John Hennessy, owner of River View Ford, in suburban Oswego, Illinois, has spent more than 30 years in the auto retailing industry. In addition to running one of the most active and popular dealerships in his region, John led a board of 15 dealers when he served as the 2016-2017 Chicago Automobile Trade Association (CATA) chairman. The CATA is comprised of more than 400 franchised new-car dealers and, collectively, those members employ about 20,000 people in the Chicago metropolitan area. John has served on the National Dealer Council as well as the Ford Marketing Advisory Board.
Leadership runs in the family, as John’s father was a prominent dealer in the area and chaired the Chicago Auto Show forty years ago. Proud to continue a family tradition, John is the 2018 Chairman of the Chicago Auto Show, the largest auto show in North America and an event held more times than any other auto exposition on the continent.
In this month’s dealer interview, John talks about his tenure in leadership positions, shares tips on running a successful dealership, conﬁdes what he likes most about the industry, and discusses his dealership’s commitment to their local community, especially efforts to raise funds for and awareness of juvenile diabetes. His commitment to both the industry and his local community is long-standing and unshakeable.
Following in your father’s footsteps, you served as the Chicago Automobile Trade Association (CATA) chairman in 2016-2017. What did it mean to you to be the chairman of CATA, a position your father held forty years ago?
It was truly an honor, ﬁrst and especially to be part of the Chicago Automobile Trade Association. It’s a great organization that allows me to help the dealers we represent. A lot of dealers wonder how they can make a difference in this industry. The CATA is one of the ways. During my term at CATA, we were able to change the lease laws in Illinois. These laws had not been changed, just about since cars were ﬁrst being sold in the state. We were one of only two states that actually taxed the full price of the vehicle. After we changed the law two years ago, we taxed only the monthly payment! Our lease sales in Illinois went from about 10 percent to around 30 percent. That not only beneﬁtted the consumer because they saved more on their car payment, it beneﬁtted the dealers because we could lease more cars and we see the customer more often. It also actually beneﬁtted the state, because the state made more money.
In addition, we handle other kinds of legislation for dealers. For example, our franchise laws. Automobile dealers have a lot of money and sweat equity tied up in their franchises. We must make sure the balance of power is fair between the dealers, manufacturers and our consumers. It’s tough as one dealer to go down to Springﬁeld and try to make a difference. When you add the strength of the CATA and our partners at the Illinois Automobile Association, we become a big force that our legislators understand and appreciate. That’s just one of the many pleasures of being on the board. And, of course, following in my father’s footsteps forty years later—what an honor!
You’re also serving as Chairman of the 2018 Chicago Auto Show. How’s that going?
We have a saying at the CATA. When you are the Chairman of the Board you are busy doing everything necessary for the dealers. When you become the Auto Show Chairman you get to enjoy the fruits of that labor! We have been very busy on the board preparing for the 2018 auto show. We travel across the country calling on all the auto manufacturers. We want to make sure they have all they need to make their show display the best in class. Whether it’s adding more square footage, adding a back wall, creating a test track or including an interactive robot, the manufacturers know the more time a customer spends in their given display the better the odds one of their dealers will sell them a new vehicle.
Today, budget constraints have forced many manufacturers to pull back from auto shows. Not in Chicago! Most manufacturers have added more space or more test drives. They know Chicago is unique among the larger auto shows because we’re always focused on the consumer. The Chicago Auto Show is not only the nation’s largest and longest-running auto show, it also sells cars. More than 60 percent of the people who attend the show buy a new vehicle within a year. In our industry, that’s the low hanging fruit!
Chicago is a family tradition. Generations of family members visit the show every year. When I was a kid, my dad would take one of my siblings out of school just to come down to the Chicago Auto Show. We would stay with him, walk around the show, meet his fellow dealers, manufacturer friends and an occasional Chicago sports star. It was a blast. I could see growing up as an eight or nine-year-old exactly what my father did for a living and how his hard work helped others. To think I get to ﬁll that role forty years later is unbelievable. To say that I am proud is an understatement. I am blessed to be the face and voice of my fellow CATA members during the 2018 auto show. My fellow board members are some of the best dealers in the nation.
How, when and why did you become a dealer and what does that mean to you after so many years?
