By the time most second-generation car dealers take the helm, they have had years of on-the-job training and spent time under somebody’s wing (usually a parent or grandparent dealer principal).
To the well-trained successors, the idea of selling cars isn’t rocket science.
Michael Baker might beg to differ.
While he doesn’t say much about rockets – other than he’s an avid racing fan – Baker, the son of Bob Baker of the Bob Baker Automotive Group based in San Diego, firmly believes understanding the “science” of the auto-retailing industry propels success. Mike Baker, formerly associated with the dealership group, no longer is part of the organization.
Whether it’s the chemistry behind creating a cohesive management team or the application of new technologies to drive Internet sales and customer-relationship management, getting the most of the tools at hand is critical, he says.
The Bob Baker Automotive Group operates six stores with total vehicle sales of 8,351 units and total revenues of $197.7 million in 2010.
The group is No.97 on this year’s Ward’s Megadealer 100. Two stores, Bob Baker-Scion and Bob Baker -Jeep-Dodge- – are on the Ward’s Dealer 500 ranking of individual stores.
The group – with a slogan of “Where it’s nice to be nice” – has become a strong regional brand created from diligent practice.
In 1992, when Mike Baker was with the company, a decision was made to brand all locations with the Bob Baker name.
“From the inception, we formulated a budget via the monthly contributions of the dealerships as a fixed percentage of their advertising and marketing expenditures,” he says.
The contributions came from both the front and back ends of the dealer; a combination Mike Baker says is sorely missing in today’s auto sales process.
That sales process includes working even harder to keep in line with the consumer purchasing trends, he says.
“San Diego demographics and psychographics seem to be very commensurate to California and in many respects, to the nation,” he says.
Auto consumers, relying on the Internet to research and shop for vehicles, develop a “purchase strategy,” often several months out, Mike Baker says.
Today, the science of the automobile industry goes so far as to include Web-based applications that can help a dealer determine how used vehicles are priced compared with the competition, in addition to how much stock is on hand for a particular vehicle.
When it comes to Internet marketing, arguably there’s nothing more “scientific” than search-engine optimization, the process of getting ranked high by Internet search engines and becoming a bigger online presence.
Michael Baker calls SEO the most important of Internet initiatives. He also takes a studied approach to using social networking to help sell cars.
“The key ingredient is having the general manager be the exclusive liaison for whomever is posting the messages in the social-media arena,” he says.
“Not only do most general managers and dealers know the philosophy of the store for branding purposes, they can protect the store” from potential liabilities, he says.
“Stay current in all social media,” Mike Baker says, recommending “a multitude of positive conveyances with appealing deliveries that can be shared for a maximum number of members.”
Some still debate the value and return on investment social media can offer. But Mike Baker says it’s all a part of the process, and he is very big on process.
“Is social media selling cars? Maybe, maybe not,” he says. “It’s just another spoke in the branding wheel. But it’s a very important spoke. You just have to trust that you get in front of enough faces, and enough good things are said about you.”
According to Mike Baker, such new-age initiatives weren’t even envisioned when the original Bob Baker Universitysold its first car in 1979.
“The challenge for some dealers is they don’t want to or know how to take advantage of the technologies that have made this industry so scientific,” Mike Baker says. “Some of them are out of touch. There’s just so much out there and they’re just not grasping it.”
Behind every successful dealership is a sales process, as well as cooperation between departments.
But Michael Baker says sometimes the parts and service departments are disconnected from the sales departments. And some dealerships try to wing it when selling cars.
“You have to have a process in place,” he says. “A car is sold, an introduction to the service writer is made, the first service appointment is made and a follow-up call happens. You wouldn’t believe how few places actually do this.”
Michael Baker isn’t trying to beat up on dealers who aren’t up to speed.
But he believes he knows what works and genuinely wants to help others succeed. That’s why he has served as a panelist at automotive conferences on new-age marketing.
“I enjoy helping others,” says Mike Baker, who holds a degree in psychology. “There’s something intrinsic in helping somebody else get the most out of who they are.”
Much of that he learned from his father. “He was a great mentor with high ethics and integrity,” says the son.
While Bob Baker is mostly removed from the day-to-day activities at the dealerships, he keeps abreast of the changing technology.
He also has a reputation for supporting education at various levels. He is a recipient of the Northwood University Automobile Dealer Education Award for helping to set up a scholarship at the school, which offers degrees in dealership management.
He has served on boards for and as an advisor to many educational institutions. “Education is one of the most important things you can provide,” the elder Baker said when he accepted the Northwood award in 2003.
“Learning has to be perpetual and daily,” says the younger Baker.