At Ancira Auto Group, it’s all about sharing – sharing data and business goals openly with its 550 employees, sharing its spirit of family across 11 dealerships, sharing responsibility with employees for belt-tightening in tough times, and sharing community spirit with customers and organizations throughout greater San Antonio via social media with: AnciraBook www.anciracommunity.com.
April Ancira, vice president and daughter of Ancira Auto Group President, Ernesto Ancira, Jr., says it’s been that spirit of sharing that has enabled Ancira to get through the worst year in its financial history – 2008 – and move ahead into Ancira’s most profitable year ever – 2010 – where Ancira earned more than $461M in revenues.
Founded in San Antonio, in 1972, by Owner Ernesto Ancira, Jr., Ancira Auto Group may have been the first, or was certainly among the first, minority-owned dealerships in the U.S., says April.
Today, Ancira Auto Group has 11 franchises: Chevrolet, Ford, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, GMC, Buick, Kia, Nissan, Volkswagen, and Fiat, plus Ancira RV, which sells a variety of recreational vehicles – and Ancira operates 11 dealerships in San Antonio, Eagle Pass, Alvarado, Floresville and Boerne, Texas.
The San Antonio Business Journal has named Ancira the largest San Antonio minority-owned business and Express News has named Ancira one of the 10 best places to work in San Antonio.
April Ancira recently met with Dealer magazine and shared Ancira’s recipe for success that has worked so well over the decades.
April, first of all, was it a foregone conclusion that you would enter the family business?
At 16, I started my first summer job answering phones and filing at Ancira Winton Chevy. My Dad paid me minimum wage – $4.25 at the time – so one year I deviated and worked as a waitress at Chili’s.
But that wasn’t going to be my career path, so I came back and worked here summers until I graduated in 2001 from Trinity University in San Antonio, with a bachelor’s in finance and marketing. I wanted to work on Wall Street and my cousin was trying to schedule a September interview with Smith Barney, but it never happened, because of 9/11. After that, I didn’t look for any other opportunities to work in New York.
I considered a career in advertising, but that was taking a downturn. So, I went for an MBA. However, before I graduated, I feel in love with automotive retail.
After graduation, when I came onboard here full time, my job title was operations analyst – which sounds like a title specified for an owner’s daughter – but it made sense because I was following my Dad’s right hand man, Joey Blackman, around to learn the business. I was also getting ready to go to NADA Dealer Academy.
On visits home from the academy, I did operational analyses deep dives into our dealership and found a lot of things we could improve on. So, the academy wasn’t just an education for me, it was an opportunity for us to upgrade operations here.
I also met my husband, Jason Thompson, at the academy. He’s from Baltimore, where his family owns a number of dealerships and he’s been in the business since he was 16. After we knew we’d be getting married, he moved here and now has the banner job, as GM at Ancira’s Kia store.
We’ve been married three years and have one child, Gunnar. He’s 13 months old and he’s in all our commercials. He’s so awesome. April winks and says: We bring him around the store to close deals.
What’s your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge is juggling – keeping all the balls in the air. We want to be number one in our area in sales and service. Keeping all our goals full steam ahead without neglecting any one of them is my personal challenge right now.
As a dealership, our immediate challenge is managing the used car market. Used car prices are accelerating so quickly with the disaster in Japan affecting our new car inventory. We need to strike a balance, so we don’t get caught down the road – when new inventory starts coming in again – owning the used cars for too much money.
Incidentally, on average, our new cars are selling two to one over used cars, but each store is different. Our Nissan store is selling three new to one used. Our Chrysler store is selling two to one, and our Chevy store is tracking virtually one to one.
What specific new models are you running short on because of the disaster in Japan?
We’re starting to feel the impact with the Nissan Cube, and Juke and especially the Leaf, which are all made in Japan.
Instead of being able to have a Leaf demo in our showroom, the cars are being shipped directly to customers that had orders for them. Nissan had a substantial supply of Leafs at ports ready to go, and thought they’d get through this disaster with enough inventory to keep dealers going, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
We’re going through our Cube inventory and we’re not sure what to expect in upcoming months. Luckily, we are a large dealer with other brands with similar type models to offer our customers. So we can say we don’t have the Nissan Cube now, but we’ve got Kia Souls. That way we can keep customers in the Ancira family.
How did that Ancira family come to be? What prompted your Dad to buy the dealership?
In 1972, there was a Chevy dealership available downtown in San Antonio and a lot of the folks wanted to have a Hispanic own it. I’m fairly sure, at the time, my Dad was one of the first, if not the first Hispanic car dealer in the U.S., at least for GM. That was ground breaking.
Before my Dad bought the dealership, he had been working for a company that wanted him to be vice president of advertising in their South American office. His family was here, and he really didn’t want to relocate, and so he looked around for another opportunity.
When he saw this dealership was available, he threw caution to the wind and put everything he had into it. He applied for a loan, and was required to pay the loan back in a short amount of time, something like a few months, so he had to be profitable right away.
