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From the Top Down

For the better part of three generations, Sayville (N.Y.) Ford succeeded on gut instinct and a great reputation. But surviving the Great Recession would require a new approach, and the store’s new boss was more than willing to accept the challenge.

May 2012, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

by Gregory Arroyo - Also by this author

Sayville (N.Y.) Ford was founded in 1957 by Neil Spare Sr. in 1957. First located on Main St. in Sayville, the store was relocated to Sunrise Highway in 1976. Today, it stands as the largest independent Ford dealership in the state of New York.
Sayville (N.Y.) Ford was founded in 1957 by Neil Spare Sr. in 1957. First located on Main St. in Sayville, the store was relocated to Sunrise Highway in 1976. Today, it stands as the largest independent Ford dealership in the state of New York.

The Great Recession was a painful period for the industry, but it was also a period of reflection for auto retailers, manufacturers and dealer consultants. Legacy processes came under the microscope, and “automation” became a popular catchphrase as dealers turned to technology to help them navigate the downturn. Most dealers who fought the change were lost to history. Sayville Ford, the largest independent Ford dealership in the state of New York, wasn’t one of them.

Melanie Spare-Oswalt, a third-generation dealer, took over the store in 2008. Located in a small hamlet bordering the Great South Bay of Long Island, N.Y., the dealership was founded in 1957 by her grandfather, Neil Spare Sr. Originally located on Main Street, the store moved to its current location on Sunrise Highway in 1976. Last year, approximately 1,600 new vehicles and just south of 500 used vehicles rolled out of the 19,000-square-foot facility — a great year, considering the state Sayville Ford was in four years earlier. 

It was Spare-Oswalt’s father, also named Neil, who handed her the reins. For years, his store was one of the Top 100 dealerships in the nation and Top 10 in the region. But like any good leader, he knew when it was time to pass the torch. The Internet age was taking hold, and changing consumer behaviors were challenging everything he knew.

“He was a progressive dealer, but with the advent of technology and things like that, and the workforce being closer to my age, well …” Spare-Oswalt says. “Bottom line, it was time to automate. It was a struggle to implement the changes we made, but we came through it.”

Frank DiSanti, Spare-Oswalt’s trusted general sales manager, shepherded the dealership’s sales and F&I departments through that period. He had been with the store since 2003 and knew change was needed. But he also knew the store’s biggest hurdle would be its greatest asset: its longtime employees, some of which have been with the store for almost 30 years.

“I knew we were losing money, but we just didn’t have the tools or the help to do what I knew needed to be done,” he says.

It was Ford Motor Co. and its Ford ESP division that would usher in a technological renaissance inside Sayville Ford’s F&I department, which is manned by two longtime employees, Tom Lumley and Joe Corcione. They fought the change initially, even butting heads with the woman who would lead the charge. Today, with their average profit per vehicle retailed up 25 percent and acceptance rates of the store’s Ford Extended Service Plan now north of 50 percent, Lumley and Corcione have seen the light.

Last year, Sayville Ford sold approximately 1,600 new vehicles and just south of 500 used vehicles out of its 19,000-square-foot facility.
Last year, Sayville Ford sold approximately 1,600 new vehicles and just south of 500 used vehicles out of its 19,000-square-foot facility.


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Spare-Oswalt had moved west to get her master’s degree before doing a short stint with Chrysler in its Southwest zone office. She then moved to the insurance business in 1991, and remained there for 17 years. Then her father called to offer her a chance to return to the place she worked at after school and all summer as a teenager.

“I jumped at the chance to come back, which wasn’t a very good year,” she says. “And when I came onboard, he literally said, ‘Here, do what you have to do.’ I think it was kind of a blessing in disguise because I didn’t know how things were always done, so I was very open-minded.”
She maintained that mindset when she enrolled in the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA)’s Dealer Academy, and when she met with her dealership’s department heads, feverishly writing notes into her notepad as she shadowed them. Most of all, she listened and watched. But she figured out pretty quickly why the dealership was struggling.

The downturn was certainly taking its toll, but the dealership’s longstanding reputation kept vehicles moving off the lot. But the deals it was delivering weren’t profitable enough to offset the decrease in sales, forcing the store to cut expenses and its employee count.

The biggest issue, DiSanti recalls, was that customers were being placed in the F&I office once sales took deposit on a vehicle, which meant deliveries were scheduled as the vehicle was being sold. That meant F&I managers weren’t given the opportunity to sell protection products until it was too late to make an effective pitch. The process also left the dealership vulnerable to customers experiencing buyer’s remorse or customers shopping for a better deal online.

The transition to the finance office presented another problem. Some salespeople were good at it, others weren’t. In the F&I office, “hard-adds” like remote-start systems and pinstriping were the hot sellers, not the more profitable F&I products that tie customers to the service department.

But Sayville wasn’t the only store with issues. The area, which has towns so tightly bunched together that community borders are blurred, lost about six Ford stores, as well as a number of other dealerships operating under different marques, including some owned by major dealer groups.

“Recovering from a very tough period, we looked at everything,” Spare-Oswalt says. “I think that helped when Ford came along with this program.”

Comment

  1. 1. Strong Manager [ August 26, 2015 @ 08:59AM ]

    Imagine if that store had a GM that really knew what he was doing! It took her a while, but Melanie is starting to see what an empty suit Frank DiSanti really is. That store needs a new leader at the GM position. A strong aggressive motivated individual who gets up from his perch and helps salespeople sell more cars. One who is well traveled throughout the dealership on a daily basis to watch and protect the owners interest. Someone who really knows what to look for to make the dealership more profitable and strong.

 

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