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“I'm not what you expect when you think of auto dealers.”
-- Cyndie Mynatt





NEW MODELS

Women increasingly are a standard feature at new-car dealerships across North Carolina

By Lisa H. Towle

Cyndie Mynatt  knows career fairs. She should, she's participated in enough of them. Appearance and presentation count at these affairs, so her tailored suits, eye-catching tabletop displays, grasp of entrepreneurial and technology issues, soft but firm voice and quick wit create an impression favorable enough to hold an audience.

But being a savvy business woman, she also knows to always come with a clincher. In these cases, it's compensation charts that graphically illustrate the earning power of professionals in her increasingly complex business — automobile and truck retailing.

Mynatt, president of Ben Mynatt Pontiac Buick GMC Truck in Concord, concedes with a laugh, “I'm not what you expect when you think of auto dealers.” No she's not. Then again, the state's franchised dealerships continue to defy expectations as well.

For one, sales of new cars and trucks haven't begun to brake. With sales at four percent above last year's pace, dealers are on track to break records.

“We're definitely bucking a trend,” notes Robert Glaser, executive vice president of the North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association (NCADA). “In North Carolina, auto dealers represent less than two percent of retail establishments. Yet ours is a $16 billion industry that generates more than 20 percent of all sales tax collected by the state.

“The numbers validate the franchise legislation passed by the General Assembly in 1999, which retained the structure of an important segment of our economy and kept the automakers from owning dealerships.”

Glaser theorizes that the stellar numbers are a function of several things — a growing population; profitable portfolios, despite some volatility in equity markets; and increased discretionary income from dual-income families. “The economic impact of record sales most affects the state in every little community,” he says. “It's the trickle-down effect. It means dealers are hiring more people and funding more charitable causes and just being even more of a presence.”

In North Carolina, where nearly 80 percent of all dealerships are family owned and span many generations, the typical store has been in business for nearly 30 years, holds franchises with three manufacturers and spends nearly $120,000 annually on advertising.

Dealers aren't resting on laurels, however. A business-as-usual attitude isn't what breeds longevity, particularly in a hyper-competitive environment where dealers are squeezed by everything from soaring real estate and building costs, to online buying sites such as Autobytel and priceline.com, to manufacturers — their “partners” — who are employing a variety of methods, including financial incentives, to gain more control of markets and dealerships.

Meeting Challenges Head-On
In fact, it was new ways to compete and best meet customer's needs that topped the agenda at a NCADA-sponsored Leadership Symposium held last March in Florida. According to Kerry Powell, a spokesman for the association, North Carolina's new-car and truck dealers were the first such group in the nation to hold a dedicated forum for critically assessing the structure of automotive retailing.

Over a three-day period the retailers analyzed their businesses, management styles and the criticisms most often leveled at dealerships. They also listened to a variety of nationally-known motivational speakers and auto industry experts, and did some crystal ball gazing in order to determine where they and the industry would be in 15 years.

It was clear that one hallmark of successful dealers is the value they add to their communities. Their role as philanthropists and community activists is long-held and highly regarded (see related story, page 30).

Time and again, though, discussions at the symposium circled back to technology. Offered for consideration was a statement by Lee Sage, global leader of the automotive industry consulting practice at Ernst & Young LLP, the world's leading consultant to auto companies: “The Internet is going to have as much of an impact on the automobile industry as Henry Ford's mass merchandising and production methods did in the 1920s.”

If it's inevitable that the defining industry of the old economy, and still one of the most powerful industries on the planet, is about to collide with the defining medium of the new economy, then how best to use technology to add value — to transform and improve the retailing process?

Already, a vast majority of North Carolina's franchised auto and truck dealers have embraced the market's newest tool for conducting business.

Nearly 85 percent of dealers surveyed indicated having some presence on the world wide web, a treasure-trove of information on everything from new-car and truck invoice prices to used-car trade-in prices, options, magazine reviews and safety rankings.

Increasingly, people are trafficking in such data. J.D. Power & Associates, a California-based marketing concern, expects that by year's end 65 percent of new car shoppers will have turned to the Internet for research. That number doesn't surprise Bob Mayberry Jr., vice president of Bob Mayberry Chrysler City Inc. in Monroe.

His dealership does have an Internet coordinator and has made “incremental” Internet sales with a site that allows browsers to survey inventory, submit information requests and apply for financing. However, it's Mayberry's belief that shoppers are mostly using the web as a form of customer service; after all, tires can't be kicked in cyberspace.

“People will always feel the need to touch, smell and drive a vehicle,” he says. Cyndie Mynatt, who anticipates dealers will increasingly use technology to stay in touch with “our existing, loyal owner bases,” echoes that sentiment. “I'd say close to half of our customers use the Internet to do research before coming in to make a purchase. Therefore, they've already made a lot of decisions before they get here. But that's great because more informed customers are easier to work with. We'd rather people have correct information than misinformation.”

