A devastating personal tragedy brought her into the business a year before the collapse of 2008 and 2009. Yet, she survived, displaying a knack for leadership, a natural instinct for the industry and an ability to find humor in any situation. She jokes that her life in that time was the perfect commercial for an insurance company whose taglines recently were “Life Comes At You Fast.”
Diehl also has made moves recently others would call risky. But she counted the costs and the moves so far have worked in her favor. Recent initiatives include an expanded body shop, a successful foray into the commercial truck business and moving forward on expanding her service department area.
You own a Chrysler Dodge Jeep store and a Toyota dealership. You must be having fun right now.
My thoughts with Toyota are this: I don’t think there will be any long repercussions from them. Quite honestly the backlash is already starting to occur. The customers coming in seem to think the same of Toyota. Everyone seems to understand that recalls are industry wide. So as far as Toyota is concerned, I see a great year ahead for them. Our showroom is busy and people are still buying Toyotas.
With Chrysler, I am really excited with the Durango coming out and all of the other 13 models they are telling us we are going to see — whether they are redesigned or brand-new — it is just all very exciting.
Was there a time when you were nervous last year with Chrysler?
Oh my. Yes. I was extremely nervous, as I think most dealers were. I hope and pray that they pull through. Our customers are very excited about the brand.
It sounds like your showrooms for both Chrysler and Toyota have been busy the last few weeks.
The pace is wonderful. It is so exciting; honestly, on a good Saturday we average 50-80 repair estimates and sell about 10 cars. We are running 25-30 ups where on weekends we are selling 10, 15, 18 vehicles. It is really nice to have a March start off this way. I don’t know if it is catch up or if these numbers are just starting to build a comfort zone, but it is exciting.
You have kind of come into the business a little bit differently than a lot of dealers.
Oh my, yea, absolutely. It wasn’t my dream, it wasn’t my baby. My husband, Matt, died unexpectedly of a staph infection, three years ago at age 47. The reality is the dealership was his dream. We were a team and built a house together.
I stayed at home to take care of the kids. I would come in to the store to do our charitable work, but it was at my leisure. I had auto experience prior to coming here and before we were married. For the first seven years of marriage I ran my own leasing company.
When he passed away and I had two choices to make, sell the two stores or keep them.
The market was right at the time. So, I decided to keep them because it was his dream, and a dream for our children who can have it if they so choose. I also couldn’t sell because of the people. We have a great group of people working here.
So, needless to say, when I came in, it was really a big undertaking personally. I felt awful and cried every day. I wasn’t really sure what to do. My staff would give me documents every day, which I started looking over.
I started asking questions of friends, other dealers and accountants. They helped a lot. I also attended the NADA academy. I just pick people’s brains continuously. Which I still do today, I have friends that are dealers that have helped me who are so kind and generous with their knowledge. Three years into this I have so much more to learn, but I think the beauty of me coming in here with this background is I have the ability to work out of the box – has helped me through all of this.
I have a long way to go, but I have to believe I have had a refreshing effect here, which took a while. I have my own style and my own way of doing things and I think it is appreciated. I appreciate the compliments, even though I don’t think I am worthy of them at times. It doesn’t feel very good sometimes making the tough calls, but we have to keep the integrity that Matt wanted.
You certainly bring a fresh perspective to the business. Those must have been some interesting days, trying to convince Chrysler and Toyota to allow you to keep the franchises.
Toyota really had not had this situation before — a woman without the background they prefer taking care of their dealership. That is essentially how they viewed it. We spent months working it out, but Toyota was understanding. I think they appreciated who I am as a person and I’m sure that played into it. They saw I was coming to work every day and I was going to be here. We were making things happen and changing things. They had faith in me. We have had a wonderful partnership.
Chrysler on the other hand, they took a little bit longer than I preferred. They wanted Rich Grossman, our general manager, who is great, on the dealer agreement. I had told them it was personal that I became the dealer of record. After about a year, we were able to put my name on the dealer agreement.
Tell us about the leasing business in Philadelphia you started.
It started with a gentleman who heard I was fluent in German. The Berlin Wall had just come down, so there was some opportunity. I sold three cars right away. I didn’t know how to price them or if I made a profit or a loss — it was crazy. Before long, I – and the dealership we were with, was selling cars around the world. Now this was before the manufacturers decided they didn’t want to allow our products to be deported, which I understand.
You’ve undertaken several initiatives recently.
Correct, we expanded the body shop. We had the grand opening in September and it truly has been a wonderful aspect. It is well worth the expenditure. We have doubled our sales and doubled our work. We are still — thank God — running into March still above the market.
It’s a green facility, right?
Yes. The fact that we have gone larger is exciting from the standpoint of doing the right thing. We were one of the first to adopt water-based paint, which is ahead of the government requirements. We added several commercial truck bays also.
What convinced you to expand a body shop? This is a time when all of the dealers have gotten out of the body shop business.
