The dealership group recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.
Founder and Chairman of the Board, John Voss, has been awarded the Dayton Entrepreneur of the Year award and named a Time Magazine Quality Dealer. John Voss knows how to work hard to get results and he inspires his sons, General Managers Craig Voss and Brad Voss, and all their employees to do the same – all while having fun.
John Voss’s lively imagination and business savvy have sparked innovative management and marketing practices that have always paid off. He recently shared with Dealer magazine some of his secrets and a glimpse of the fun wrapped up in his success.
First, John, how did you get your start in the business?
I started out working at Humphrey Chevrolet in Evanston, Illinois, cleaning out the grease rack, while going to college. After graduation, I started selling cars there and a year and a half later, became sales manager. Next, I went to work for Clayton Sondag, who owned a Chevrolet store and was getting ready to open a Datsun store.
In 1972, I joined my father John Voss Sr. and we built Voss Chevrolet near Dayton, Ohio. In 1984, I purchased a Cadillac store which also had a Chrysler-Plymouth franchise that I later sold. My father and I worked together until he passed away in 1985. In 1986, I purchased a BMW store, and in 1990, a Toyota store, and in 1991, a Honda store. In 1999, I opened a Hyundai store; and in 2001, I opened a Land Rover store. In 2010, I built Joe Morgan Honda with Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame Cincinnati Reds baseball player.
Over the years, we let go of several franchises — Subaru, Suzuki, Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge for various reasons.
Today, I’m chairman and CEO of a network of nine stores. My son Craig, 39, runs the BMW dealership and my son Brad, 38, runs the Cadillac dealership. We have 500 employees, and we have developed one of the largest collision centers in the country. It’s a 48,000-square-foot building, next to our Chevrolet store. Last year, it alone brought in $13 million in revenue.
How do you account for your success?
There are a lot of reasons for our success – many of them you would expect: Putting the customers first, knowing our market, hiring and training good employees, and treating them right – thus creating an environment at the dealerships that fosters wonderful employee morale and excellent customer service. The dealerships have received the Better Business Bureau Integrity Award for exceptional customer service.
In addition, I’ve had a great time learning firsthand from other dealers who have been successful in one segment of the market or another and I’ve made it possible for my managers to do the same.
We have a big custom-made motor coach. We call it the ‘John Madden coach.’ Periodically, we’ll put a dozen or so of our top level managers in the bus and take them across the country to see firsthand how other successful dealerships operate.
For instance, when we were taking on the Suzuki franchise, I called Suzuki and asked: ‘Who is your best dealer?’ They told me about a dealer in Alabama. I called that dealer and introduced myself and asked if I could bring my managers down to spend a good part of the day at his dealership, observing and asking questions of him and his staff. He was welcoming, so we took a group of our managers down in the bus. We followed him and his staff around for the day; he was selling 200 to 300 new Suzukis a month. Not that we followed everything he did, but we learned a lot.
Likewise, when we got the Dodge franchise, we went across the country on our bus to visit one of the larger Dodge dealers at that time. It was a completely different market from ours. A lot of the things he did, we adopted. Some of them we couldn’t adopt. For instance, when a customer drove onto the lot at that dealership, spikes went up so the customer couldn’t back out of the lot. That’s one way they made sure a customer talks to a salesperson. Also, none of the dealership’s salesmen had offices. They just had little briefcases they carried around with them to talk a deal with a customer at whatever table was available in the showroom. Some of these salespeople wore t-shirts and cowboy hats; I thought we can’t do this.
But, I always want to see if someone is doing better than we are, and if we can do what they are doing too. Sometimes it works for us too; sometimes it doesn’t. But, it’s always a better outcome when you can include your upper management in the opportunity to observe and analyze those other successful dealers’ techniques.
I remember earlier in my career, as a manager at another dealership, my boss came back from a meeting and started telling me all the things we needed to change. I really had no idea what he was talking about. He had it in his mind, but he wasn’t getting it across to me. I never forgot that experience, simply because it struck me as an extremely ineffective way to communicate. I thought at the time, I hope he never goes to another meeting again, because he’s going to drive everybody crazy. It’s much easier when you take people with you; they observe for themselves and see the opportunities and develop a better understanding of processes.
NADA was in Orlando this year and we put eight key managers on the bus and drove there. It gave them the opportunity to see what’s new in the industry, what’s great, and what they’d like to look into further. It helps them understand how to go forward, rather than me coming back and saying I saw three neat things, and they say, ‘Yeah, that’s wonderful.’ I would rather the managers see firsthand and develop their own thought process on how we can improve different areas.