The Triad's Modern Automotive Network, with some 500 employees, the majority of whom are devoted to retail sales, parts and service, has carved a profit-making center for itself out of the Internet. “We're deep into e-commerce,” says Rob Fowler, vice president of Modern Automotive, who with his brother Fred oversees the network's six stores.

Fred's sons, the fourth generation in the business, have helped Modern take the technological lead. In 1995, after recognizing the advantages held by aggressive, free-wheeling dot-com companies selling directly to consumers desiring a new and better car-buying experience, Modern started building a web presence. Today, its Internet program divides into two complementary parts: sales and training.

A small division has been created to handle e-mail requests from cyber-shoppers and Internet transactions, which generate a growing fraction of sales. In 1997, Modern's Internet Department reported 167 units sold and delivered. A year later that number had climbed to 550, and by 1999 it was 902.

Continual “how'd you do that?” queries led to the development of the AutoNetSelling.com program, which has educated dealers and their employees from Florida to New York in the ever evolving art of web site design and Internet sales. Debbie Jennings, Modern's Internet manager, heads the training sessions, which are held either in Winston-Salem at the Toyota store or on-site.

Growing Leaders
There remains, of course, innovation to be had in the tried and true bricks and mortar approach to auto dealing. Dick Keffer's successful career as a new-car dealer began in 1961 as a salesman at a Chevy store. Thirteen years later, an investor put up most of the money for a dealership Keffer wanted to own. He ran the store and from its profits bought out the silent partner's interest. From that start grew 19 dealerships spread across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Now, as chairman of Keffer Management Co. in Charlotte, he affords others — including women — the opportunities he had to be an entrepreneur.

In effect, Keffer runs an entrepreneurial incubator. People with a desire to enter the dealer ranks are hired and put to work in one of Keffer's Charlotte-area franchises. After they've learned the ropes and demonstrated that they have the feel and requisite fire in the belly for the work, Keffer sends them forth, completely funding a store that they run. Just as was done for him, the loan is repaid from the dealership's profits.

Currently, 12 people are involved in such a buyout. Typically, this process takes 10 years. Once it's completed, the owner possesses the franchise 100 percent, and has no further obligation to Keffer. The only thing he asks is that “someday they help another person get started in the business.”

A Woman's Place

More than 80 percent of car purchases are influenced by females. When that fact is considered, the hiring of women, an underrepresented — albeit growing — group within dealerships, is especially critical.

Dick Keffer was ahead of his time. He understood the importance of increasing and retaining talent no matter the gender. In the 1970s, for example, he recruited Bonnie Hunter as business manager for a Wilmington dealership, setting her on a career path that would ultimately lead to the presidency of Keffer Management.

Cyndie Mynatt, who worked summers in the accounting department of her father's store, had some help along the way as well, and now she's returning the favor. She and her brother, Richard, are partners with their father in neighboring dealerships and both completed the National Automobile Dealers Association's (NADA) Training Academy. The Duke University grad mentors young women considering a career in the field by, among other things, having them shadow her.

Her mission is getting more people to think about — or rethink, as the case may be — the business. Thus, the many speaking engagements and appearances in classrooms and at job fairs. Earlier this year, The Business Journal of Charlotte recognized her high community profile and accomplishments (since taking over the Pontiac dealership employment has doubled to 38 full-time employees and parts and service revenue has risen more than 30 percent since last year) by naming her an outstanding business achiever.

And there are more stories like Mynatt's. Natalie Tindol serves as general manager of Earl Tindol Ford in Gastonia, for instance, while Linda Leith is general manager and dealer-principal of Raleigh-based Leith Inc.

It's hard to tell exactly how many women are in the dealer ranks — not even the NADA tracks that kind of information. According to Diane Turner, NCADA's assistant vice president, though, in North Carolina there are about 10 women working as dealer-principals. A “handful” of others are significantly involved in a dealership, “essentially running the operation,” though they're not named as dealer-principal.

And the ranks are about to grow. In May, Don Williamson's daughter will graduate from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington with a degree in business. She is then going to join the dealership he heads, Jacksonville's Moore Buick Pontiac GMC Truck Mitsubishi Inc.

“I am so excited I can hardly stand it,” says Williamson. “Women bring something extra to auto retailing. They are a big part of the future of this industry.”

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the November 2000 issue of the North Carolina magazine.

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Dealers Add Value 
to Their Communities


H
arold B. Wells, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, has said he'd like all “independent franchised new-car retailers to be entrepreneurial heroes.” By that he means “energetic, creative, adaptable dealers who add value to the distribution process that the automaker can never hope to.”

