WALLED LAKE, MI – Bob Shuman tongue-in-cheek calls his dealership “the biggest Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram store in Walled Lake.”

Ads and a banner across the front of his namesake store proclaim that. The punch line: It’s the only Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership in Walled Lake. In fact, it is the only dealership in the northern Detroit suburb.

Shuman likes the gag, but he isn’t trying to pull a fast one. In fact, his reputation as a straight shooter has won him an honor he takes seriously. DealerRater, an online review website, named him its dealer of the year for various reasons, including consistent 5-star accolades customers give to Shuman Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram.

“Most people are extremely happy customers and are happy to give us good reviews, when asked,” says Shuman, who was a member of a law firm before becoming president of the 58-year-old family business.

The DealerRater award originated from a concerted effort to get customers to rate the store. Ironically, the effort began after the dealership got a couple of lousy reviews.

“In 2011, we stunk at reputation management,” he says during a presentation at the Automotive Social Media Summit in Los Angeles. “We had two reviews on Google and they were both horrible.”

Adopting what Shuman calls “a review culture” begins with a top-down message. Weekly staff meetings cover the importance of reviews on third-party websites. Employee expectations are set and positive results lauded. 

Benefits of good reviews include not only more sales but higher worker morale as well. “A strong online brand attracts and retains employees,” Shuman says. 

His primary market, extending well beyond Walled Lake’s city limits, is a study in contrasts, consisting of consumers with incomes ranging from high to low. “Some people can’t get financed and some are buying a Dodge Charger ST for their 16-year-old,” he says. 

The dealership sold more than 2,000 vehicles last year, about 75% of them new. The service department has 60 to 70 repair orders a day.

Shuman worked at the store as a young man, left to practice law and succeed his father as dealer principal in 1997. His father, 86, runs the place when his son is away on business trips, particularly those related to his position as chairman of the North American International Auto Show.

At the dealership, Bob Shuman talks with WardsAuto about his store, the Detroit market, what’s it like as a Chrysler dealer these days and more. Here is an edited version of that interview.   

WardsAuto: You bill yourself as the largest Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram dealership in Walled Lake. Do people appreciate the punch line that you are the only dealer in Walled Lake?

Shuman: In advertising, we wanted to make ourselves different from other car dealers saying the same things about lowest price and blah, blah, blah.

So we thought, “Well, we’re the biggest in Walled Lake because we are the only one in Walled Lake.” We did ads in the style of David Letterman’s Top Ten list. It was: “Why not buy a car from Shuman’s?” It resonated with people. I did it rather than have a voiceover. Some people hate it. Most people like it. Virtually everyone remembers it.

WardsAuto: What is the history of the dealership?

Shuman: My grandfather came to Detroit from Indiana in the 1920s. He fudged his way into a Model T dealership by saying, “Yeah, sure I can fix Model Ts.” He became the service manager, then general manager. Then he managed a Chevy dealership.

My dad went to Lawrence Tech (Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, MI) for engineering but ended up back selling cars. (He and my grandfather) bought an existing Ford store here in Walled Lake in 1955. They grew with Ford. In 1979 I was a freshman at Michigan State University when I got a phone call from my dad who said, “I’ve got news.”

In my family, when someone says that, you listen up. He said he was closing the dealership, which was a body blow. As a kid, I’d punch people for saying bad things about Ford. He had a little dispute with Ford and closed the dealership for three years. This was the early 1980s, which wasn’t the best time to be selling cars anyway. Lee Iaccoca had moved from Ford to Chrysler. My dad knew him and hooked up with Chrysler in 1982, selling K cars and minivans. Now, we are one of the largest multi-brand Chrysler dealerships in the country.

WardsAuto: What model do you sell the most?

Shuman: We sell a lot of Town & Country minivans and Jeep Grand Cherokees and now we are starting to sell a lot of Ram 1500 pickup trucks.

WardsAuto: So minivans still have legs?

Shuman: Around here they do. It’s the most practical vehicle we sell. I understand there is the stigma. I was reading a lawyer magazine about a woman who divorced the scumbag and was finally able to get rid of the minivan. Come on. I’m a minivan fan. I love driving them.

WardsAuto: You mentioned the lawyer magazine. You practiced law for 10 years before becoming a dealer? Does that experience as an attorney help in running a dealership? I assume you have the best documents in town.

Shuman: I don’t know if that’s true. I know what to ignore and what to be worried about, I suppose. There is a lot of crossover. What was hard for me coming back after working here while I was younger is that after every phone call in the first year, my hands would go to my keyboard to record the time. You have to do that as an attorney (for billable-hours purposes), but not as a car dealer.

