Joe Wajda, Executive Manager
World Subaru, Tinton Falls, NJ
World Jeep Chrysler Dodge Ram, Shrewsbury, NJ
Joe Wajda began his career in the automotive industry in 2003 with the DCH Automotive Group in New Jersey as a sales consultant, before becoming a finance director of three dealerships in Long Island, NY. In 2005, he became the General Sales Manager at World Jeep Subaru. In 2011, World Subaru and World Jeep Chrysler Dodge Ram were divided into separate rooftops. Today, he is the Executive Manager of both operations. World Subaru is a recent three-time winner of Subaru’s prestigious Stellar Care Award, and finished 5th in the nation in certified pre-owned sales in 2016. Joe was elected to the 2017 class of Automotive News 40 under 40.
In the following interview, Joe discusses his previous career as a professional musician—he played piano on Broadway for the musical “Wicked” during its opening run—as well as his career in the auto retail industry. He shares his dealership management and marketing insights and reveals what’s ahead for the World dealerships.
Thanks for agreeing to talk with us today, Joe. We often like to start an interview asking about a dealer’s background in the industry. In your case, however, you had an amazing early career as a professional musician. So first, I invite you to talk about your work as a musician and then we’ll dive into your automotive background.
I was always musical and started playing the piano when I was five. I played through high school. I went to Westminster Choir College in Princeton for music, and for me it was either music or law, those were the two things I was interested in. I wasn’t a particularly great student, probably because I was busy playing with local groups. So, I went the music route. As I continued my studies I started making connections in The City. I had worked a little at Paper Mill Playhouse, which is a large theater up in northern New Jersey. Started making connections here and there and got to the point where I was applying myself in The City working on different things, playing auditions, helping with cast albums, doing productions in New Jersey, etc. I took a break from college thinking that I would go back but nobody does. I started working full-time jobbing, here and there, and I had met the composer of Wicked at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2000. I edited his songbook for Warner Brothers the following year. Just doing a bunch of jobbing, I probably had about twenty 1099s when I was in my early twenties. As a result of some of those connections I made I ended up being a substitute keyboard player for the Broadway production of Wicked in 2004.
How did your experience in theatre and music help prepare you for running two successful dealerships?
I’m a big team guy. I try to say “we” before I say “I.” Doing a production, doing a show, is a completely collaborative effort. Between a director or a choreographer or a musical director, a stage manager, a set designer, a lighting designer, a sound designer, and an entire cast of people, you are either functioning as a team or your show will fail. So, if I take a show and apply it to a dealership, if there’s a component of your dealership that’s not working, your dealership is not going to fire on all cylinders. I would say the biggest lesson that I took away from my theatrical experience was that it takes a team for something to succeed.
You started as a salesperson for a Saturn franchise and are now the Executive Manager of World Subaru and World Jeep Chrysler Dodge Ram. What dealership or management lessons have you learned along the way?
It’s one-hundred percent about the customer and one-hundred percent about the employee. The health of your employees is one of the most important and yet most overlooked things. We spend so much time talking about customer satisfaction, which is so important, both in online reputation and in the dealership. But I don’t think we spend enough time focusing on our employees and looking at our hours and looking at their schedules and making sure that you have happy employees, happy sales people, happy technicians. Because if you don’t have great employees you’re not going to have great customer satisfaction. That’s one of the things. Making sure you’re running a successful business, for sure, but you also want to make sure your employees want to come to work every day, which is super-super important to me. Between the two stores, we have about 120 employees.
I’d like to talk about our recent acquisition by Capstone Automotive Group for a moment. I was fortunate enough to work with the previous dealer, Ken Schwartz, since 2005 and he made a decision last year to sell to Capstone. Part of their strategy is that they look for successful dealerships with proven successes and operators. In a lot of cases they’re able to go in and the dealer principal is able to step aside. As a result of the Capstone acquisition, I was promoted to Executive Manager. They are in acquisition mode and are looking to buy more dealerships. Capstone looks for successful owners looking to cash out some equity and continue to operate the dealership, as well as successful owners looking to exit completely. They’ve been incredible to work with.
How’s business been lately?
Fantastic. On the Subaru side, our sales are up 30% since 2014. Also, World Subaru finished 5th in the nation in certified pre-owned sales in 2016. I would also add for Subaru we’re a Stellar Care Award recipient three years running (2014-2016). Our Jeep store has experienced double-digit growth, as well.
And our parts and services divisions are booming. We’ll be under two potentially simultaneous construction projects soon. One for service and sales at Subaru that’s going to give us an additional eight service bays and a car wash to take us to twenty-three bays. And we’re doing a full dealership renovation at Jeep. Both stores will get two drive-through service lanes.
For Subaru, it is going to solve a capacity problem. A lot of Subaru dealers, us included, are not fit to handle the growth that’s coming at us today and down the foreseeable future, as far as units for operation and service departments. The expansion at the Subaru building will allow us to take better care of our customers’ current and, more importantly, future needs for service and be able to accommodate them. The renovation at the Jeep Chrysler Dodge Ram store is going to be a game-changer for us. We’re in a smaller, former Lincoln-Mercury showroom that when done is going to be a fully-compliant, beautiful new facility, and I think that’s going to bring us to the next level for sure.
