Bowman Chevrolet is one of the fastest-growing Chevrolet dealerships in the state of Michigan. The dealership serves Clarkston, Waterford, Lake Orion and Chevrolet customers from other parts of Oakland County in the eastern part of the state. John Bowman bought the franchise in 1984. By 2011, his daughter, Katie Bowman Coleman, became the Dealer Principal of the organization.
New-car sales at Bowman Chevrolet have almost tripled since 2011. Last year, the dealership sold more than 2,800 new vehicles, and has been ranked in the top 20 Chevrolet dealerships in the country for the past eight months. Dealer Rater awarded Bowman Chevrolet the Consumer Satisfaction Award for three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. In addition, the dealership was named the 2017 Dealer of the Year for Chevrolet Dealerships in Michigan.
In the following interview, Katie discusses her unusual journey from fashion retail to automotive retail and talks about the similarities between the two retail markets. She also talks about the electric vehicle market and shares her insights on creating balance between work and home.
I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us about Bowman Chevrolet and the retail automotive industry, Katie. Could you start by filling us in on your background?
If you had asked me 30 years ago after college if I was going to be a car dealer, I would have said no. Because right out of college, I had the goal of being in the retail fashion industry, and I was lucky enough to land my dream job working for Ralph Lauren, the Polo Corporation, in New York City. I also worked for Ralph Lauren in Sydney, Australia. There was a lot of excitement involved in that industry. I had always been passionate about clothing retail and fashion. So, both my parents encouraged me to follow my dreams. It was a really wonderful experience. But then I realized I missed home, I missed Michigan, the Midwest, so I came back to Michigan and continued to work for Ralph Lauren in Michigan. But it wasn’t quite as exciting as other aspects I had done.
My dad said the car business is retail, too, so why don’t you come work for me? I thought, okay, I’ll give it a try. Not really thinking I would stay on that path, I had always been curious about what my dad did, so I came to work for him at Bowman Chevrolet in 1993 and fell in love with it. I think it took me about six months and I saw all the challenges. It was retail and elements of it reminded me of my fashion career. It was very customer-service focused, which is what the Ralph Lauren Polo Corporation was all about. They were early adopters of being customer-focused as a company, back in the eighties and nineties. I was surprised to find so many parallels and ways in which I could use my experience in the fashion industry to pull over to automotive retailing.
When did you become Dealer Principal and which jobs did you learn along the way?
I became Dealer Principal in 2011. My dad was smart. He had me work in every department in every job. I drove the parts truck and worked the parts counter. I wrote service orders. I answered the phones—on and off—for probably ten years, especially during times when we were between receptionists. I worked in the accounting office and on the sales floor, in the finance and insurance department. I sold cars. I did everything. I really covered the whole store and I’m so glad I did, because I learned so much from each job and had an appreciation for what happens every day. It takes every single employee to keep the dealership running.
My view is that no one job is better than another. If we didn’t have the porters doing their job, the people who are cleaning the cars, the sales people can’t sell the cars they tell customers they’re going to deliver. It really takes everyone.
After about five years at the dealership, I became the Operations Manager and managed most of the day-to-day workings of the dealership. Simultaneously, I went back to school and earned my master’s degree in finance from Walsh College. My dad hated the title General Manager, so after about five years as Operations Manager, I was named Vice President and performed the duties of a general manager. I served as Vice President for eight years before becoming the Dealer Principal.
Any advice to share with other females considering an automotive retail career?
Early on I realized there were many women at General Motors in leadership positions. I would take the opportunity whenever I went to industry events to seek out these women and ask them about their experiences, especially if they had children and how they created their work-life balance. I found the women were very forthcoming and willing to share tips that had worked for them. I also think there are lots of industry clubs and organizations to go to for advice. For instance, GM has the Women’s Retail Network and that group has played an important role for me in learning how to be a better dealer. Getting together with other women owners is a great way to get ideas on being a dealer, whether you’re a woman or not, and on balancing your work and your home life every day.
You recently added nearly two acres to your store’s footprint. How do you plan to use the additional space?
Quite frankly, we could use triple that amount of space because we’ve grown quite a bit since I took over in 2011. We’ve had double-digit growth every year since 2011, in new-car sales, used and service. We really needed the space and it’s amazing that the two sites became available at the same time. One site was a vacant lot that we have already filled with new-car inventory. The other site we purchased has a building on it, which we’ll be using as a place for used-car sales and display area, a larger dedicated internet sales area, and additional office space.
What is your management philosophy?
I keep it pretty simple. I like to tell my team whenever starting a project that I like to organize, deputize and supervise. It’s worked for me my whole life, in business and with my family. You have to organize what you have to get done. You have to put someone in charge. And then you have to supervise to make sure that it’s happening.
What do you look for when hiring new employees?
Basically, I like people who will take ownership of their work, think creatively, and are problem solvers.
What steps does Bowman Chevrolet take to ensure a positive experience?
It starts with understanding that with a customer you’re welcoming them to your home, when they come through our doors, or now, more often, through email leads or phone leads. The overall philosophy I have is that customer service is first and foremost what we deliver. The customer-first spirit here is really strong.
I treat the employees as if the dealership is their home. We provide snacks and activities throughout the year. We have team-building events. We have lunches that we put on for the summer holidays—Memorial, the Fourth, Labor Day. We just did a Michigan-MSU tailgate party for our employees. These activities take place in the showroom, so any customers who happen to be onsite are asked to join in, too. But it’s really for our employees and we have a lot of fun. It’s a long day, so you want to make sure people are feeling good about being here. I think that passes through to the customer.
