Area Auto Dealers Stay Solid Through Generations

. July 1, 2016.
autogiants

By Chris Watson

After buying your home, buying a car is the most expensive transaction of your life. Unlike a home, cars are a repeat purchase. No other purchase in our day-to-day lives, not appliances, furniture, electronics, not even engagement and wedding rings, will have the repeated financial impact. Most of us will own nine cars before our 76th birthday, according to a CNBC survey, accounting for automaker reported sales of 17.5 million cars and light trucks last year alone.

With those numbers there are big players in the car sales business, demonstrating steady loyalty, family dedication, and above all, the constant presence of solid, trusted names in the auto sales business in our region. It is not unusual to find dealerships which are owned and managed by third and fourth generations.

In the Family and In the Blood

Dave-White-Jr

“I didn’t start out in the car business,” says Dave White Jr. of Dave White Chevrolet, “I left college and started working in the banking business. After getting my MBA at OSU I decided to join the company, becoming the 4th generation in the business.” The siren song of the family’s business was too strong. “My education plays a big part in the business. Many people think it is just about selling cars. There are so many more moving parts to a car dealership than just sales.”

gregdunn

Greg Dunn, General Sales Manager at Dunn Chevy Buick, was a car guy from the very beginning. “We lived two blocks from the dealership. I would come after school and as a game I would bug salesmen to write up a new truck for me like I was a buyer,” he recalls with some embarrassment. “It wasn’t long before they put me to work. I started by mowing the grass at 8 years old.”

mballas

Marianne Ballas, like so many dealership owners, didn’t start in the driver’s seat but with a much more humble job. “I was an Elementary Education major at The University of Toledo. At the time there was a glut of teachers so I worked at the dealership to help pay my college expenses. That was in the early 70’s and I was promoted to office manager. I stayed and, in partnership with GM, I was able to purchase the dealership after the death of my husband George. As of 2012, I am the 100% owner.”  Owning a dealership is no small feat and Ballas stands out in the crowd.  Less than 4% of auto dealerships in the U.S. are owned by women.

Yark

John Yark, President of The Yark Automotive Group, succeeded his late fatherm, Jim, in that role. He shares the story of mowing lawns. “I started mowing the lawn at an Oldsmobile dealership when I was 15. I would ride my bike over from Old Orchard. It was the perfect job. After a while I was promoted to cleaning floors.”

Changes and Challenges

In the generation-spanning world of car sales there have been many changes. For Dunn the most dramatic change is technology. “Some of the technological advances in cars are just off the hook. Besides things like satellite radio, Bluetooth, and OnStar, you now have features like adaptive cruise control, lane departure and close approach warning systems. Recent new models of sport utility vehicles have eight on board cameras.”

White agrees that technology is a big change, but not the biggest. “I think the biggest change in our industry is the diversity in the marketplace.” He continues, “Up until the 70’s, imports were not well received. Although they had good gas mileage they weren’t perceived as having much else going for them. With the energy problems of the late 70’s that all changed. These cars have had a major impact on the automotive sales picture.”

Yark sees technology as being a big industry prime mover as well. “With any auto product you look at today it is just packed with technology, spanning comfort to safety.  Add in hybrid technology, electric cars, self driving cars, and vehicles are making great technological strides with almost every model year.”

“Certainly technology,”  says Ballas, commenting on significant industry changes. “Advancements have made cars safer and more convenient. We have seen so many changes and they come so quickly that it keeps the industry fresh and exciting.”

Some of the changes also bring challenges. “It is definitely a different marketplace than when I started,” White explains. “With the internet buyers come to us much better educated about what is available, cost structures, and what competitors are doing. On the one hand that is good. On the other hand we are now dealing with large, publicly traded conglomerates like AutoNation. It is similar to hardware stores.  Massive movers in the industry have a huge impact on the local dealer.”

Dunn sees technology as being a two edged sword. “On the one hand technological advances keep people safe and comfortable in their vehicles. The back side of the sword is price and maintenance. Fixing problems in the shop has become much more technical, which can lead to more complex troubleshooting and repair.”

Buyer Power and Awareness

“Historically, buying a car was about bartering with trade in value and price,” says Yark. “Much of that is evaporating in the market. The reasons are two fold. First, the current generation of car buyers simply isn’t interested in all that. It is a model of sales that has passed. Plus, with all of the information out there on cost, trade in value, dealer cost and price comparisons, it is unnecessary. There is very little difference between advertised price and final sale price.”

White supports the premise. “I always like to remind people that there isn’t a whole lot of ‘secret’ stuff going on behind the scenes that changes prices. Thanks to the internet everything is very transparent. Nothing is held back as part of a negotiation.”

Dunn looks at it from an image standpoint. “In the past our industry has had connotations of being shady, checkered pants and white shoe tricksters. I know there must still be people like that but in this building that isn’t true. I have 100% trust in every person who works here, from the guy washing your car to the guy doing your financing to my dad and my uncle. That trust is demonstrated by being open about what we are doing and allowing the customer to do the research they need to have confidence in us.”

Although consumer information is a powerful influence, there are basic decisions that every buyer must make that dealerships can help with. “Financing and the credit market is always on the move,” claims White. “The buyer needs to think about how long they intend to keep a car and what kind of financing makes sense for them. A lease may be a better option. No matter how you package it, a new car is a new car. As advisors in partnership with our customers we can find the right vehicle that will meet the customer’s needs and, hopefully expectations.”    

Ballas sees the industry from a slightly different view. “Our biggest change has been the way we communicate with our customers.  The internet and the cloud have become the main source of customer opportunity.” She goes on, striking a cautionary tone. “With that opportunity comes a national trend for large dealer groups.  At present, most of the new car franchises in Toledo are locally owned.  If I could remind car shoppers of anything it would be to support locally owned businesses who give back in a big way to their communities.”

“The trick to repeat business,” says Yark, “is getting the buyer in the right car and working out agreeable details. What will the car be used for? What is the buyer’s budget, driving habits, and/or family situation? If we can answer those questions first then the rest is about matching up vehicles, maintenance plans, and financing terms that will be acceptable and sustainable to the buyer. That is how you make happy customers.”

Auto Passion

“The bottom line,” says Dunn, “is that the business is so much more than just selling a car. It is about parts, collision, financing, and service of a vehicle that people depend on and like. It is about more than color, make and model. It is about satisfaction in what you drive. I like cars. As does my family. My dad and my uncle, plus Jay, Curt and Andrea, we all have worked every aspect of this business. I am proud to work in an organization like that.”

Getting someone in car sales to declare a favorite car can be difficult. “I just like so many kinds of cars,” claims Yark. “And no, I am not trying to be evasive. I love old and new cars, I love the new hybrids and tech cars, and I have a hobby of collecting old cars as well. I really don’t have a favorite. I like them all.”

Ballas has one favorite car or hundreds of favorites, depending on your method of counting.  “My favorite car is always the one I am currently driving.  I don’t get attached to cars because each one is a fun and new driving experience.  However, if I had to select a car from memory it would be a 1954 Buick Skylark convertible in candy apple red. My aunt and uncle drove it to Ohio for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  I was young, impressionable and that was a very sweet car!”

Dave White stated, a favorite, definitively, “Corvette, man.”

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