When Ford fell in the Consumer Reports reliability ratings last November, some dealers braced for a customer backlash.

The Red McCombs Automotive Group, which runs three Ford stores, kept cool. As it turns out, the negative ratings has had little effect on sales and customer satisfaction. 

“We really haven’t seen much of a drop in our Ford stores due to quality rankings,” says Zack Freed, e-commerce director for the San Antonio-based group that ranks No.38 on the WardsAuto Megadealer 100. “Occasionally, a customer will bring up (the CR report).”

Most of those conversations center on Ford’s MyTouch infotainment system, which is advanced but not without some initial bugs that the auto maker says it has addressed.

Freed acknowledges the MyTouch issue “has been a challenge for us.”

On the sales firing line, Henry Finley, general manager at McCombs Ford West in San Antonio, hasn’t seen any sales slippage since Ford dropped well below five Japanese brands, Audi, General Motors and Chrysler in CR’s latest reliability ratings, based on feedback from 1.2 million vehicle owners.

“A small percentage of buyers take (CR ratings) into consideration when purchasing” in the San Antonio market, which supports both trucks and fuel efficient smaller cars, Finley says. 

On the upside, “we’ve seen a sales increase at Ford stores in new cars in 2012,” Finley says. The dealership ranks No.115 on the 2012 WardsAuto Dealer 500

Sales are up now but were something else during “a brutal 2008-2009” period when the domestic auto makers fell off the financial cliff, resulting in government-backed bankruptcies for GM and Chrysler.

When Ford declined government bailout funds, many consumers were impressed.

“We started getting customer feedback saying they would buy a Ford because it didn’t rely on the public bailout funds,” Finley recalls.

The McCombs group operates seven dealerships and sold more than 31,000 vehicles in 2011. Total revenue was $768.7 million.

A customer-first philosophy has served the group well, says Chief Operating Officer Tim Cliver.

“Customers are the lifeblood of dealerships,” he says “We have to retain them. We are always changing and tweaking to give better service to customers.”

The group focuses on product selection, convenience, service and new technology, Cliver says. “Respect of our customers’ time and social media are here to stay.”

Cliver oversees seven general managers. One of his goals is to help them set forecasts and aim high at satisfying customers.

In addition to the three Ford stores, McCombs has two Hyundai and two Toyota/Scion dealerships, as well as several used-car locations, all in the San Antonio region.

McCombs Ford earned $107.1 million in 2011, selling 3,643 new and used cars. Another McCombs store made the WardsAuto Dealer 500. Red McCombs Toyota ranks No.98 on the list.

In this day of corporate takeovers and depersonalization of big business, McCombs Automotive remains one of the nation’s larger family-owned enterprises. Owners and partners like it that way.

“It’s less red tape, and decision-making is quicker,” Cliver says. “We keep the brand strong; it is not just about the dollar. Community acceptance is better. Customers relate to a person better than a corporation.”

McCombs West ranks in Ford’s top 100 dealers nationally. In the San Antonio market, it was No.2 in overall Ford sales rankings.

Finley worked at Gillespie Ford until Red McCombs bought the business in 2007. With more than 15 years at Ford stores, he has moved up from sales and general sales manager to general manager last fall. He works with 34 sales consultants.

On the product side, “I’d like to see them make more hybrids for the lineup to be more competitive,” Finley says of Ford.

The McCombs group has about 1,000 employees, almost 200 of them at McCombs Ford West.

“We’ve seen huge growth in our body shop and fixed operations thanks to Doug Lacroix, our fixed operations director,” Freed says. Each store operates independently supported by a centralized business and corporate office.

“Our group comes together on many team efforts such as used-car acquisition, service, expense management and marketing efforts,” he says.

During the auto industry’s struggles in 2009, “we came out of the meltdown better than ever. People, process and profits are much improved under the leadership of Tim Cliver,” Freed says.

Group owner Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, born in 1927, remains active in the auto business. His daughter, Marsha Shields, serves as the dealer principal, managing daily operations of all stores.

Red McCombs is considered a legendary dealer who has financially supported many causes. The expansive school of business at his alma mater, the University of Texas in Austin, is named after him.

In other non-dealership business activities, McCombs co-founded Clear Channel Communications in 1972, making it one of the country’s largest radio networks.

He also is former owner of the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings and the National Basketball Assn.’s Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs.

The San Antonio Express-Newsreports his worth at $1.4 billion.

Employees still recite some of Red McCombs’ sayings. Among them:

  • “We all have 24 hours. What are you going to do with them?”
  • “Life is a present.”
  • “Expect to win!”

Cliver adds one of his own: “Customers are our future.”

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