In sunny Southern California, a place not normally associated with rough and tough Chevy trucks, Connell Chevrolet in Costa Mesa had a banner year for new vehicle sales on the strength of Tahoes and Suburbans.

As a result, they jumped 83 spots from last year to land at number 297 on the Ward's Dealer Business 500 with 2,474 new retail units sold, increasing total revenues from $82 million in 1999 to $99.4 million in 2000.

General manager Wayne Doddridge says, “All of our success can be attributed to our employees. One of the things we pride ourselves on is longevity. We have a technician who's been here 32 years, half of our workforce has been here seven years. Seven or eight salespeople have been here over 10 years. That's atypical in this business.”

Despite being happy with all his employees, Mr. Doddridge says he is most proud of the job done by his new vehicle sales team last year.

“Although I am proud of every department, last year I was most proud of our new vehicle department,” he says. “We took some chances with inventory. We were able to grab extra inventory and sell it.”

Pat Baxter, president of Kayser Ford in Madison, WI, also attributes his dealership's success to longevity as they've been serving the Madison area for 76 years now.

“A lot of repeat business comes because we've been here so long,” he says.

After an absence last year, Kayser Ford is back on the Ward's 500 at No. 269 with 2000 revenues totaling $103.2 million. Mr. Baxter says he is most proud of his dealership's parts and service department and the volume they handle.

“We have two shifts that work Monday through Friday until midnight. We've done it for a long time but more people are starting to do it now,” he says.

“It's real simple. This isn't brain surgery here. We treat customers the same as we would like to be treated.”
Wayne Doddridge
General manager
Connell Chevrolet

John Fowler, president of Somerset Pontiac-GMC in Troy, MI, says his employees are “with you through thick and thin. They understand the ups and downs.” He says most of his employees have been with him 15-20 years. “I can't remember the last time we lost a person,” he says.

Although dropping 110 spots from its position last year to land at 319 with 2000 revenues totaling $95.8 million, Mr. Fowler isn't concerned.

“It's the economy,” he says. He also believes there is a natural ebb and flow when it comes to his customers' buying habits “This is an area with a lot of GM employees and a lot of them buy on a two or three year basis.”

He adds that with 21 Pontiac and GMC dealers in the metro Detroit area, the closest being 4.6 miles away from him, prospective buyers have many places to shop around.

“Naturally we'd all like to sell more but there are too many dealers in the market. It's pretty competitive,” he says.

Mr. Doddridge says growing sales are important to him and he sees that happening down the road with new Chevy products like the Trailblazer and Avalanche. But he doesn't want to put people before profits.

He explains, “We want to do it in a fashion where we can remain profitable. We have 130 employees to think about, and the only way we can survive is to remain profitable. You look at dot-com businesses last year…there was a lot of fantasyland there.”

He concedes that the automotive market is oversupplied right now, but hopes upcoming incentives and new product will further Connell Chevrolet's standing. “The Trailblazer is a really nice car; probably the fastest SUV out there right now.”

Relationships between dealers and automakers can sometimes be less than amicable, but Mssrs. Doddridge, Baxter and Fowler say they are on good terms with their respective manufacturers.

Mr. Doddridge describes his relationship with General Motors and the Chevrolet division as “very good,” but admits the automaker had trouble in the past getting supply right to match demand. However, he says no matter how good things are “there will always be conflicts with dealers and manufacturers.”

Mr. Fowler echoes that statement, saying “GM runs a business as we run a business. Does it always work? Not really. But we're very happy and satisfied with them.”

Mr. Baxter says his relationship with Ford is fine, but questions some of its programs, such as the controversial Blue Oval program. “Overall the relationship is good, but there are some programs I don't agree with. It's questionable whether Blue Oval is a popular program.”

Mr. Doddridge says the formula for a successful dealership isn't a mystery. “It's real simple. This isn't brain surgery here. We treat customers the same as we would like to be treated. If you treat every car sale like it's the only sale you'll ever make to that person, that's all you'll ever get — one sale per customer.”

All three agree that although the Internet hasn't been the holy grail many thought it would be when it comes to selling cars online, it is a good informational and advertising tool to lure potential customers.

“The Internet is just an information center,” says Mr. Fowler. “It can't make car sales or trade-ins. But customers are more informed, and that's absolutely good for them.”

Mr. Baxter says “The Internet was way over-hyped. I look at it today as another advertising medium. People ultimately come into the dealership but it generates a very small part of our business. We have a pretty sophisticated site (www.goodcardeal.com). We made it easy to buy a car, but frankly that hasn't happened.”

Mr. Doddridge feels the Internet will be a part of a dealer's business but says a computer and a mouse can't replace a good old-fashioned test drive.

He adds, “I still think people like to come out and touch and feel the car. Most people are still going to prefer to come to the dealership. A small percentage will go over the Internet, but sometimes the Internet can take away from that whole experience of buying a car. When you're just talking about price, it takes away from the fun.”

He says Connell Chevrolet's web site draws customers, but he encourages his sales staff to bring 'em into the showroom floor.

“We accommodate those who don't come in,” he says. “We're finding that people look up used cars a lot and come down to see what they looked at online.”

Connell Chevrolet was incorporated in 1960 as Miller Chevrolet of Newport Beach, moving to Costa Mesa in 1964 and expanding as Orange County did, says Mr. Doddridge.

“Orange County was a bedroom community of Los Angeles in the '60s. We've kind of grown-up along with the area,” he says.

Today, aerospace, computer software and communications companies dominate industry in the area, which includes about a dozen other Chevy dealers.

Kayser Ford has remained in Madison since it opened in 1925. Mr. Baxter is the third owner of the dealership, having given up a career as a certified public accountant in 1985. He got fascinated with cars from working for a leasing company in 1977.

At 26 years old, Somerset Pontiac-GMC is “younger” than Connell Chevrolet and Kayser Ford, having opened in Troy in 1975.