Ray Huffines, 59, is the dealer principal for the Huffines Auto Dealerships, with eight dealership locations in the suburban Dallas market, begun in 1924 as the Huffines Motor Company by Huffines’ grandfather, J.L. Huffines, Sr., and later operated by J.L. Huffines, Jr. Today the Huffines Auto Dealerships sell more than 13,000 new and used vehicles a year, still embracing an 88-year-old mission—to treat customers right and support the communities in which the Huffines’ dealerships operate.
Ray, what’s the Huffines story?
We have two Chevrolet dealerships, two Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram dealerships, two Hyundai dealerships, two KIA dealerships and one Subaru dealership. We sold 13,451 new and used retail vehicles in 2011.
We’ve been very fortunate. What if we had been an Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Isuzu, Saturn or Hummer dealer? Our story wouldn’t be so rosy. It’s good to be diversified but you can’t really plan outcomes like this, so I can only say that we have been blessed.
My grandfather, J.L. Huffines, Sr., started with a Willys-Overland auto dealership in Denton, Texas in 1924. Huffines Motor Company was awarded a Chevrolet franchise in 1927 in Lewisville, Texas. We started to grow significantly in 1984 when we opened Ray Huffines Chevrolet in Plano, Texas, the first dealership I operated.
In ’86 we added Huffines Dodge in Lewisville and Huffines Chrysler in Plano. Other dealerships followed. Most recently, we added Huffines KIA in McKinney, Texas. When my dad, J.L. Huffines, Jr., passed away in ’09, I had already been running the group for a number of years.
The Huffines Auto Dealerships have been honored with the Consumer’s Choice Award for Auto Dealership Group of the Year for 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. The Dallas Morning News recognized us with its Top 100 Places to Work for 2011 Award and the Neighbors Choice ‘Go’ section, Best Auto Dealership and Best Auto Repair Facility Award. We’ve also been recognized by the DFW Community Newspapers for the Best New Dealerships, Best Pre-owned Dealerships, and Best Repair Facilities Awards.
We’ve just received word that Huffines Kia Subaru Denton has won the DealerRater 2012 Texas Dealer of the Year Award for both Kia and Subaru. We’ve also earned GM’s Mark of Excellence and Standards for Excellence awards, the Chrysler Five Star and Customer Care Standards awards, the Hyundai Board of Excellence Award, KIA’s Dealer Excellence Program Award, and Subaru’s Stellar Performance Award.
How did the downturn affect you?
For us, the bottom was ’09…2010 was better, and 2011 even more so. To prepare the Huffines Auto Dealerships for those times we set about right-sizing operations. We looked at every expense and renegotiated vendor contracts. We stopped all newspaper advertising, a big expense for us. We cut back other advertising like Internet, radio and TV, as well. These mediums historically worked well for us. However, we needed to mirror the general market’s decreased demand for vehicles during those years. We did lose a few team members as well, mostly through attrition, and we have now rehired for those positions.
To help us get good results from our electronic media, we use a media buying company called Keystone to buy ad spots. They do a good job for us and they are very efficient. Our creative advertising is done by the Montalbano Group and our strategy is to promote the “Huffines brand” for all of our dealerships.
Today we’re focused on achieving continuous improvement through out all departments. For instance, we use a service called Performance Management Group of Minneapolis to evaluate and negotiate vendors for us. We also rely on vendor’s technical expertise to help us perform. FirstLook helps us do a better job with our pre-owned operations. We rely on JM&A to help with F&I training, DealerTrack and Reynolds & Reynolds for Dealership Management Systems, and Reynolds and Reynolds and VinSolutions for Customer Relationship Management Systems.
Because health care is such an expense, we shifted to Health Savings Accounts for our team members a few years ago. This has been a positive move for us, as that is now a pre-tax savings for team members, which helps build up reserves for deductibles they may face.
Another phase of continuous improvement is team building. We strongly believe in training our people to improve their overall performance and value to the company and to themselves. We believe continuity is very valuable to our organization and to our customers. Our emphasis on training and other team-focused efforts help build team member retention and customer satisfaction.