As a kid, growing up, I had one brother and three sisters. I was the one always at the dealership. Whether it was cleaning cars, doing homework with the salesman or just hanging out with my dad, I just loved it. The older I got, the more involved I got in the store.
I’ll never forget my junior year in high school, my father got me out of bed and said you’re coming with me. I asked where we were going? He said to throw on a sport coat and I’ll tell you when we get there. That day they had a big sale at the Ford plant. Three or four dealers were represented. He said, I’m going to teach you how to sell cars today. I had no idea what to do. We had to take turns greeting the customers. When it was my turn, I greeted a very kind older couple. They were interested in a new Ford Escort Wagon. I showed them the special Ford A Plan price and they asked if I could get them a number for their trade in. The manager gave me the number for their trade and they felt it was fair.
Here came the hitch. The husband told me he would buy the car if I “threw in” an FM radio and a pin stripe. So, what would a 17-year-old kid say? Of course, I would! Well, you can’t throw anything in for a Ford employee. It’s against all Ford rules. The manager told me I had to charge them for both items. When I told the husband, he had to pay for the radio and stripe, he stood up and said he was leaving. At that very moment a voice came over the loud speaker in the parking lot: “Congratulations, John Hennessy, for selling his ﬁrst car ever!” the crowd stood up and clapped! I was mortiﬁed because now I would have to tell everyone I didn’t sell the car. The wife grabbed her husband and made him buy the car. That couple ended up buying many more Fords over the years.
The next year, my senior year, I started selling used cars. During college, I’d come back during the holidays. I fell in love with the business and have my father to thank for it!
I’d like to ask you to talk about the business of running a dealership. What is your management philosophy?
Every employee in our store is completely empowered to make a decision to help a customer. I don’t care what it is or how much it costs. If it’s in the name of helping a customer, you’ll never get in trouble. Most of the people who worked for us started in their teens and stayed long enough to retire in their 60s or 70s. Here at River View Ford, we have second-generation family members. Many of their parents worked with my family years ago. Many of the employees have been here for 25 to 30 years. Whatever success the store has enjoyed, I will tell you, is 100 percent because of our employees.
My GM Jack Daniels is a second-generation employee. Jack started working for us in college and he understands my philosophy. Jim Rodda, my service director, started working for us when he was 18. He lives in Dyer, Indiana, an hour and a half away. Our customer satisfaction scores are one of the highest in the region because of his work ethic and care of our customers. He answers customer calls on his cell phone over the weekends, even on Sunday. Tom Julian our sales manager, also drives from Indiana.
He has been with my organization over 20 years too. Jeannie Brown, our finance director, and Gary Leathers, her assistant, have been with us over 20 years also. Paul Firlit, my comptroller, started with my father over 30 years ago. Many of my service technicians, such as Ron Hyde and Greg Fox, have been here since the store opened. It’s because of these employees (family) that our customers love to come back and buy more vehicles. They aren’t dealing with strangers, they are working with family.
In short, our success—and my management style—is simply to empower the employees to do what’s right and take care of customers.
What is your service philosophy?
This ties in with what I was just talking about. One of the things I always say is to show our customers the love. We take care of the customer. We pick up and deliver customers’ cars where ever they need us to go. We deliver locally and out to places like, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. It costs us a ton of money but it is well worth it. Outside of our employees, it is one of our biggest beneﬁts we offer.
How do you ensure your employees are up-to-date on products and processes?
There’s a wonderful training program through Ford Motor Company. When you become a Ford dealer employee, there are a series of tests you have to pass every month. It keeps you sharp and aware of the latest and greatest advancements in the marketplace. Our employees also learn from me and my sales and service management team. We hold meetings weekly to review our processes and procedures. We also bring in outside trainers to assist with sales and service techniques. There is always someone available to lend a helping hand if you need it. It’s part of our family atmosphere.
As a member the Chicago Ford Dealers Advertising Fund for over a decade, what, in your opinion, has been the single greatest advertising change in the last ten years?
I’d go a little further back. The biggest change happened September 11, 2001. General Motors announced 0% for 60 months. Since then the incentive game was on! Today, I think it’s a given that people expect every car to come with zero-percent ﬁnancing. Since I have been on the board I have seen 0% programs, large rebates to even buy a car and get a computer. Back then, we weren’t updating cars as often. To sell a product that ran its course you had to throw a lot of money at it.