He brought in a partner, Ralph Winton, who had been the GM at the store under the former ownership, because my Dad needed someone with automotive sales experience. My Dad was the majority owner. After few years, my dad bought Ralph out. However, out of respect for Ralph and the help he gave my dad in the beginning, he kept Ralph’s last name on the Chevy store: Ancira Winton Chevrolet. All the rest are the Ancira brand only.
Part of the deal in buying the franchise was that my Dad would move into our Bandera location – a main road in San Antonio. That‘s another story! My Dad just needed a small parcel of land, but the only available seller insisted he buy a parcel containing many more acres. It was take it or leave it, so my Dad said OK and they shook on it. But before the paper work could be drawn up, the seller was offered double what my Dad was going to pay.
The seller could have reneged, but he turned down the higher offer. He said: ‘I already shook Ernesto’s hand on it.’
That was lucky, because in the ‘90s, we were inundated with product and needed the extra acreage. Next to our Chevy store there is Ancira Volkswagen and across the highway is our Kia store. The Volkswagen and Kia franchises had been in one store until a year ago. Now they are thriving even more on their independent lots.
We just finished remodeling our Volkswagen store. This summer we’ll remodel our Chevrolet store. Remodeling our Chrysler store will follow that.
With all this remodeling, business must be very strong for you. How do you account for your success in the current economy?
Our success is based on our culture of sharing. We share business data and business goals openly with our employees, and we share a spirit of family across all our dealerships. Both are highly motivating. And, we also share responsibility with employees for belt-tightening in tough times.
Our dealership’s prior experience in bad economies and the lessons we learned have made it possible for us to survive and even thrive as we come out of the recent economic downturn.
After all, we’d been through the oil embargo of the ‘70s, and the stock market plunge in the late ‘80s when my Dad got down to making payroll out of his own personal bank account. We were basically a month away from my Dad closing the Chevy store then.
At that time, he took stock of the business and said: ‘If we don’t need something, sell it.’ He gathered his people together to figure out what operations could be trimmed.
Back then, we had waited too long to let go of some folks and we still had a lot of excess inventory. It was make it or break it. So we got creative and learned what worked best as we went along. Our technicians offered to discount what they were charging the store for their work, so we saved some money there and we had employees band together and take pay cuts to keep things going, and we got a lot more efficient at that point.
After we made it through that economic storm, my Dad swore never again and has been stacking cash ever since for a rainy day.
As a result, not too long before this recent crash, our auditors informed my father we had too much cash on hand. They said: ‘You can’t be this liquid. Buy something with it.’
Our response was: That’s not happening!
I’m glad we didn’t listen to the auditors. We certainly went through that cash in 2008. It was the worst year in Ancira history, but we stayed in the black and eked out our living. It was dismal, but when we saw the economy going downhill, we didn’t wait to make changes – like we had in the ‘80s.
We made changes quickly – doing the most difficult thing any manager has to do – sacrificing some jobs to save an even greater number. We went from 800 employees in 13 locations to our current number of employees – 550 at 11 locations. Everybody had to become more efficient.
In 2009 we did substantially better, and 2010 turned out to be the most profitable year ever in Ancira history. Our sales volume didn’t increase, but the stores became more efficient. Now, we scrutinize all spending and make more educated, sophisticated decisions on advertising. We expect 2011 profits will be even better. We hit a record last month, not in units sold, but in net profits.
What is your recipe for your advertising mix? How much is traditional vs. Internet?
Only 10% of our advertising is on the web – in the form of banner ads. However, we advertise our e-commerce site www.ancira.com heavily in all other media — the breakdown is approximately 15% radio, 15% newspaper and 60% TV.
Ancira.com is as much our store as our physical buildings. It’s our virtual store. Ancira.com generates 80% of our Internet leads. People who are exposed to our advertising on TV, radio and newspapers go straight to our web site. Everybody knows our name. So, by far it is our number one Internet lead generator.
We get the rest of our Internet leads from third parties, including 10% from Autotrader.com, and the rest from a variety of vendors including: Carsoup.com and Cars.com.
For your e-commerce site to be so productive, you must invest a lot in Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
My uncle, Dad’s brother Gilbert Ancira, did a lot of creative work initially on our web site to enhance SEO. And, since we were one of the first dealerships in the area to have a web site, we’ve built a lot of traffic over the years. We’re also doing all the right things putting attractive content on the site, which ultimately enhances SEO.
Initially, we also spent money on pay-per-click advertising, but we didn’t find that to have sufficient ROI and have stopped doing that.
How do you handle all the sales leads Ancira.com brings in?
Internet sales accounts for 35% of our overall sales volume. We have 21 Internet salespeople, and 95 general salespeople.
We recently hired Glen Standley from Cobalt to be director of Internet sales. Glen supervises the Internet sales managers in each of our stores and makes decisions on new digital technology. For our CRM, some stores use Reynolds& Reynolds; others use CAR-Research XRM, which I find extremely efficient.
