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Believe in Nice

November 2012, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

by Gregory Arroyo - Also by this author

Ralp Larson, who joined Dick Hannah Dealerships in 2007 as its F&I director, accepted The Warranty Group-sponsored F&I Dealer of the Year award during Industry Summit 2012.
Ralp Larson, who joined Dick Hannah Dealerships in 2007 as its F&I director, accepted The Warranty Group-sponsored F&I Dealer of the Year award during Industry Summit 2012.

The co-operator of this year’s F&I Dealer of the Year just wouldn’t bite. Asked about his Vancouver, Wash.-based group’s “Believe in Nice” tagline, Jason Hannah says his 63-year-old operation simply needed a catchy motto. The list of people and organizations his operation has touched says otherwise.

Dick Hannah Dealerships has raised $453,000 for the Children’s Cancer Association, supplied 953 pints of blood to the American Red Cross, donated school supplies to the Washington State School for the Blind, raised money for the region’s Boys & Girls Club and Council for the Homeless, planted more than 72,000 trees (one tree for every vehicle sold) in support of the National Arbor Day Foundation, and the list goes on.

Then there’s Dene Grigar. Her Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver was in need of financial support when she received an e-mail from Dick Hannah Dealerships two years ago. The group had taken its web services in-house and wanted to hire her students. The experience led to Dick Hannah bankrolling Grigar’s mobile media courses, which evolved into Autovation, an exhibit 10 of Grigar’s students built over nine months for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). It uses two apps and augmented reality to highlight advances in automotive technology.

“We would not be where we are today without Jason and his sister Jennifer,” says Grigar, who put Dick Hannah Dealerships’ financial support alone at more than $100,000. “When they invested in us, other people invested in us. But they were first.”

Reminded of all those efforts, Hannah gives some ground. “We brought in these branding agencies to find out who we are, and I guess that’s who we are,” he says.

Dick Hannah Dealerships partnered with students of Washington State University Vancouver on Autovation, an exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
Dick Hannah Dealerships partnered with students of Washington State University Vancouver on Autovation, an exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Three Generations

Dick Hannah Dealerships was founded in 1949 in downtown Vancouver by Bill Hannah, Jason’s grandfather. He was a third partner in the group’s first store, a Studebaker outlet. Nameplates that have come and gone through the years include Edsel, English Ford and American Motors, but there are also plenty of brands that have stuck, including the Honda franchise — the 22nd in the country — that Jason’s father Dick took on in 1974.

In 1993, Dick also was behind the development of the Vancouver Auto Mall, a 26-acre facility that now houses eight franchises. It was around that time that Dick turned to Jason and his sister Jennifer, who were in their 20s at the time, and told them it was time to step up.

“Dick was the dealer principal when I came to the association about 14 years ago, and I’ve seen him groom Jason and Jennifer,” says Vicki Fabré, executive vice president of the Washington State Auto Dealers Association. “They’re very astute dealers, just like their dad. I have the greatest respect for both of them.”

This past May, the association named Dick Hannah Dealerships as its 2012 Dealer of the Year, mainly because of the company’s contributions to the industry and the community. But there was something else that impressed Fabré: When Dick served as the association’s president in 2003, she visited one of his stores for a Hummer rally he invited her to. On one of the walls in the service area was the association’s code of ethics.

“That impressed me, because you know they’re doing everything in their power to adhere to state and federal regulations,” she says. “As most probably know, we have a very active attorney general.”

The attorney general’s office she speaks of is the same one that uncovered and alerted the rest of the country to the practice of payment packing back in the late ’90s. And as the largest auto retail operation in the state of Washington, the Hannahs go to great lengths to keep their stores out of its crosshairs.

“When I told Jason and one of the VPs that we were applying for the F&I Dealer of the Year award, Jason said, ‘I want to make sure they know if we participate in this, it’s about ethics for us,’” says Ralph Larson, the F&I director who oversees all 24 F&I producers for the group’s 13 stores.

Seeking Control

Larson started in the business in 1995, serving as an F&I manager for a large dealer group in Washington before serving as an agent for another six. He had always known about Dick Hannah Dealerships, and was vying for their business in 2007 when he got a call from Jason.

“I was prospecting the Hannah group when they called me up one day and said, “We’re going to make a change with our provider, but we’re not going with you,’” Larson recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, thanks for letting me down.’”

But the Hannah’s weren’t letting him down. Instead, they called to ask if he wanted to take over their F&I operation, as they were ditching the agent model and going direct with SouthwestRe.

“For a long time we’ve struggled with the agency model,” Hannah says. “Our concern was that we had outside people training our staff, and, because of the size of the group, we weren’t able to monitor what was being taught.”

The Hannahs had called on a number of F&I product providers to bid on the business, but not many were willing to play that way. Even the executives at SouthwestRe, who eventually won the business, were hesitant. The only reason they agreed to work with Dick Hannah, says Scott Craigmile, vice president of sales and marketing for SouthwestRe, was because none of its agents had a connection to the group.

“We would never take business away from our agents, but in this case, they came to us,” Craigmile says. “And when they made that decision, they went out and found someone with the experience you’d want for the position.”

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