Dealers in the Tar Heel State, from which Wells hails (he's also president of Wells Automotive Inc. of Whiteville), will have no problem meeting that directive. Adding value to the process is a defining characteristic of North Carolina's automobile and truck sellers, whose roots reach deep into the soil of the communities where their families and businesses are located.

Those added values of car dealers have taken many forms over the years: social benefactor, caring employer and community activist. According to the North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association (NCADA), on average, dealerships donate more than $10,000 to charities annually, and nearly 80 percent of dealership owners are actively involved in service organizations such as the Kiwanis and Rotary.

“Dealers do an awful lot of things in their communities, and they do them not necessarily to be recognized but because they want to see the place they call home grow and prosper,” says Dale Stearns, dealer-principal of Stearns Ford in Burlington. “Manufacturers aren't local people, and I don't think they'd have the same quality of life concerns.”

Stearns, whose family has been in the car business since the early 1950s and now owns four stores employing nearly 130 people, serves on numerous boards of directors, including those for CrimeStoppers and the YMCA. So strongly does the Stearns Automotive Group feel about giving back, it's institutionalized a philanthropy program that takes a percentage of sales each month for contributions to a worthy cause in the community such as food for the needy or hospice.

For years, Charlotte-based Keffer Management Co., which owns 19 dealerships in four southeastern states, has worked with hospice in Mecklenburg County as well as the Carolinas Medical Center to send terminally ill children and their families on vacations to Disney World four times a year. And once a year Keffer funds a day trip to the beach for underprivileged kids enrolled in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.

It's a massive movement completed with the help of a Rotary club. Each spring, early in the morning, 500 or so kids between the ages of 10 and 13 bounce onto a dozen buses and head to the ocean.

“To see the expression on their faces when they first glimpse that body of water is such a fantastic thing . . . I can't begin to tell you what it's like,” says Dick Keffer, founder and chairman of Keffer Management.

Norwood Bryan, president of Bryan Pontiac Cadillac in Fayetteville, also gets abiding satisfaction knowing that he's able to provide a one-of-a-kind experience — literally — for young people. In Cumberland County, on a leafy 52-acre tract owned by Bryan, is a magical place where mountain laurel grows next to bald cypress and two creeks flow together to form a 75-foot waterfall — the only major waterfall outside the mountain region. It's enough, chuckles the former state legislator, to “make the ecologists' eyes cross.”

Eye-crossing also is the thought that for more than a quarter of a century Bryan has given full use of the valuable land, rent free, to the Pines of Carolina Girls Scout Council. Scouts from 20 counties in the central part of the state use “Camp Carver's Falls” for retreats and a variety of outdoor adventures.

Not everyone has the resources to mount such charitable campaigns. Large scale or small doesn't matter, insists Keffer. What counts is that action is taken. He adds, “If you don't invest in the community where you live, the community that supports your business, then shame on you.”

Of course were it not for strong, financially healthy dealerships, such good works would not be possible. And it is a knowledgeable, helpful staff that creates the customer-friendly environment so critical to a dealership's success. Not only has the quality of cars steadily improved, so also have the incentives designed to attract and retain employees. Standard benefits packages now include medical and dental insurance, vacations, 401K retirement plans, ongoing training opportunities and flex-time scheduling.

And then there's the more elusive, but equally critical, esprit de corps created when meaningful communication, a shared challenge, and senses of belonging and loyalty fuse. In a tight labor market characterized more by high-tech than high-touch, it is telling that Bryan Pontiac Cadillac, like many of its peers, can boast a lengthy list of long-term employees.

In Bryan's case, 40 years long. One 83-year-old, for example, comes to work four mornings a week. “He does what he wants, but he's always productive,” says Norwood, who runs two family-owned dealerships with his brother, David. “I mean goodness gracious, if somebody has something to contribute then let them. We have a lot of loyalty that way, but loyalty is a two-way street. It's very comforting for all concerned.”

In Rocky Mount, which last year experienced some of the worst flooding in the state's history, 10 percent of Farris Motors' employees lost their homes to the deluge. But those same employees were the first ones back to work as the water receded, helping David Farris reopen the Dodge, Chrysler, Plymouth and Jeep store that has been in his family for 54 years.

And despite precipitous drops in sales, says Farris, “I don't know of a dealer in the area who's laid anybody off (after the flooding). It wasn't easy, but we kept paying people. After such devastation to people's lives it wasn't the time to say, `I can't do that.'”

