It’s hard to imagine the Findlay Automotive Group os a single store selling two brands. But that’s what it was from 1961 through the mid-eighties.
Today, the group includes 28 different locations selling 26 different brands and is one of the top selling groups in the country with more than $1.5 billion in annual revenue.
Findlay Toyota is a big part of that success. Rich Abajian, who is a partner with Cliff Findlay in the store, shared his story recently with Dealer magazine.
He’s a former college football coach who had grown up in the business at his family’s store in Washington.
Rich brought his coaching mentality to the automotive business. His tough love approach has helped create a family-like and fun environment at Findlay, He’s grown sales at his every stop with the Findlay organization from doubling used car sales in one month at the Oldsmobile store to doubling overall sales in six months.
Treating employees with respect while creating a team-like atmosphere along with an over-the-top advertising approach and constant training has Findlay Toyota generating more than $230 million o year in revenue while selling more than 8,000 new and used vehicles.
Rich, you have a unique background. Coaching college football then selling cars. And now, running one of the top Toyota stores in the country.
I was coaching football – an assistant coach – when my head coach retired. He told me not to worry: Because I was a great recruiter, I’d be coaching forever. So I was in Los Angeles recruiting, looking at defensive backs. The defensive backs coach asked me why I was there since my entire staff had been let go. I replied, “Not me. They’re going to retain me.”
Well, 30 minutes later, I get the phone call from the new coach asking me to fly back. I found out I was not being retained, and that the guy who I had just been with in California was my replacement.
No other coaching gigs?
I had a year buyout on my contract so I was able to goof around for a year. I thought I was going to get hired pretty quickly, even though I hadn’t made the coaching relationships. I had mainly focused on my players. I was naive then to how the game was played.
From there, you went into the car business? Your father was a dealer in Walla Walla, Washington, right?
What happened is that my parents were visiting and my year contract was about up. My father asked me what I was doing, and I told him not outright lies, but he wasn’t having it. He told me to cut the garbage and to go get a job selling cars.
After all, that had been his profession. Well, that was the last thing I wanted to do.
But I listened and got an interview with Cliff Findlay. Cliff and I both played handball out of the same club though we’d never met. I used that to land the interview. Th.y hired me under the impression that I knew everyone in town since I had coached at UNLV. But the only people I knew were the players. Meanwhile, I was thinking that I was only going to be there a couple of weeks before landing another coaching job. As you can see, I am still here.
What year was that?
It was 1983.
What were you selling?
We had one store at the time selling Oldsmobile and Subaru with some Daihatsu.
We were only selling 70 cars a month. I did this for five years. We weren’t really growing and my brother owned and managed a Toyota store in Walla Walla, Washington, my hometown. I was planning to join him, then Cliff offered me the assistant used car manager’s job as incentive to stay. However the manager didn’t want me and told me I was years from being ready. A couple of weeks later, he ended up in the hospital for a while so I ended up with his job. I gathered the troops and said we’re going to work together as a team and see where it goes. The first month, we went from selling 35 used cars to 75. The second month, we were selling 125. Within six months we were selling 150 used cars a month.
Six months after that, the new car manager decided to retire. I talked Cliff into giving me his job. The same thing happened. Within six months we’re selling 300 cars a month at the store – 150 new and 150 used.
At what point did Findlay begin adding other stores?
About 1990, Saturn was building its retail network and came to talk to us. I talked about my philosophy of how it was about coaching and helping people and not so much about the numbers. They ate it up because that is what they were all about at the time. Meanwhile, Cliff hires a guy from Van Tuyl and gives him the Oldsmobile store and makes me the Saturn guy. We were among the first 21 or so stores for Saturn.
We opened with three cars on the lot and 20 employees on October 25, 1990. By December 1992, we were the top selling Saturn store in the nation and held that title every month through 1995. And in Las Vegas, we were the top selling store, outselling every other brand. We had a l4oh market share and had opened up two more Saturn stores. A big move for us was hiring Tyler Corder in 1995. He’s now our CFO. Bringing Tyler on helped us expand the Findlay empire. We now have 28 stores. Tyler was our GMAC branch manager when I began recruiting him. He has the organizational skill set and he’s able to put together the right package that puts Findlay in position to acquire the right stores. And he has the respect of people in the organization.
When did you pick up the Toyota franchise?
The success we had with Saturn caught Toyota’s attention. I had a deal with Cliff that if we ever ended up with a Toyota store, I could buy 10% of it. In May 1998 we finally opened our Toyota store. By that time I was overseeing all the organization’s stores and troubleshooting problems as they came up. We had a guy running the Toyota store who didn’t work out. So by September of that year, I began running the Toyota dealership. We became the number one store in Las Vegas in November 1998 and have not lost that title since. We were dominating in new, used, and certified. But had not hit our stride in service.
We’ll talk about service in a minute. You recently moved into a new facility right?
Ten years after we started with Toyota, we moved into a new 175,000 square foot facility, with a rent factor of $300 thousand a month.
That’s a big payment.
Right. Think about it: In 2008, we’d moved into this brand new facility. I thought we were going to become the number one certified dealer in the country. And then the economy hit. Then Toyota was hit with the recalls. And then we had the tsunami in Japan. My thoughts then became, “Forget about maintaining number one, we’re going to go out of business.” Also about then, I couldn’t guess right on the market: I loaded up on trucks and gas prices went up. So of course I then switched to Priuses but then gas prices went down. So to counter these ups and downs, about three and a half years ago, I decided we were missing out on the customer pay work in our service department. For as big as we were, we were only doing about $500 to $600 thousand a month in revenue. That is when I recruited Steve Chmiel from Precision Toyota to help us grow that part of our business. Findlay Toyota is currently number five in the nation, number one in the region, and is doing about $1.4 million a month in gross profits.