Well, several things. We did not have room. Knowing the money was inexpensive to borrow at the time (I still don’t like to borrow money) and in terms of growth it’s been terrific for my parts and service departments.
You also started a commercial truck business recently.
That is so exciting. It is one of the things I am truly proud of. It’s been a big accomplishment for our team. We brought in a truck manager, Gary DeMarsh, and took a pretty big risk investing a couple of million dollars to become the number one commercial truck dealer in the region. And my goal this year is to become number one nationally. We’re actually selling trucks all over the country. We have just ordered an additional 30 trucks from Dodge.
You’re in the process of enhancing or expanding your service waiting area and service bays. And this is part of Toyota’s Image II requirements, right?
Yes. Knowing how important fixed operations business is, and the reality that we do not have a drive thru work bay, which we need because of the weather here. I’ll be adding six of those, which will help keep customers.
The money is right and my return should be good. I am going ahead with the project because knowing the bulk of my expansion is going to benefit my service department and allow us to sell more products to our customers by serving them better.
In addition, I’m going to put in a customer lounge that will be cozy and warm.
I met with folks from Toyota last week and had a wonderful meeting. We’ll be starting the project in the next eight weeks. They have been more than accommodating with me. They’re willing to let me, the dealer, do what’s best for my market. We have to have the leeway to do it with my color choices, doing it the way I see fit, for our area.
Your lounge or waiting area has incorporated a unique style, which is very comfortable and homey.
When I took Rachel, my daughter, to a doctor’s appointment they had a kid’s room and I thought ‘Wow, that’s great that they have toys.’
Before Matt passed away our customer lounge was very generic. Grey chairs, grey walls – it wasn’t comfortable at all.
Matt did change some things. But I took out all of the nasty grey chairs and painted the walls beige and put in a big area rug and two leather chairs. In the children’s room, I put in leather couches. There isn’t any sales literature in those rooms. Instead, I’ve put motivational sayings on the walls.
I get positive comments about our lounge all the time. An office furniture company told me never to put couches in. But guess what? My customers like them. There isn’t a day I walk by when someone isn’t sleeping on one of them. Which is great – you come in – you work hard and that wait for your vehicle goes by very quickly. Have you ever seen anything like that?
I go in the lounge and sit while talking to customers because it is just so comfortable.
Your son sold his first car last week.
Yes, Matt sold his first car! I have yet to do that here. I love talking to the customers but that’s about it. I can’t sell cars too well.
Matt graduated from college in three years with a dual-major at the top of his class, magna cum laude. He is working here for the next six months before going to law school.
It was exciting to see the look on his face when he sold it. He has four on the board now. He actually went to the auction today with our used car buyer. I keep saying he is too smart for the car business.
Your daughter is 15, right?
Rachel is in 10th grade. At 15, she is farther ahead than I was at 25. It is a challenging journey for her; she was dad’s little girl. You know it has taken a little while. The change is drastic. I went from being there, cooking dinner, going to every event, driving her here and there, to her becoming a latchkey kid. Sometimes she will make dinner, but we agreed that at 6:00 p.m., I go home. I leave work here, because I know she has two years left before she goes away. She is a remarkable young woman; she really has a good head on her shoulders.
What keeps you up at night?
Lots of things. Everything – inventory, GAP, projected sales – it is the million things I do every day, but at about 9 p.m., the party is over. I get up at 6 a.m. and work for 8-10 hours a day. I just let it go for the next day and then get right back at it with all of these new challenges.
What excites you about the business?
Happy people. Watching customers being happy with the service we give them, seeing their faces when they get into new vehicles. It is reading our comment cards and seeing that we are doing great. In today’s world, if we don’t take care of our customers they can go anywhere. That excites me when we are selling products.
It is all very exciting, and it has been quite a challenge, I can’t begin to express to people how much of a challenge this has been. From going through the tough economy, to laying off people when times got tough, and instead of changing the pay plans for most of our staff, I cut managers’ pay, which again was extremely difficult. I will tell you there were many nights when I didn’t sleep. The beauty of it is we got through it all and we are still here. We are still plugging away. I try to go to every department every day and talk to my employees and customers. I like to go to the showroom and meet great people.
You like to talk a lot about the team you have.
The team is remarkable. Our general manager has actually been here 26 years prior to us purchasing the store. You go right down the list and we have very little turnover. Our people have been here an average of 13 years.
I believe you have to take time off. You have to go watch your kids play ball. If Matt were alive today, he would be doing all of those things. It is really important that managers continue to have a quality of life here. This isn’t their life. If they are not happy at home, I can’t expect them to be happy here.
As you look at the industry over the next few years, what do you expect to see?
I see the rebounding continued growth of our industry. It has far to go to be where it was before, but I believe that the next couple of years should be about the same. I also think we will be driving electric powered vehicles. Nobody is noticing that gas is going up. We are heading toward the European market – soon people will realize the value of driving smaller vehicles.