Another benefit of the bus trip is improved communications; when we are all together on the bus, we talk a lot. When you are busy every day at the dealership just doing your job, you don’t get a chance to sit and talk to other people about what’s going on and changes that could be made.
You have successfully pulled off some unusual gambles in the marketing game from time to time. Tell us about them.
We have done different promotions over the years that provide customers with a good time or a good laugh, while providing us with a good return on investment. For instance, we called Chevrolet in the early 1980s and told them we wanted to do a ‘Drive-A-Way’ to Bowling Green, Kentucky, home of the Corvette factory. We were going to pre-sell Corvettes and take people down there on a bus – 4 hours away – and have them take a plant tour and then deliver their new Corvettes to them there.
The OEM said that was a good idea. Chevy loved it. So, we drummed up 70 Corvette sales that were going to go to Kentucky. When I called Chevrolet to tell them, they were shocked and said, ‘Whoa – we can’t produce those that fast. We’ll give you a maximum of 40 to start with.’ I asked them, ‘Why didn’t you say that to begin with?’ Now I had 30 extra people who wanted their cars. Chevy never anticipated that we would sell that many cars so quickly when our average Corvette sales had been three to six a month at the time. But, we did because we focused on it and got results. Eventually, everyone got their Corvette.
A few years later, the factory came along with a diesel powered Chevette, and it wasn’t selling well. It was a little car that made too much noise. During its second year, they continued to push them on dealers, but the dealers weren’t buying them, because they
The factory called me and said: ‘Our district manager has 40 of them. Would you take two or three? We’re trying to spread them out among the dealers.’ I said, ‘I’ll take all 40 of them.’ They asked: ‘What are you going to do with them? You haven’t sold but a couple; nobody has.’ I replied, ‘I’m going to sell them all. If you give two or three to each dealer, then we are all in the same boat. We’ll have to give them away. So I’ll just take them all.’ They said, ‘You are kidding. What do you want in return?’ And I said, ‘A Corvette.’ We sold all 40 of them in four months. We promoted, advertised and discounted them.
We do a good job of focusing on certain segments of the market from time to time. We’ve got a marketing manager that’s very sharp, and in our organization, we encourage people to come up with original ideas and everybody’s creative ideas are listened to. That’s the fun of the business – making employees and customers smile and laugh. It’s a joy.
Another time, Chevrolet had a ton of the imported LUV trucks that they were trying to sell off to the dealers, who weren’t taking any because the new S10 truck, which was domestic, was on the way. The dealers knew the LUV truck wasn’t going to sell.
So I called up Chevrolet’s national truck sales manager and I said: ‘Look, I’ll take them all.’ I think there were 5,000 of them. And he said: ‘What are you going to do with them?’ I said, ‘I’m going to do with them what you should have done with them to start with; I’m going to send them to the auctions and whatever they get, they get, but you’re going to have to give me a pretty good-sized discount on them.’
He said, ‘Let me get back to you.’ He never did, but he did exactly what I told him I was going to do. He sent them to the auctions himself. And they all sold. If you have something that’s not a bad product, but it’s not a hot product and it’s ending, you need to realize you are not going to benefit from it monetarily — like you would at the beginning of the program. So, it’s time to adjust, creatively.
Sometimes you wonder if the manufactures really understand the retail sales process. Every region of the country is different. Not everybody sells the same way from one coast to the other, but they often expect us dealers to do that. But, you have to remember, they are the manufacturers and focus on a national level and dealerships focus at a regional level.
The manufacturers’ national ads that market the car are valuable, but when they start certain incentive programs and blanket them across the country, a lot of times they are not very successful, because they don’t understand that not everybody or every geographic region is the same.
I have served on both Chevrolet’s and Cadillac’s National Dealers Councils and their marketing and employee councils. The dealers represent the customers’ thought processes. We’re the ones that know whether the customer is saying good, bad or indifferent about the purchase process or the car itself. But, the fact that everybody is not the same is what’s fun about this business.
How do you meet that challenge?
There is constant change in this industry and that is our biggest challenge. In the 40 years we’ve been here, there’s been a tremendous change in the way we sell cars, — recently even more so, because of the Internet. We’re always looking to get better at the process. We want to make sure we are on the cutting edge of any new things that come about, whether it’s equipment or systems, or anything that expedites processes and helps the customer.
My sons Craig and Brad are the ones driving our adoption of the new digital technology to facilitate all of our operations and meet the challenges of change. The best thing I do is to observe, facilitate and encourage my sons and our employees to learn new things.
After Craig graduated from Washington University, in St. Louis, with a double major in marketing and accounting, and Brad graduated from Northwood University in Michigan with a major in marketing, they each went to work somewhere else for a year. Craig went to work in St. Lake City Utah, for Art Neiman and Associates, and Brad went to work for the LaFontaine Automotive Group in Michigan.
