Employees at Capital Ford in Raleigh, NC, know boss Tim Michael as the “Energizer bunny.”  He’s everywhere.

“He is always available for customers and employees. Most of his time is spent in sales, but he keeps abreast of parts, service and body shop – everything,” says Jerry Mosley, Capital Ford’s general manager and a 27-year company veteran.

The dealership is part of the Capital Automotive Group that also sells Lincoln, Mazda, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram, Suzuki and Nissan brands throughout North and South Carolina.

Michael arrived at Charlie Wiygul Ford in 1985 as dealer principal, renaming it Capital Ford, since it was located in Raleigh, the state capital on Capital Blvd. He bought out the retiring dealer and transformed a struggling dealership into today’s multimillion-dollar multiline group.

Michael began turning around the business in 90 days and soon doubled sales without replacing the original management staff. “They welcomed me. And we’ve never lost money there since,” he says.

He had worked as new-car sales manager at Parkway Ford in Winston-Salem, NC, the No.1-ranked Ford sales group in the Carolinas.

“I still like to work the floor,” Michael admits. 

Since Michael took over Capital, it has grown into the No.1 Ford dealer in the Southeast. The dealership ranks No.10 among Ford stores nationwide, Mosley says. 

Capital Ford ranked No.16 on WardsAuto Dealer 500 list in 2011, posting $194.2 million in new-used revenues ($104.8 million new units) in 2010. Revenues jumped to $227.5 million and total group revenues stood at $453.2 million in 2011, according to company reports.

Nissan was added to the portfolio in 2011 to expand the group’s brand line with in-demand new products. Before that came Suzuki in 2010 to expand the truck line, knowing the compact Ford Ranger pickup was going away. His other dealership purchases, after the original Ford store, came between 1989 and 2005.

Michael likes to attribute the dealership’s success to “great employees taking care of their customers, and in turn, those customers taking care of Capital Ford.”

Nearly three years after the auto industry collapse, He looks at the period as “lessons learned” during the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

He credits Ford for avoiding the offer to take government bailout money to stay afloat as General Motors and Chrysler did. The presence of Ford CEO Allan Mulally was “huge” in the auto maker’s turnaround, he says.

“We had customers coming in wanting to thank Ford for not taking the bailouts,” Michael recalls. Many customers turned to Ford products as a result.

“Ford is continuing with products people want to buy. The fuel-saving EcoBoost engine, introduced in Explorer and F-150 models (last year), is catching on,” he says. 

Capital Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Garner, NC, was acquired in 2005 and spared the pain of shutdowns facing 789 other Chrysler group dealers in 2009.

At that time, their Chrysler dealership held up, but Chrysler business generally was “very slow early on, a little confusing for everyone,” Michael recalls.

With Fiat’s Sergio Marchionni at the helm of Chrysler, “It’s very streamlined now, efficient and poised to grow. Chrysler has added styling to their products. And Dodge trucks are back on lists of top trucks to have,” he says.

Eternally positive, Michael notes: “We found we were going back to where we started, (during the recession). We had to manage people, expenses better and had to pull together. We’re a better company today because of all that.”

If a crash of such proportions happens again, what then? “We would keep the same course and keep management focused on the business – gross, expenses and headcount,” Mosley sums up. The dealership group has 271 employees, losing 8% at the time, adding back 3% last year.

But the lessons learned stuck with the Capital folks. Advises Michael: “Always listen to the customer, stay a little humble and run with a little fear. But know it can go away tomorrow. You don’t know when you might have the next recall. But you know that you can handle it.”

Capital does business in a strong high-tech market known as Research Triangle, home to many universities in the Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, NC areas. Customers include scores of tech, government and university workers, and Capital maintains an overall 60% customer retention rate.

That stems from Michael’s emphasis on customer relationships. A demo drive is not just a chance to show off the product.

“It’s also a chance to (form) a relationship and build customer trust. You have a short window to gain that trust. You learn, you listen and give it all you’ve got,” he reminds staffers.

Still, Capital has its challenges. A Ford-Lincoln store is located in Rocky Mount, NC, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. 

Michael shares his recipe for success readily. Each general manager in other Capital locations learned the ropes in the flagship Raleigh store as managers or general sales managers before taking on a store.

He practices promoting from within. General managers such as Mosley are steeped in the business. David Butler, general sales manager overseeing new-car, used-car and fleet sales, has 31 years in automotive; Ronnie Lumley heads parts, service and body shop and is a 28-year veteran. Many others have decades of experience.

Michael participates in many dealer and community groups. He has accolades and awards galore such as a rare three-time Triple Crown for high levels of customer satisfaction from Ford. 

Still, he believes in sharing, not necessarily competing with other dealers. Dealer trades and networking are part of his business routine.

“You have to help other dealers. It all comes back to you.”

Company Profile

Capital Automotive Group: includes Ford Lincoln, Mazda, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram, Suzuki and Nissan brands.

Dealer principal: Tim Michael

Flagship: Capital Ford, Raleigh, NC.

Employees: 271

Smart move: Hired a former TV weathercaster as a customer-relationship specialist; also motivates employees. Michael:  “I should have done it a long time ago.”

Capital Auto Group revenues, 2011: $453,233,320

WardsAuto Dealer 500 ranking: No.16 for Capital Ford.  

Awards and Accolades: Winner of Ford’s Triple Crown in 2010, 2011, 2012; President’s awards for Ford, Mazda and Suzuki; first Southeast region dealer to achieve Premier Club award for parts and service performance.

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