What’s your secret?
We’re really not car people. We’re just nice people who like to help people. And we work hard. But the most important part, I think, is that we have a strong BDC. We have six women and one man who are constantly on the phone calling people who were customers as far back as three years ago. And all of our salespeople spend an hour in the BDC making calls with their manager who is monitoring the calls. We prospect religiously.
You’re also known for some over-the-top advertising in Las Vegas.
You’re right. I’m big into advertising. I look at it this way: there’s only about 2% of the market that’s ready to buy at any one time. If we only advertise the vehicle, the store or the payment, 98% of that market will tune us out. I turned to a guy named John Barr. He’s our general sales manager and is from England. He’s tumed into a superstar in Las Vegas. Everyone knows him. You can look him up on YouTube.
We started doing some crazy ads in 1998 and have maintained the same philosophy since then. My point was to get l00Yo of the people to watch our commercials so they would remember us when it came time to buy a car. Hopefully, they would give us an opportunity. We wanted to make sure our advertising was long lasting.
What about the Internet?
Well, two years ago I decided to get serious there. Mountain States Toyota in Denver motivated me to move in that direction. Tim Van Binsbergen, their general manager, turned them from being an also-ran to a contender. So I decided to imitate them. We built out our Internet department and have gotten much better responding to our leads along with our online advertising.
That’s Toyota. What did you do with Oldsmobile that helped you double your sales so quickly in the 80’s?
What really got us to this point – got us to the point to where we could add Saturn and Toyota – is that we created a grass-roots strategy with Oldsmobile. At the time, we weren’t getting the traffic, so I decided to go out to where the people were. I bought a lot of Oldsmobile Calais’s that I could sell for $8,900. I held small tent sales each weekend where I would have eight cars and a couple of salespeople. I’d also take a car to various swap meets. We found that by going out to the people, there was less tension and we were able to build relationships with them. We started doing the same thing with Saturn. We began tagging our ads with their events so they’d let us come in and participate. We built the organization with Oldsmobile and Saturn.
You focus primarily on Findlay Toyota today, right?
Yes. I’m a 20% owner now and that’s where I spend all my time. I’m having fun. I’m coaching and am in an environment where I can see immediate results. And it’s a family here at the store. However, I’ll still help Tyler troubleshoot as certain issues come up.
As a former coach, I’m guessing you never lost that mentality. How does that play into your management style?
You’re right. First of all, I like to hire a lot of athletes to work for us. With UNLV close by, we have great access to them. They don’t come with a lot of bad habits that are typical in the car industry. And they love to compete and know how to prepare. They didn’t get to the collegiate level without knowing how to prepare hard every day. Secondly, we train and motivate every day. I spend most of my time walking the floor acting as a player-coach. Our philosophy is that we have a flat chain of command. Everyone on the team is important. The other thing is that I want to create an environment where it’s easy to buy and easy to sell. I don’t like a lot of tension. So I try not to criticize but to teach and motivate. I don’t ever want a sales team member to be afraid to take a deal to the desk manager because they’re afraid the guy is going to embarrass them.
I began in that environment and it’s horrible. I want our desk managers to get up and help our sales people close the sale. So our managers get involved early – introduce ourselves, smile and make people feel good, set them at ease. That’s going to separate us from everyone else. It’s a fun environment and everybody is hyped up. Now I’11have the tough meetings when we needed, although I’11 always close on a positive note and build our people back up again.
I get the sense that you don’t like to lose.
I don’t. In fact, it’s not that I like winning so much, it’s that losing hurts so much.
We lost in the region last year only one month and that was November. And the same thing happened in20i3 – we lost in November to Go Toyota (anAutoNation store) in Denver. It makes me sick to my stomach how we can blow a perfect year in the same month in consecutive years. We weren’t even close in November. I thought we were going to win the year in the region by 1,000 units and ended up winning by only 700. The competition is gaining on us. But that competition is going to make us better.
“We’re really not car people. We’re just nice people who like to help people. And we work hard. But the most important part, I think, is that we have a strong BDC.”
How do you train? Do you bring in outside trainers?
No, we do it all ourselves: the general sales manager, the managers, and me. We train every day either on the fundamentals or on prospecting. We train hard that everyone is a prospect: If you’re at a restaurant, leave a business card with the tip and a short note thanking them for the great service. If you’re paying a bill, include a business card. It’s all about prospecting.And then the fundamentals: If we greet everyone properly, interview them correctly, and put the right car in front of them, we’ll make the sale them every time. It’s just that when we miss one aspect of the fundamental process, is when we’ll lose the sale. And the price then doesn’t matter. So one thing we push is to listen more and talk less. The customer usually will lead us to the sales. We also do a lot of lease training today. When is it the right time to encourage the customer to lease, what are the right vehicles. That helps shorten the overall buy cycle for us.
Toyota is doing some interesting things with the hydrogen vehicle. Do you think it’s for real?
I do. I believe it’s going to be the car of the future and will probably change the retail space somewhat. Toyota isn’t doing much with the autonomous vehicle, but seems to be more focused on creating vehicles and applications that help people drive more safely.