Today, the product is a lot more advanced. I would say it’s a lot better looking, a lot safer, and has better gas mileage. The market is much more product-driven. There are fewer poor quality products. Manufacturers are building more value into their vehicles. You are seeing a lot better looking vehicles, with way more advancements for better prices. Yes, the incentives are still out there but it is more of a “pull industry” from the consumer side versus a “push” from the manufacturer. We are in an environment that is an all-time high in sales. I think every manufacturer wants to hang onto these records, so we still do the zero-percent. But I think they also realize the name of the game to win in this market is to have the best product out there.
If you could only use one marketing tool, which tool would that be and why?
For me, the best marketing tool is word of mouth. Our greatest success has come from our previous customers. We try to promote our family atmosphere and way we do business. We don’t advertise crazy incentives. We don’t advertise low prices. Our commercials are our customer testimonials. People who have bought from us for ﬁfteen years, second-generation families. Our customers say the same thing: the experience is like dealing with family, and that’s how I want it to be.
Do you work with third-party lead providers?
We use cars.com. It does send us some business but it’s not our best lead generator. Again, word of mouth is probably our number one source of leads. Our own website would be the second best followed by Ford’s lead sources. I think the third-party vendor approach might be thinning out a little bit. One of the cool things about CATA is we’re one of the few such organizations that houses its own dealer members’ inventory.
The DriveChicago.com portal is a full-service lead generator. We have over 400 members and we have all their used and new car inventory on that site. The site generates a ton of traffic, especially during the Auto Show. We provide leads – free of charge – to all of our members. It’s very unique and one of the many beneﬁts provided to our dealer organization.
Could you talk about the various charities or non-proﬁts your dealership supports?
Sure. One of the most enjoyable parts of being a dealer is building relationships and being part of a wonderful community. There are so many organizations we’re a part of. The local schools. We’re there to raise money for whatever a school needs: a new roof, new laptops, air conditioning system.
There are families always in need who reach out to us. We help out by donating money, gift cards, oil changes, tires or whatever suits their event.
We do an event at our local high school every year. It is the “Drive One for Your School Event.” We bring most of our employees and about 15 vehicles to the local high school. The school helps us coordinate to have as many families available to test drive cars. For every car they test drive they earn $20 up to $6,000. We have been doing this for over five years and have never donated less than the six-grand cap. It is a great event sponsored by Ford.
I’m going to tie it back to the CATA, which worked with the USO on a Barbeque for the Troops campaign. Last summer, the program celebrated its fifth consecutive year. How the barbeque for the troops works is that CATA dealer members on one given Saturday in July all ﬁre up their grills, cook food, and donate the food to anybody who comes in. Those people, in turn, give us ﬁfty cents, a dollar, ten dollars or whatever they can afford. All that money we raise goes to the USO to help our troops overseas.The first year we rallied 50 dealers who raised $37,000. Last year, we had over one hundred dealers. The overall number we’ve raised since the beginning is over half-a-million dollars. That’s pretty awesome.
Here at the store, we do a Fall Savings Event. We have a petting zoo for the kids. We give away pumpkins, food and beverages. It’s just to bring the community in, do something nice, get to meet us and see us in a different light than they might normally see us.
Probably my single favorite event, because I’m a Christmas nut, is pictures with Santa. So, Santa Claus is here. The kids get to meet him and get a gift. We have donuts and coffee, reindeer, sleigh rides and even a Grinch. Last year we had over 200 children come by to get their picture taken. If that doesn’t get you in the Christmas spirit I don’t know what will.
I am sure like every other dealer out there we sponsor golf outings for the local chamber, we run food drives, donate to the boy scouts and put the coin jar out to help a family in need.
Please tell us more about your volunteer efforts on behalf of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
When I was lucky enough to get elected to the Ford Advertising Board in 2006, I was asked to work with another dealer, Colin Wickstrom, to ﬁnd a charity that our dealer body could get behind and help. The board chose the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Kids with diabetes have a very tough road ahead of them. If you have diabetes, it is very difficult to control. You can suffer from blindness, heart conditions and many long-term complications.
