How responsive have automakers been to changing consumer tastes?
Tynan: It’s been tough getting VW to change their offerings. One reason they built a U.S. plant in Chattanooga [Tenn.] is to get us cars that we can sell cheaper. With the euro vs. dollar exchange rate, the cars were too expensive to build in Germany and sell here.
Hicks: The auto manufacturers respond as much as they can to the consumer. When gas prices went from $2.50 a gallon to $4.00, the change in consumer demands was like a ski boat turning on a dime. There simply is not a 90-day pipeline for factories. They have to go out and buy new motors, new batteries, new everything before they can change their offerings significantly. But people want them now!
Scott: It’s a lot easier for automakers to plan at all levels if gas prices would just stabilize - at any level.
Hicks: If it’s a known quantity, you can deal with it. The volatility of gas prices is whipsawing consumers, dealers and manufacturers alike.
Scott: I’d have to say Mazda’s been slow in responding. We couldn’t get the new Mazda 2 into the U.S. last year because of emissions regulations. (Mazda 2 was named last year's World Car of the Year. It made its North American debut last month at the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show and will go on sale in late 2010 in the U.S.)
And Mazda wanted to see if the desire for fuel efficiency was a fad. All of us have had high-mileage vehicles in the past that could get 40-45 mph. They didn’t sell so production was cancelled. Not to take away from the current model offerings, but Mazda waited too long on more fuel-efficient cars and now there’s a lot more competition there.
Hicks: There’s also a lot of anxiety about conforming to new CAFÉ standards. Last March, the Department of Transportation released its revised Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, raising the minimum requirements to 30.2 mpg for cars and 24.1 mpg for light trucks by the 2011 model year.
Tynan: They have the tough task of pulling more horsepower out of increasingly smaller engines; it’s very tough.
Hicks: That’s why VW just bought 19 percent of Suzuki. Suzuki’s fleet has so many microcars that get high mileage, it will raise the corporate average mileage of the rest of VW’s divisions, which include Bentley, Porsche, Lamborghini and Bugati. There’s not a high mileage car in any of those groups. Their stake in Suzuki allows the other brands to have lower mileage.
What’s more important for a recovery of the auto industry—better cars or a better economy?
Hicks: Consumer confidence. It doesn’t matter much what kind of car you have. If people aren’t feeling confident enough to buy homes, appliances - even clothing - they aren’t going to buy cars.
Scott: Certainly, but a big component of consumer confidence is employment. Everyone knows a neighbor or cousin who’s out of work. Even if people have enough money to buy a car, they’re not going to spend it until they feel confident that their employment is safe.
Tynan: You also need a great financing commitment from your manufacturer.
Hicks: Yes, if your franchise doesn’t have a financing arm, it’s very difficult.
What lessons did you learn from the disastrous year of 2009?
Hicks: Expense control, expense control, expense control. If your expenses start to outstrip your income, you’re sunk. We had to restructure everything—turn down the thermostats, turn off the computers at night, renegotiate the contract with the guy who cuts the lawn. I learned that, between the pressures brought about by the government and by manufacturers, the dealership is an endangered species.
The manufacturers want you to be an exclusive franchise for their cars only. They want your dealership to use their special tools, their showroom furniture. They want you to do everything possible to display their brand.
The government? Health care reform—we don’t know how expensive that will turn out to be. With the regulations they keep putting on banks, lending has dried up. These days, it’s one thing to have a willing buyer, it’s quite another thing to have a willing buyer who can get financed.
Scott: We’re also looking hard at all our employees. We have let go some long-term people who didn’t have the right attitudes. We’re working harder to hang on to every customer. We’re working longer hours, and we were working very long hours before. We need employees who are on board with that.
Tynan: Attitude, in some respects, is more important than talent these days.
Everything we do now is very defined and regimented. The way we used to do business was looser. Now, in order to survive, you have to define every single thing you do, and follow through with everyone to make sure they understand their part of the plan. Most employees understand and appreciate the fact that you are trying to stay in business and keep their jobs for them.
I never prayed so hard as I did last year.
Scott: I learned to communicate a lot more with my employees. It used to be that everyone was aware of sales each day. Now there needs to be much more awareness of every aspect of the business, not just sales. And if you communicate all these things, you’re more likely to get buy-in from employees.
Tynan: I used to send my used-car manager to a seminar every year on that aspect of the business. This year, I sent the service manager and the parts manager along with him, so each person could see exactly what part he plays in making the used-car department successful.
How important are all the innovations we hear about with in-vehicle technology—the consumer gadgets?
Hicks: I think the technology you don’t see is far more important. The anti-lock brakes, the electronic stability control, emissions control—all the seamless things that make new cars run so well. We’ve reached the point where what comes out of the car’s exhaust is cleaner than what went in.