Immediately after Hurricane Floyd flooded eastern North Carolina, the NCADA established a special disaster relief fund to provide instant assistance to dealership employees. The effort, overseen by Diane Turner, the association's assistant vice president, proceeded in three phases:

Delivery of goods to meet immediate needs (non-perishable food, cleaning supplies, etc.);

Allocation of gift certificates to stores such as Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, Kmart, Wal-Mart and Home Depot;

Cash gifts to those who experienced the greatest losses.

In all, NCADA raised $150,000 in contributions and delivered approximately $134,000 in goods, gift certificates and cash to more than 75 employees and their families who were flooded out.

“I cannot begin to tell you what a heartening sight it was to see Diane Turner coming down the road in a van filled with grills and charcoal, clothes, food, water and money,” says Farris, his voice choking with emotion at the memory of it. “She got into Rocky Mount the first Saturday the waters had receded enough to allow traffic. And after that she just kept shopping and bringing goods to people all over the eastern part of the state. It was an amazing thing.”

Amazing, too, he continues, was the generosity of the employees at Elkins Chrysler Plymouth in Durham, who forfeited Christmas gifts to each other in order to buy a “truckload” of presents for people in areas that had been laid to waste.

In fact, not too long ago the folks in Durham called Rocky Mount, where some 500 homeowners are still awaiting assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, just to see how things were faring. They asked what they could do and reiterated that they stood ready to help in any way needed.

Concludes Farris: “It has all made me as proud as could be to be a dealer. It blew me away then, and it still does.” — Lisa H. Towle



Don Williamson

Jacksonville's Williamson Named Time Magazine's 
Dealer of the Year


The magnitude of what had just happened began to sink in for Don Williamson when somebody took him by the arm, led him outside, away from all the backslapping and noise, and told him to look up. There, hovering above the massive convention center in Orlando, was a Goodyear blimp. It was flashing his name, congratulating him on being the “best of the best,” and acknowledging his new title, 2000 Time Magazine Quality Dealer of the Year.

Last January, Williamson, owner-president of Moore Buick Pontiac in Jacksonville, won what has been characterized as “the Nobel Prize for new-car dealers.” Of the more than 22,000 dealers in the country, an independent panel of judges had named him No. 1. While North Carolinians had been finalists in the past — including Norwood Bryan, the current NCADA president, it was the first time in the 31-year history of the award that a Tar Heel had made it all the way to the top spot.

He's not the only person from North Carolina recognized as an industry leader right now. Whiteville's Harold Wells, who began his retailing effort with a local bicycle shop, is the fourth North Carolinian to serve as chairman of the NADA. See this month's Executive Profile on Wells, page 46.

And the view up there is nice, acknowledges Williamson. He is most happy with the fact that Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., a co-sponsor of the award, gives a $10,000 scholarship to a student pursuing an automotive career who lives within a 60-mile radius of his store.

It is that magnanimity of spirit that shone through in the voluminous entry form all applicants are required to complete. Williamson, who was nominated by fellow dealers for the honor, has been in the car business for 31 years and has served the NCADA in numerous positions, including president, vice president and treasurer.

His dealership, which employs 100 people and e-commerce technology, is named for the man who once owned it, his longtime mentor. When Williamson purchased it in 1986, with the full support of Jim Moore and without an investor, it didn't even cross his mind to change its name to reflect his own. “It had a sound reputation,” he says. “Why change the name?”

Reputation and ethics are themes Williamson returns to time and again. When raising his three children he was always, he says, keenly aware of the impact his reputation would have on their future and their association with others in their Onslow County community. He'd tell them they could be assured that while their father may not be able to provide them everything they wanted, he would “certainly leave them with a good name.”

He's worked hard to make good on that promise. Since his affiliation with Moore Buick Pontiac 27 years ago, the dealership has never received an arbitration case through AUTOCAP, a mediation program for consumers with complaints about a vehicle or service provided by a dealer or manufacturer.

His list of community and philanthropic activities is pages long, and his store's factory awards date to the year after he became a dealer-principal.

In 1988, the dealership was honored by receiving its first “best in class” certification from Buick Motor Division. In 1992, he was recognized by the chamber of commerce as Outstanding Business Person in Jacksonville and Onslow County. Two years later, the military gave him its Pro Patria (“for the nation”) award in recognition of his support of employees who serve in the National Guard and military reserves, various military publications and fund-raising events.

He doesn't hesitate when asked about the biggest accomplishment in his retail automotive career: “I've hired and trained three individuals who've subsequently become franchised dealers.” It's very rewarding, he explains, to know that “through loyalty to my employees and commitment to their career development, I was able to instill the pride necessary to set and achieve the goal of franchise ownership.”

Maybe one day one of those people will stand gazing at their name in lights. Maybe they'll be called the best of the best. If so, promises Williamson, “it will just knock their socks off.” — Lisa H. Towle

 

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