For more than 15 years, Billie Nimnicht III has been the dealer/operator at Nimnicht Chevrolet and Nimnicht Buick GMC, in Jacksonville, Florida, the most populous city in both the state of Florida and the southeastern United States. A third-generation car dealer, and fourth generation in the automobile business, it is safe to say the automobile business courses through his veins. Billie began his career at the age of 14 by working summers at the dealership, emptying trash cans and washing cars. After receiving a business degree from the University of Florida, Billie attended the NADA Dealer Candidate Academy. In 2014, he received the prestigious Time Dealer of the Year Award.
In addition to his business success, Billie remains active in the local community, where he is a member of the Jacksonville Quarterback Club and the Gator Bowl committee. The Nimnicht Family of Dealerships sponsors many charity events, including Think Pink, blood drives, a dealership event known as Kutting for Kids, events with money raised for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, and a variety of golf tournament fundraisers.
Billie agreed to share with us a few thoughts about being a car dealer. In the below interview, he talks about how success in auto retail is a team effort and how dedicated employees, just like family members, make the difference, as long as you give them the tools, processes and training to succeed.
I see you’re celebrating your 75th anniversary, so congratulations. I’d like to start with some basic background information about your dealership. How did it get started and how did you come into the business?
The whole history is my great grandfather, Edward A. Nimnicht, was a top executive at Chevrolet. I’m fourth-generation in the business and third-generation dealer. In 1941, my grandfather, Bill Nimnicht, Sr., bought the dealership in Jacksonville. Bill Nimnicht, Jr., was my dad and my uncle Ed was involved as the Cadillac dealer until we bought the Cadillac store in the early 90s. I started out picking up trash cans and working in every department. You know when you’re young with no experience, there’s not much you can do. I was 14 working on the car wash during the summer. I look back on it with fond memories. It was a good indoctrination and it gives me an appreciation for what our team members are going through.
Is there one area of the dealership that’s closest to your heart?
They always needed help in fixed operations, in body shop and service. When I got out of college, our sales department was pretty much rocking. I had a year of sales experience but they really needed me in service, which is why I came up through the ranks mostly in service.
Initial forecasts for 2017 project car sales staying steady and another 17 million year for the industry. How do you ensure you continue to take advantage of an up market?
My dad had written our mission statement and I added our vision was to be the best we can be. We’re having all this success. Usually we’re taking about the mistakes we’re making and how much room there is for improvement. We’ve been dominating and liking it to sports, we’re a good playoff team but we strive to be a Super Bowl team. That takes a lot of dedication and attention to detail and perfecting your processes. Obviously, we can’t combat a downturn completely but if we’re doing what we should be doing — striving to be better every day and providing a great customer experience, a world-class experience, I believe we will remain strong.
Congratulations on receiving the Florida Time Dealer of the Year award. Can you tell us a little something about how you found out and what it means to be a Time Dealer of the Year?
I’m sure one of the reasons I won is because we were named Chevrolet Dealer of the Year in 2014 as a dealership. That’s not an individual dealer award. Even the Time Dealer of the Year Award, I don’t look at as an individual dealer award. Shoot, I can’t do it all. I have a brother, Lee, who is my partner, and he does a lot of the administrative work required in running a business, which allows me the freedom to run the operations. He deals with all the benefits and the computer problems. He’s our CFO. We joke around and say that I make the money and he hides it. These single dealers, I don’t know how they do it with multiple franchises and multiple locations. They have to have some good people around. We have really good people. That would be my theme of this interview: surround yourself with good people. We have something in the neighborhood of 275 to 300 employees. Even though they don’t have ownership, it’s just as much their company as ours. We try to share the wealth and provide a good income, bonus plans, and things like that to keep them motivated. That comes from the heart. We see how hard they’re working, and they’re the reason for our success.
I noticed your dealership has many five-star reviews online, especially on the sales and service experience your dealership offers. In fact, your dealership recently won a 2017 DealerRater Dealer of the Year award. What is the secret to having such great people at your dealership?
It’s respect. Treat people the way you want to be treated. We genuinely care about our people. We try to find them the best insurance and pay for as much of that as we can. We care about their families. Again, it starts with my grandfather and my father, so I definitely can’t take all the credit for it. My grandfather’s nickname was “The Bull” because he was such an imposing, intimidating guy. He looked mean. Apparently, when he’d show up at the dealership, everybody would call around and say, “The Bull’s here. The Bull’s here,” because he was such an imposing figure. But I also heard just as many stories about how caring he was and how good he was. For our Fiftieth Anniversary, my dad, I think he was the first to do it, we always have company picnics, hamburger cookouts, and he just stood there and handed every employee fifty dollars. We’ve continued that every five years. Just recently at a cookout, I was handing out envelopes with seventy-five dollars in them.
What digital marketing tools delivered – and continue to deliver – the best results or you’ve been most impressed with?
The tools go hand-in-hand with the internal process. We saw the holes in our process and we didn’t have enough supervision and enough focus. I did a demonstration in a sales meeting where I cut a hole in a bucket, a bunch of holes, and poured sand into it. And all these holes represented missed opportunities. For years, a lot of dealers, including me, tried to find that magic bullet. But I wasted a lot of money because our internal processes were not ready for it. That’s what we’ve learned over the years; you cannot just throw money at a problem. I did a direct mail program. With 30,000 pieces a month, we spent a boat load of money. We drove the business but everyone was just taking the low-hanging fruit, and our sales didn’t go up, and we spent all that money.