We measure our Internet sales success by how quickly our sales force responds to customer leads coming in. Generally, we find that while our new customers are busy signing a deal with us, they are just getting their first lead follow-up phone call from our competitors. Obviously, our response time to third party leads is that much faster, and he who is first – I won’t say wins all the time – but does have a substantial advantage.
Overall, we have a very open-minded approach to using new technology. We are just starting to use a Reynolds & Reynolds texting application for texting sales specials and service appointments and reminders to our customers.
What other new digital technology is Ancira using to bolster its success?
Ancira has a very robust social media program. We’ve been operating our own online community site, www.anciracommunity.com continuously since late 2009 and it is really paying off. Through it we can share our employees’ spirit of family and be even more involved in the community.
ADP provides the hosting for the site and some content, but most content is created by our employees and people in the community. We have our own virtual equivalent of Facebook. I call it AnciraBook.
It’s open to everyone to share photos and talk about cars, Ancira and community events. You can also find Ancira service and parts managers and sales people on this community.
We post our own events and community events, including fundraisers for Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the American Cancer Society, and more.
We also do a lot of Facebook networking. The PR vibe is increasingly important to us. We’re working on buzz, because that’s something you can’t buy. You actually have to be what people are buzzing about. We enjoy participating in and promoting community events, so, the buzz comes about naturally, and it’s all good for business.
How about online reputation management for your dealerships?
ADP does an excellent job monitoring anything said about our company on the web. ADP lets us know if they’ve seen a compliment and they’re right on top of it if they see a negative comment. That way, we’re able to reach out to that unhappy customer in a timely manner.
Usually the customer is excited we noticed them on Facebook or Twitter, and when we respond, as we always do, we not only correct the situation that made them unhappy, but then that customer is almost always glad to be on our side going forward.
Once, I met a man through Twitter who was unhappy with an experience he had here. I contacted him and straightened out the problem. As a result, he came back, bought a car and had fabulous things to say about Ancira on his web site. It’s rewarding to be able to take control of a situation like that quickly, change someone’s attitude, and then get positive feedback socially.
We do unexpected things too. If for whatever reason, an Ancira customer is unhappy as in: ‘I deserve the promo, even though I bought my car before the promo was offered‘ – we make them happy. If they come into my office and ask for it, I give them the promo. I’m finding people are saying: Ancira is pretty cool. The PR buzz generated pays off. Our referral rates have increased. Our service bays are always busy. Our sales have increased. I figure I’m either going to take a nose dive with my policies, giving out freebies all day long, or this is going to pay off and so far it’s been paying off.
If there was one thing you had to point to that Ancira does exceptionally well and that contributes most strongly to your success, what would that be?
I’d have to say it’s our company culture where employees feel part of a big family with easy accessibility to management. If there’s an issue for any employee, he or she can walk into the office of any manager and discuss it. This access extends to customers too who can reach management via Facebook, phone, email and our community.
We believe our biggest job is to enhance the quality of people’s lives – our customers and our employees. We provide quality products and service for our customers. We provide a family-oriented work environment for our employees. If an employee is all out of vacation days, but needs to make it to his daughter’s recital, we say: ‘Go ahead – that’s an important event.’
But we’re still very goal oriented – like a family where Mom and Dad push their kids to do their very best, and want the very best for them.
What are Ancira’s long-term goals?
Our primary goal, at the moment, is to be number one in our area in everything. Since we set this as a goal, we were voted the number one minority-owned business in San Antonio. Ancira Buick GMC was the winner of the 2009 Mark of Excellence Award! We received the Circle of Excellence Award from Nissan for sales and customer service in 2010. Ancira won the Eagle Pass Business Journal Big Business of the Year Award for our Eagle Pass Ford Mercury store. This store also got a customer service award from Ford. And, our Kia, Chrysler and Nissan stores are all number one in market in San Antonio for sales in 2011, as of this interview. I could go on and on.
Our next goal will be to expand and acquire new dealerships. I can’t divulge anything about that just yet.
Do you have any advice for other dealerships that want to emulate Ancira’s culture of sharing?
They might try something we have only recently put into practice. It’s a new push for sharing in depth information about the business and getting employees’ buy-in for shared goals. We’ve been conducting this new employee awareness campaign, since last fall: One Team, One Goal.
Every month we publish, on employees’ payroll stubs, a mass of information about what is going on at the dealership. They can also find this information on our “Ask HR” internal web site. With this level of information, employees feel more invested in the business.
We all have pins and hats that say “One Team, One Goal” and people ask us about them everywhere we go. Everyone has a new sense of pride.
We’ve seen increases in ROs, and the amount of referrals that employees and customers are giving us has doubled recently, and all our scores for customer satisfaction are increasing across the board.
We always had strong spirit here, but with this more recent increase in communication, we’re giving everyone a sense of the bigger picture. Employees feel like they are part of something bigger than just the car they are working on that day. That’s the new Ancira spirit.