One way we help our team members perform at their maximum, enjoy their work and enjoy their lives more is providing counseling through Marketplace Chaplains. Marketplace Chaplains is an organization we contract with for chaplains to call on our dealerships. The chaplains come by our dealerships weekly to say hello, speak with our team members and handle any personal issues they need to talk about. The same chaplains come to the same dealerships so relationships are built. Female chaplains minister to our female team members. These chaplains conduct funerals and weddings, visit our team members and their families in the hospital and otherwise serve our 600-member team.
What a unique benefit.
The chaplain service is based on the military model of chaplains. They are there to address peoples’ spiritual needs, or anything that might come up which a manager might not feel trained or qualified to handle should a team member come to them with a problem. On the other hand, team members often won’t seek out their manager or other team members to talk about personal issues and Marketplace Chaplains fills this need—a nonemployee who will treat what they hear with total confidentiality. The team member also knows that these individuals are equipped to handle the issues they’ll bring to them. We provide this service, at no charge, to our team, as a benefit of working at Huffines.
How has your team responded?
Of course, I don’t ever hear anything about who speaks to the chaplains or what they talk about; this has to be if the team is to know their time with the chaplain is private and confidential. However, I do often get feedback from the team; it’s not uncommon for me to receive a comment or note from a team member along the lines of, “I just want to thank you for providing the chaplains because they just really did a great job.”
Since we’re discussing morale and retention, let me mention that we also build team improvement through organized team member-recognition efforts. Team member recognition is powerful, and we actively recognize our team members. We have recognition programs for team members at key anniversaries. Our team members can choose a gift from a catalog. We then present this gift to the team member at their anniversary celebration. At the team member’s anniversary celebration, we recognize that individual’s performance and contribution to the company with fellow team members. As part of this celebration, honored employees receive a congratulatory letter from me and a plaque celebrating their tenure.
We provide all team members who interact with the public with nametags. As the team member receives their work anniversary recognition, we change their nametag to include their years of service. Technicians and others who do not deal directly with the public receive a recognition ball cap with our logo and their anniversary year award embroidered on it.
Furthermore, once a year we get together at an amusement park with team members and their families and enjoy the rides, have a bar-b-que dinner, play games and enjoy other entertainment as a group. The team seems to enjoy this recognition outing very much.
My grandfather always had personal relationships with our team members and we have always operated like this. As an aside, this kind of focus on our team is advantageous to us in that I believe people really prefer to work for a family owned dealership that recognizes and appreciates their contributions.
What troubles you about the business today?
Reduced car sales in recent years, and the drop in units in operation along with better-built vehicles have created challenges for our service departments. Fortunately, we have a prosperous fleet business with local businesses and governments that keeps service active.
One real concern is a shortage of inventory for our Kia and Hyundai dealerships. The demand is very strong and I am concerned that the production capacity is inadequate to meet the need.
I know many dealers have concerns and challenges to comply with the manufacturers’ facility image programs. However, our Chevrolet dealerships were mid-80’s vintage and needed a refresh, which we just recently completed as part of this latest push by GM for facility upgrades. Therefore, the new program was needed and timely for us, but for dealers who had remodeled their facilities a few years back this new effort will affect them and will be costly and frustrating. We do need to keep facilities looking good and fresh. As operators, we’re so used to seeing things everyday that often we fail to notice when the image begins to sag. Taking a step back and looking critically at facilities to see what is old and tired and needs freshening up is something we must do.
Final advice for the dealer body?
It helps to seek expert advice. There are some situations we as dealers just aren’t best able to deal with without expert advice. For instance, we rely on consultants to help us stay current and get the most from all the new technologies available. We have a company helping us with Human Resources, which developed online training. This training helps us comply with the maze of regulations we face today. Because our HR training is recorded, we know when the team is current with this program. We also have carefully documented how we operate in a Policy and Procedures manual. An expert’s help is necessary with these business processes and practices, if we are going to stay ahead of the changes coming our way.
Any final comments, Ray?
We’ve survived through the downturn because our dedicated team members and loyal customers pulled us through. We believe the only way to have satisfied customers is to first have satisfied team members.