You were recently elected to the 2017 class of Automotive News 40 under 40. How were you selected and what does it mean to you personally?
It’s a huge honor and very, very humbling. There are thirty-nine other people recognized and I happen to be one of the forty. It’s kind of surreal, in a way, to think that they thought that much of me and our accomplishments here as a team to have warranted the award. Someone in the industry nominated me. We have a lot of involvement in the community. We try to do a lot of philanthropic things that benefit our community and I think that was something that was highlighted during the process. After I was nominated, I had to go through a vetting process with Automotive News and ultimately selected by them.
You mentioned philanthropic efforts that benefit the community. Specifically, what local causes do the stores help support?
We mainly support two initiatives. The most important one is we partner with the Arms Wide Open Childhood Cancer Foundation, which is a local non-profit, and we have raised, to date, about $225,000 for childhood cancer research funding. It is a cause that is very, very near to me but not in a familial way. I have a friend whose daughter was diagnosed a few years ago and I was just in awe of the spring-into-action warrior that she turned into. She not only advocated for her daughter but she also took it on as a cause, once her daughter was cured, for good. It’s been so eye-opening. I think all of us could name a couple of people they know who have or had cancer, but I think you would struggle to name a child under the age of eight. It was just earth-shattering to me that this exists.
So, we took it on as a cause and every year Subaru does a program called “Share the Love.” This will be the tenth year of the program, I believe, and it allows dealerships to pick a local charity. Subaru donates money to a couple of national charities for every car the dealership sells. The customer gets to choose where to donate the money. We educate the customer about wanting to keep the money local and an overwhelming percentage of them choose the local charity. We also match a certain percentage of it. In 2016, we raised $87,000 for the charity. Our goal by 2020 is to have raised $500,000 and we’re on track to hit that.
Our other main charity is the Arts. We are a sponsor of the Count Basie Theatre. The Count Basie Theatre Voices is a seventh through twelfth grade ensemble group that I run with a very good childhood friend of mine. We are personally able to give back to the youth, the kids. I was given many opportunities when growing up. I was mentored by many people. I think the Arts are phenomenally important to the development of our kids and everyone who wants an opportunity to be exposed to art, be it music, theatre, dance, should have an opportunity to do so.
How would you describe your management style?
I’m going to go back to my team answer. My style, I would say, is to let my managers manage. It is very important to me that my management staff knows they’re in the right position and that I respect them, support them, and I want to make sure I’m always available to them to make the important decisions that need to be made. But on a day-to-day basis I want them to feel empowered to make the decisions they need to make without feeling they’re being second-guessed. And that translates over to the customer. I think you get one chance to do the right thing when it comes to a customer interaction. I want my managers to understand when they have a customer on the phone or in person with an issue that needs to be dealt with I don’t want the customer to feel as if they’re being put off or my managers to think they always have to check.
Let’s shift to marketing. What is your marketing strategy?
Digital, a lot of digital. Another huge part is our online reputation through third-party websites. If we could only use one digital tool it would be Google Search, with a focus on position. A vendor can come out and say I can get you x-number of clicks or x-number of dollars per click. What they overlook is I can get you the lowest cost per click in the world but if you’re on the second page of Google you might was well not have spent a dollar. Some dealers will ignore how important it is to have great positioning.
We use social media extensively. We have over ten-thousand people following our Subaru page and almost thirteen-thousand people following the Jeep page. Social media is a big part of telling our story and keeping our customers updated on events, promotions, anecdotes, special offers and so on. For CRM, we use VinSolutions.
What steps or processes do you follow to ensure your customers are satisfied?
We really want to make sure the customer feels they are receiving exceptional care, be it sales or service. We have delivery coordinators who go over the vehicle with the customer. That’s been a big boost in CSI for us. It allows the sales consultant to spend more time on selling and gives the customer the benefit of a full vehicle delivery of all of the components of their car. Customers can fully understand how to pair their phone, how to use their navigation, if it has it, or their enhanced safety systems with lane sway and pre-breaking and all that. At the Subaru store, we have a service concierge who will review the work done, walk you to your car, make sure everything is tip-top and the car is clean. We’ve already seen some online reviews in a few short weeks that mentions the customer’s appreciation for that extra level of service.
To help improve customer satisfaction, we created a web page to capture customer reviews on three main websites that we rotate, such as DealerRater, Google, Facebook. Sometimes we change that to Cars.com, Edmunds, Yelp, etc. There is a hang tag that goes in every vehicle serviced or sold that asks the customer to go to our reviews website and leave feedback. There are bonus plans in place for sales consultants and delivery specialists who get 5-star reviews that mention them by name.
What do you like most about being in the auto retail industry?
No two days are alike. I love that every day is literally a new adventure and you don’t know what the next day is going to bring. I’ve been in the industry for fourteen years and still love going to work every day.
Author: Digital Dealer
Digital Dealer exists to help dealers and their managers sell more vehicles more profitably by creating the best live events and media in the industry.