Russell Stover, general manager of BMW & Mini of Nashville, was in a meeting when his phone rang. “Dolly Parton is in the Mini showroom,” announced a colleague on the other end of the line.

And so went another day at the office as Stover and his team of 110 employees serve their Music City customers, which often include producers, songwriters and stars.

“Celebrities are just normal people like everybody else,” he says. “Some may try to disguise themselves slightly; some really don’t care, but we try to treat them like everybody else and not make a big deal about it.”

The dealership enjoys the spotlight as a top performer and member of the WardsAuto Dealer 500 ranking. It is No.200 on the list with $84.8 million in total revenue. 

The store that began life in the early 1970s as Superior Motors, a BMW-Volkswagen dual, reopened its doors in 1996 as BMW of Nashville. It was one of the first dealerships to join Sonic Automotive when that chain was formed in 1997.

The dealership moved to its current $3 million, 50,000-sq.-ft. (4,645.2-sq.-m) facility along Interstate-65 between downtown Nashville and affluent Brentwood in 1998 and since has spent another $2 million on a separate Mini building, service bays and detail shop.

The dealership saw sales of nearly 2,000 vehicles on the latest WardsAuto Dealer 500. It was about a 50-50 split between new-and used-car deliveries.

“While it’s not back to pre-2008 numbers, we’re optimistic that we’ll get there,” Stover says.

About 10% to 20% of his customers pay cash, but financing is still the bulk of the business. Leases, however, are not as prevalent in the mid-South as they are in other parts of the country.

Stover’s hunch is that the regional values of customers are more traditional, leading them to prefer owning to leasing.

On average, BMW & Mini of Nashville puts 750 BMWs out the door each year, along with 400 Minis and 1,000 pre-owned vehicles. The BMW 3-Series represents close to 40% of the store’s overall business, while the Cooper hardtop is the volume-seller for the Mini brand.

Adding the Mini franchise when the modern version of that car was launched in the U.S. in 2002 seemed like a natural fit, considering that BMW and Mini share the same corporate parent and premium cache. Apparently, Mini had the same idea about the dealership.

“In the beginning, we were planning on applying for the brand, but Mini approached us first,” Stover says. “They asked us to submit a plan and we were awarded the franchise. It’s been a great addition to our business.”

In terms of volume, Mini of Nashville ranks No.76 in the country with 90 units sold through March, according to Mini. Year-over-year growth is 28.5%.

“Nashville has an important arts and music community, and an important urban center,” says Mini spokeswoman Nathalie Bauthers. “Mini of Nashville is a good example of an existing store investing to accommodate the product and brand growth and moving into a new building.”

BMW & Mini of Nashville’s parent company Sonic operates 119 dealerships in 15 states and 26 major markets, concentrating mainly on import and luxury brands. Sonic Chairman and CEO O. Bruton Smith is also chairman, CEO, director and controlling stockholder of Speedway Motorsports, which owns and operates eight NASCAR racetracks including Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Infineon Raceway.

Stover says the four pillars of Sonic’s culture guide his business: associate satisfaction, customer satisfaction, playbook execution and technology.

“They care about their employees, that’s their No.1 goal,” he says. “That leads to great customer satisfaction.”

Sonic dealerships also operate from a set of “playbooks” that establish common practices ranging from how salespeople interact with staffers in the finance and insurance office to the cleanliness of restrooms.

Sonic Automotive is investing $57 million in technology for its dealerships. Within a year, all Sonic service advisors will be equipped with Apple iPads.

“The thinking is that a service advisor would become mobile,” Stover says. “He or she can approach the customer’s car and have all the information literally at their fingertips. They don’t have to run back and forth between the car and the workstation.”

It’s also anticipated that the mobile devices will help promote maintenance and accessory sales.

The technology doesn’t stop in the service department. Stover says all his salespeople soon will have iPads.

“This will promote professionalism with the customer, and it is one more step toward paperless transactions in the sales process,” he says. “The customer’s time is valuable. We try to think into the future and do business hopefully the way people want to do business.”

At the corporate level, Sonic uses an award-winning iPad app that allows management to analyze sales and cost trends and other operating data from each of its dealerships.

“Everyone has access to the same data at the same time, whether they’re sitting at their desk or walking the showroom floor,” says Jeff Dyke, Sonic’s executive vice president of operations. “We’re capitalizing on this type of technology to enhance the customer experience and operate the business more efficiently.”

Technology also has dramatically changed the car-buying process and the way dealers advertise their products.

The Nashville store maintains a “virtual lot” on its website, which includes photos and information on new and used vehicles. The site also includes third-party vehicle reviews and a pop-up box that lets prospects chat with a sales associate.

“They contact you through an email, and that’s where the process begins,” Stover says.

If the customer lives far away or otherwise can’t conveniently make it to the dealer during the shopping process, a salesperson with a smartphone can record and narrate a vehicle walk-around and email the file to the prospect.

Between 50% and 60% of Stover’s advertising budget, which ranges from $35,000 to $50,000 per month, including factory co-op money, is allocated to e-commerce sites like Cars.com, AutoTrader and Google’s search-engine optimization service. The balance is spread among live promotions, cable TV and magazines. Stover says he hasn’t had a presence in newspapers for several years.

“Niche marketing is the only way to go after the customer,” says Terry Cornelius, president of ad agency Cornelius and Associates in Nashville, which handles Stover’s account. “Each car has its own demographic and psychographic. (For instance), if you’re selling BMWs, you must be sure the people from the Tennessee Performing Arts Center see your ads.”

Recognizing the passion that exists for their products, BMW & Mini of Nashville encourages involvement with enthusiast groups. One employee is president of the local Mini owners’ club. Nancy Allen, a 21-year veteran dealership saleswoman, is past treasurer of the Old Hickory Chapter of the BMW Car Club. The group’s name comes from the nickname of Andrew Jackson, a Tennessean who was the seventh president of the U.S.

“The enthusiasm brings people together for the brand,” Allen says. “It’s a mutual understanding that we are there to support them with parts or a technician to answer their questions.”

Stover is excited about the new products in the pipeline, from the Mini Paceman (a 2-door Countryman) to the 4-door BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe, which will play in the same luxury segment as the Porsche Panamera and Mercedes-Benz CLS.

He smiles at the memory of country music legend George Jones visiting the showroom to kick the tires. Then there was that note from a famous customer, singer Alan Jackson. It read: “Mini thanks.” 

Some people are lucky enough to enjoy what they do, Stover says. “I’m one of those people.”

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