I was sort of the off-the-record bankruptcy legal expert when Chrysler had its bankruptcy troubles. A lot of people called me up and said, “Can they do that?” And I said, “Well, they just did it, so I guess they can.”

WardsAuto: What about all the dealer-related regulations and compliance issues?

Shuman: There seem to be more every day. It seems like there are thousands of things we have to do. But a lot of them are good. For example, the (federal) Red Flag (anti-identity theft regulation) helps us stay out of trouble and helps us catch a few things we might not have caught.

WardsAuto: You are DealerRater’s dealer of the year. How do you go about getting that?

Shuman: We liked DealerRater because it had built-in controls to keep out fraudulent reviews. We started saying we were going to ask our customers to go to DealerRater and give us reviews. My goal was to be the (best-rated) Chrysler-brand dealer in Michigan. The rest has been gravy. We ended up as the best among 40 brands based on the number of 5-star ratings and the number of reviews.

WardsAuto: How do you deal with a negative review?

Shuman: First we try to find out who it is. Then we ask, “Can we solve the problem?” If it’s a service matter, let’s get them back in here and fix the car, give them a loaner and do whatever we can do.

Sometimes it is a disagreement and we just have to agree to disagree. If you are responding, it is a dangerous path when you get into, “Those are your facts, these are mine.” As a lawyer, I want to say this, this and this. But it really doesn’t help you. It is better to acknowledge that you can make mistakes, take that in and fix the process so we do better next time.

WardsAuto: What are the characteristics of the Detroit market?

Shuman: Until you have been a dealer in Detroit, you don’t really understand. It is highly competitive. There are large dealerships, one after another. And it is an employee-discount-based market in many ways.

We make far less money on a given car than they do anywhere else in the country. As a result, we have to run a tight ship in terms of cost structure. We advertise that we keep our overhead low.

Chrysler employees get a discount. Their family and friends can. Suppliers can. There are all sorts of plans. You almost have to be a rocket scientist to get it all straight. I pay guys very well to get it all straight, and they still screw it up once in a while.  

The other thing unique about Detroit is the dealers all know each other. Dealers get together, they go on vacations together. That doesn’t happen as much in other markets. It has to do with the auto industry being here.

That intermixing makes Detroit unique. Dealers here all know and respect each other, but we’ll steal a deal from each other at the drop of a hat. I will lie right in the middle of Pontiac Trail to sell a car.

WardsAuto: For those who don’t know, Pontiac Trail, despite its name, is a pretty busy road. What’s it like being a Chrysler dealer these days?

Shuman: The current ownership has been great to work with. They listen to us. They don’t always change, but they listen. You get the perception they are working as hard as we do. If I call up my rep at 5 p.m. on a Saturday, he answers the phone. He’s working. He’s ready to go. There is that kind of openness that has made it better in the last five years.

WardsAuto: As a Chrysler dealer, did you ever think a few years ago, “I better come up with a Plan B”?

Shuman: There was that time period (when Chrysler was closing hundreds of dealerships as part of its bankruptcy restructuring) of waiting for the letter saying whether you were in or out. Leading to that was a lot of pondering.

WardsAuto: You are active with the Detroit auto show, officially known as the North American International Auto Show. Are people who attend auto shows more likely thereafter to visit a dealership or do they just like to look at new cars?

Shuman: The statistics say absolutely the auto show spurs people to buy cars. I tell my people that if someone comes in here and says, “Hey, I was at the auto show last week,” that is a person who wants to buy a car.

WardsAuto: What can we expect from Chrysler in the next few years?  

Shuman: More great things. I’m bullish on Chrysler. We order all we can get right now. I’m trying to find more parking to put more vehicles on the ground. Our product and quality has never been better. We have very satisfied customers. I don’t have any complaints.

WardsAuto: Was there a time you felt over negatively about Chrysler or did you keep it in perspective?

Shuman: The 3-headed-dog years with Cerberus (the private-equity firm that acquired 80% of Chrysler from Daimler) were a pretty dark time. They pretty much shut down engineering and design and just about everything else. As a dealer, you could see if this was the future there wasn’t going to be much future.

It wasn’t too fun being a dealer at that point.

WardsAuto: So is it the best of times now?

Shuman: This is as good as I have seen it with Chrysler, from a dealer-relations standpoint and a product standpoint. It’s working real well right now.

See the full interview here.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com