Over the last 10 years, we’ve gone from where there’s nothing, no e-commerce advertising, to a large majority of our advertising now digital. To me, it has to start with paid search. People are banging away on the Internet, searching for things, trying to find things. Another thing, when paid search first came out, everybody was so budget-conscious; the people proposing it to us and those on our side, the dealers. We put together the same budget for both of our stores. When I checked the ads, the Chevy story would burn through its budget by nine in the morning. Then the Buick-GMC store was there all day. That’s a supply and demand issue. We went from dipping our toe to now where we have a huge budget. If somebody is sitting in his shorts on the bed with his iPad at 10:30 at night looking for a Silverado, I want to be there.
How did you fix that? Did you just increase their budget for your Chevy store or did you change your search terms?
I’ve said for years that somebody is going to write the book on digital advertising on what you should do. But we were living through it and I didn’t have that manual. We had to figure it out. It wasn’t just paid search, you had to have good ad copy in your search ads and you had to deep link it to a relevant page. You couldn’t just send them to your homepage. When GM was forcing us to do things a certain way, my website looked just like my competitor’s website, my ad copy on my paid search looked just like theirs, and that’s why we went in our own direction. I’ve got to mention also my e-commerce director and my cousin, who’s our marketing director, have made tremendous impact because, like I said, I can’t do it all. Frank Reynolds is our e-commerce director. I hired him to be my internet department manager and soon realized we weren’t exploring our digital needs for all its possibilities, so I asked him to take on the BDC as well. Lauren Dozier is another cousin on our team. I’m the oldest of my generation and she’s the youngest. She’s Google-certified and doing a phenomenal job.
Are you doing all this in-house or are you working with an outside vendor or a mix of both?
We’re trying to do whatever we can ourselves but those companies have algorithms and automation, and we’ve got so many things going on. We can’t keep adding people and adding people. That’s why we work with vendors. My philosophy is, I’d rather have my experts pushing and scrutinizing what a vendor is doing than try to do it themselves and not having the time to analyze what they’re doing.
We’re in the process of evaluating vendors and I really don’t know where we’re going to end up. We’re staying ahead of the curve. I’ve always sent someone to the Digital Dealer conference. Like I said, that how-to book, we’re kind of writing it as we go along, not as if we’re leaders or the best or anything like that, but we’re figuring it out. I feel for the smaller dealerships who can’t afford an e-commerce director or marketing director, who can’t afford a certified technology expert, who can’t afford a BDC. Those are the things making a difference for us.
Do you know or have an idea how many of your leads are starting on the Internet or coming through it, as opposed to more traditional channels?
It’s hard to gauge but I would say 50-50. Fewer people are actually doing a form submission and actually submitting a lead. Even though our leads are going up because of our digital advertising and stuff and our repeat business, there’s a lot of factors to consider. But we have a whole team of people who don’t have anything to do with the Internet. We have floor salespeople who develop their own loyal customers, with repeat business, and they’re doing their own work plans. We know people are on the Internet and 97% of the people are searching online but we still get people who just pick up the phone and call us.
Is there one online vendor tool that if you had to get rid of everything else, this would be the one tool you’d keep?
Our biggest benefit is our BDC, training and follow-up. We’re training these people to follow up better than we ever had. I look back at some of our hey-days and realize now we were just glorified order takers. We advertised a lot, talked to a lot of people, and whatever stuck, stuck. We had a lot of tremendous success but we weren’t following up all that well. We probably followed up on hot prospects but we didn’t follow up on anyone else. In the last couple of years, my other cousin has been working for me, his name is Edward, as our training coordinator, and that’s been a big part of our success; training and doing better and not letting those opportunities slip through the cracks.
We’re with Proactive Dealer Solutions. I thought we’d have them come in, pay them a bunch of money, and then go on their maintenance program, where we would have phone consultations. But with turnover, there’s constant training. They’re in our stores every month. It’s a big expense but that’s in a nutshell. You have to know when to spend money to make money. Where a lot of dealers make a mistake is that they’re scared to invest in success. I could have pulled the plug. Until everything fell in place—and we had Proactive in here training us—but we didn’t have the right people and the right understanding and the right know-how. It was costing me way more than it was benefiting me for a long while. But I saw the potential and I stuck with it.
What are you most excited about for the auto industry as you look ahead to the next five years? Is there anything, specifically, you think will be a game changer?
I want to be stronger and more diversified to fight the big groups, to fight the downturns in the economy. Things are changing so fast. You must choose where to prioritize your efforts and your resources. There’s all these new ideas and geo-targeting and putting a fence around your dealership—I’m slow about all the terms. The common thing that I’m preaching is that service is the thing that will stand out. That’s not just in the service department but service on the lot. Service is where we will shine, whether it’s good times or bad times. I don’t know where the technology will go. What I’ve realized is a lot of these things are just tools and there are other things more important, like the conviction of your management and doing the right thing. I remember when we first got into CRM, we basically turned our salespeople into hunt and peck typists. We placed so much focus on CRM, you know, that it took focus off doing their job. People sell cars to people.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
We’ve always given back to the community. Our records show we’ve donated more than $1 million dollars to the United Way over the years. Our charitable giving budget is in the neighborhood of $100,000 every year. That makes me proud. What also makes me proud is my dad and his people had a tremendous amount of success. But their formula for success didn’t work in this day and time. I’m proud that we shifted gears and found the right formula for success. Other dealers are going backward, while our market is up. We’re now in the top 75 dealers in the country, volume, out of three thousand. I’m not anti-digital, that’s for sure. Digital vendors are a very big part of our success and very prevalent. The difference is, I have it in perspective now. The magic bullet isn’t going to happen for us. We have to make the most of our digital tools.
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.