We have a dedicated Customer Care team. They are available seven days a week. We’re online with our customers or on the phone with them. Customers can contact us any time for help, if they need it. They can ask product questions, make appointments and so on. We have a great support team behind our front-facing team. I think that’s important these days, especially when what we have to do to sell a car becomes more and more detailed.
What is your marketing strategy?
I went digital as a higher percent of my marketing strategy a long time ago, pretty early on. I could see that people were going to come through their computer as a way to start the sales conversation. We have one of the highest internet-closing ratios in the region, if not in the country. We’re at about 35.5% for an internet-closing ratio. We went after that strong, early on. It’s communication, at the end of the day. For marketing, it’s the same thing: digital. We used to be in the Detroit News and the Free Press for print but now our ads are in smaller, more localized papers, such as the Clarkston News. We do digital for everything else.
Which third-party vendors, if any, assist in these marketing efforts?
We have a great public relations-advertising company in Near Perfect Media. We receive internet leads through General Motors. We also have a digital footprint through Facebook. We do Instagram, Twitter, Linked In.
How effective have your social media efforts been?
I’d say very effective. Facebook is probably where we receive the most engagement. We have about 3,700 Likes. It’s important to me that we connect with people who really do want to engage with the dealership. We try to keep our content useful to our customers. We definitely post pricing and products and event information, but we try to have a good mix of valuable content. I think people tire of getting sales pitches. I know in my life, it’s kind of hard to cut through all the noise coming at me through my phone and emails. That’s why we try to deliver content that’s meaningful to our customers.
If you could keep only one technology tool, which tool would that be and why?
It’s kind of a love-hate relationship, but I would keep my smartphone. Some days I want to be like the girl in The Devil Wears Prada where she throws her cell phone into the fountain. I guess you just have to learn to manage it. I would have to say my smartphone is my personal favorite tech tool. Now for the dealership, I’d probably say our most essential piece of technology would be our CRM system, which is VIN Solutions. It’s what we use to build up our digital footprint, including our email database.
Let’s shift to products. Bowman received its first Bolt EVs last month. Are you seeing an increase in demand for electric vehicles?
We’re seeing an increase in interest in electric vehicles and some demand, as well. The Bolt EV has drawn a lot of interest in our showroom. I believe in electric vehicles, am excited about the technology and think GM has done a great job in being a leader in the industry when it comes to giving consumers more electric vehicle choices.
In addition to the Bolt EV, I think the Volt is amazing, offering a battery-driven car with a gas backup. It gives the customer the freedom to go on a long trip and still have the capability to use electric when driving closer to home. Our Volt customer base loves their vehicle. They repeatedly get a new Volt when they come in to get a new car. They are truly passionate. I’d say, on average, they get about 200 miles per gallon. They have clubs where they watch the mileage they’re getting and try to beat each other out. I think EVs will be here in great numbers sooner than we think, especially with the competitive companies going after the future of what we’ll be driving.
What separates your dealership from the pack?
I’d say it’s our team. I’ve worked hard to continue what my father started, in terms of treating our employees very well, being thankful for what they do and letting them know that. Since I took over, I’ve worked very hard to make sure we stay involved in our community. We support four main charities that we’ve been involved with since my dad started the dealership. SCAMP, a special needs camp based here in Clarkston. I have a younger sister who was a camper there, and she now works in the dealership. My parents were involved in SCAMP even before the dealership. We also support Easter Seals, Clarkston Area Youth Assistance (CAYA), and My Habitat Clarkston, which is a local branch of Habitat for Humanity.
Those four are the biggest charities we contribute to, but, quite frankly, we write checks every month to Little League teams and soccer teams and hockey leagues. Causes that our customers come in and ask us to support and we rarely say no. We’ve expanded that to be more boots on the ground in helping where and when we can. I really think that community involvement and our team all marching in the same direction, working toward a common goal every day of giving our customers the best customer experience, make us stand out. Also, the great products from the Chevrolet lineup are easy to sell. We’re very fortunate to have those products.
But if I had to summarize what makes us stand out, I’d say we’re passionate about the customer experience and our local community. I think the more people can learn about the many ways a dealership gives back to the local community is a good part of the story.
What’s ahead for Bowman Chevrolet in, say, the next five to ten years?
I plan on continuing our growth and doing it in a way that we manage that growth and still provide our customers with the best experience.
Bowman Auto Group today includes Bowman Chevrolet, which sells new, used and commercial products. We’re continuing to grow our commercial truck business and provide options for our business customers. In 2013, we opened Bowman Auto Center, which includes used-car sales, houses our body shop and prep department, and in 2014 we added Isuzu Commercial Truck.
In five to 10 years, I hope to continue to expand, grow our sales and possibly add another franchise.
What do you like most about working in the auto retail industry?
That’s a good question. I like how each day brings a different challenge, and that there are five businesses or more within one rooftop. You have new car, used car, parts, service, body shop, and I think of the accounting department as another business because it brings all the other departments together. I have always enjoyed the financial side of the business, analyzing our statements, looking for opportunities, improving processes.
Ultimately, helping our employees and our customers have a good experience. I really like helping customers find the right vehicle for their lifestyle. We are not a pushy sales place. We view ourselves as a partner of our customer, and I just love it when I hear a customer say the car they bought from us was perfect for their life.
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.