Then they came back to our dealerships and worked three months in each department — parts, service, collision, F&I, car sales, truck sales and marketing. They formed relationships and got used to the way things work in the various departments. I’ve seen too many dealers bring their children in and make them managers and they were not ready and not qualified and that can create havoc in the stores. Both my sons have done very well. They enjoy the business, which is great, and they are working their way up. Craig is the general manager of the BMW store and is the current chairman of the Ohio Dealers Association. Brad is the general manager of the Cadillac store and is the current president of the Dayton Auto Dealers Association.
Tell us more about your management philosophy.
Our philosophy is to give the best service and treat the customer fairly and honestly, and they will return. Our tagline is: ‘Built on Trust, Driven by Integrity.’ We’ve been in business 41 years, and we have a lot of return customers as a result of that. We are the number one Chevrolet dealer in sales volume in the Miami Valley which includes Dayton, Ohio and the surrounding region. We’re very proud of that.
We invest heavily in training our employees — sending them for schooling in the various departments, whether it’s finance, sales management, service management or mechanical or whatever the need. We guide them in doing the best job they can and provide them with the tools to accomplish this. We’ve been very successful in growing and promoting our employees within the organization.
We have a very low turnover. We’ve had people leave us for reasons of wanting to grow, or they had an opportunity to get a higher paying job. But, of everyone that’s left us, I’d say 98% of them, sometime in the future, make a call and want to come back.
We have several employees who have been here from the day we opened. One is a technician, and is the best in the industry. They also include three people on our Chevy staff and a used car manager. They like working here. It’s important that we treat our employees well and they treat the customers well; it’s a win-win situation.
I have a great CFO, Greg Stout, who has been with us 17 years. He’s a great inspiration, organizer and coordinator and keeps us all on track. I nominated him and he was awarded CFO of the Year in Dayton. He had his own CPA firm and I talked him into coming to work here. That’s the kind of people you want to lean towards – who have their butts into the business. They love it and they work hard.
As a result of all our dedicated employees, we’ve won dozens of awards for our performance in all of our stores – too many to name. Customer satisfaction in all our stores is very high.
We’re also very active in the community. We’ve supported the AIM for the Handicapped/Nancy Lopez Golf Tournament, United Way, the Centerville Americana Festival Parade and Auto Show, the Cub Scouts Safety Day, the City of Centerville Police DARE car donation, and more than 60 other organizations.
Are there any vendors that have contributed to your success?
We’ve always had a great relationship with Reynolds and Reynolds. We’ve used them since the beginning, gone through a lot of changes in their systems with them and we’ve always done very well with them. Their home town is Dayton, Ohio, as is ours, and we’ve piloted quite a few of their programs over the years.
We have the new docuPAD system from Reynolds and Reynolds in all our stores. It eliminates a lot of paperwork. The docuPAD has an enormous computer screen that lies flat on the sales person’s desk. The customer sits across from the sales person who can go through and review all the documents the customer has to sign and everything he needs to know. It reduces delivery time which the customers love, and they feel it’s more open since all the calculations are there right in front of them. It’s a tool that helps our F&I managers expedite going through a full disclosure process with the customer. The response from the customers is great.
We have great relationships with our financial institutions and our other vendors, many of which have been doing business with us since we started in 1972.
You have a reputation for a strong sense of humor. Would you tell us a little about that?
You really have to have fun with your work. Our mascot is the Voss Hoss. He’s a caricature of a horse with a big white tooth in front that says: ‘Get a Voss.’ Anytime we do an event, our Voss Hoss shows up — in his costume.
We had Disney do a commercial with the Voss Hoss for us, in the ‘70s, when they had some downtime in their animation studio. And, we have made bobble-head dolls of the Voss Hoss, with a recording in it. You push a button and it sings: ‘If your car is acting funny, making sounds you never heard, like a screaming wounded banshee or some wild and wooly bird, next time you buy a car, heed my word, get a Voss.’
We give the bobble-heads out to the kids of customers, and I’ve had mothers call me and say my kids are pushing the button all day and all I’m hearing is that darn jingle. And I say: ‘Great, come in and buy another car.’ Ha ha.
There’s something else that has always tickled my funny bone. It’s the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. It looks like a large hotdog on a truck. It’s on a Chevrolet chassis, and they bring one to our service department from time to time.
For some reason, I’m fascinated with that truck. I think it would be great fun to have it. I’ve contacted Oscar Mayer several times and tried to buy one when they take it off the road. But, they won’t sell them to anybody; they give them to museums. But it’s fun when they come in for service.
Life is too short to take too many things too seriously.