf, swimming and biking, Brad Hafner is a spectator sports fan as well. He loves the Bills and the Bisons. What’s more, he loves to travel, “I have visited over 50 countries,” he told us.

“The good Lord has been very good to me,” he says. We suspect that’s because Brad Hafner has been very good to very many people.

It didn’t surprise us when Brad Hafner concluded our interview by saying, “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.”

Joseph Radder is a freelance writer.


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