JDRF does a great job not only raising money to ﬁnd a cure but also educating people on long-term control. The FDAF was able to sign up Ford dealers to sponsor JDRF family teams in their annual walk. Over 80 dealers each year help raise over $2,500 per team that goes directly to JDRF. Our FDAF alone has raised well over $500,000! That money will help ﬁnd a cure during our lifetime.
Our FDAF also donates a live auction item each year to the JDRF Gala in December. Those items have raised over $15,000 each year! My family has attended these events each year. They are just as moved as I am by the outpouring of love given by the families that are helped.
Being part of the CATA has also helped me help JDRF. By being a board member, I was able to include JDRF in our “First Look for Charity” event. Eighteen local charities are able to participate in the money raised during this one-night event. Last year we raised over three million dollars for the charities. JDRF has participated in this event the last five years. If I wasn’t a car dealer, I would never have been able to help JDRF like I can today. Thank you FDAF, CATA and my fellow dealers!
With 30 years of experience in the industry, what advice would you share with someone considering auto retailing as a career?
It is a great career, a fun career, especially if you love people. You have to be a people-person to be in this industry. The hours are not conducive to getting a lot of nights off or even a Saturday off. You have to understand you’re dealing with consumers and the consumer always comes ﬁrst. If you look at it in the right way, we’re providing people with transportation, helping them with their lives. Without us, whether it is the service end of it or the sales end of it, people are stuck. They need a car to get to work or get their kids to school, doctor’s appointments, baseball games or whatever it is. We can be there to help them. You can make as much money as you want in our industry. No one will cap you on the number of cars you can sell. As my father once told me, “If you want a raise, sell another car!” Not many businesses allow you the freedom to make whatever you want.
Crystal ball time. What’s ahead for dealerships?
Great question. You know, there’s a whole new business trying to come into America. I was over in Shanghai, China, for the Shanghai Auto Show. There has got to be 100 Chinese auto makers over there, and they produce anywhere from two cars to a full line of vehicles. Some of them are going to try their hand in the United States and a lot of them have wonderful products.
How they want to market to the public might be a little different. A lot of these manufacturers from China are going to try direct selling and that’s something we’re going to have to face down the road. We have franchise laws, and they are in place to protect not only the dealers but consumers as well. What if a company direct sells to the consumer, abandons the market after a year or two and doesn’t have a dealer network to service their vehicle? The consumer is left in the cold. Think how many brands have come and gone. It is a serious decision that needs to be addressed.
Ride sharing? That’s going to be another thing. I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Manufacturers may get involved in that market, where they have their own ﬂeet of ride share vehicles. So, you may have an app on your phone and if you don’t have a car you can deliver yourself a Ford Explorer. The car will pick you up and drop you back off again. Is that going to be the be all-end all and dealers will be left out? I don’t think so. There’s too much we provide to our customers and our communities and I don’t think we’re going anywhere.
Autonomous vehicles? Probably in the next four to ﬁve years, you’re going to see them. You see them now. I was down in Pittsburgh visiting my son and saw a ﬂeet of Volvo cars; they were Volvo Ubers. They were autonomous Ubers driving around picking up customers. I think autonomous is good and will help the safety of each passenger. If you fall asleep at the wheel, the car can take over. However, I think it will become an option, like an auto-pilot. I think it will turn out to be another enhancement to the way we sell cars. It’s going to be different. I know a lot of people who love driving, including myself. I like to be in control of the car and to feel its performance. Maybe on a long cross-country drive it might be nice to hit the “auto – pilot” button and enjoy the ride! It will also protect us from distracted driving or other dangers of driving.
No matter how you slice it change is coming. We’ve already had a lot of change in the last ﬁve years in our industry, and I think it’s all been good for the industry. I look forward to the opportunities it brings to our industry. One thing will never change: America’s love affair with the automobile!
The 2018 Chicago Auto Show (Feb. 10th-19th) will be held in conjunction with the Digital Dealer Workshops (Feb. 13-14th) at the McCormick Place in Chicago, IL. The Digital Dealer Workshops will feature more than 40 sessions covering a wide-range of topics in Dealer Ops and Management, Digital Marketing & Advertising, and Sales.
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.