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F&I Dealer of the Year

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The Vaden Way

Vaden Automotive Group’s F&I operation is on a record-setting pace. But that’s just one of the reasons it earned the magazine’s 2014 F&I Dealer of the Year award.

November 2014, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

by Gregory Arroyo - Also by this author

Growing up as the daughter of a dealer principal, Jane Vaden Thacher never imagined following in her father’s footsteps. But as she stood on the stage inside the Paris Las Vegas’ Champagne Ballroom, waiting to hear if the efforts of her F&I departments had propelled her Savannah, Ga.-based dealer group to the top of the F&I world, memories of her father raced through her mind.

The road to the F&I Dealer of the Year award began exactly 20 years ago this past June for Vaden Automotive Group. That’s when Dan Vaden, who passed away in December 2010 at the age of 83, made one of the biggest sales of his career: He convinced his daughter and son-in-law to break their vow to never work in the car business.

“When I texted all our employees about [the award], several of them who have been with us a long time responded, ‘Your dad is smiling on you from heaven today,’ That kind of gave me the chills,” she says. “Everyone knew what he stood for and what a quality dealer he was. In a small way, I was living up to that.”

Big Shoes to Fill
Thacher’s father was the quintessential car guy. He was the 1992 TIME Quality Dealer of the Year, which the city of Savannah celebrated by naming April 1993 Dan Vaden Month. He was inducted into the Savannah Business Hall of Fame in 2008.

But nothing is more telling of his love for the business than the line etched into his headstone: “Just an old used-car salesman.” Hardworking and blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit, Vaden remained active at his 46-year-old dealer group until he retired in 2008. And by all accounts, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

“There’s that stereotype that second- or third-generation dealers don’t always earn it,” says CEO West Beaver, a 20-year Vaden employee. “That wasn’t the case with Jane. She earned her way, working every department in the dealership.”

The family patriarch was hired out of college as a used-car trainee by Riverside Chevrolet in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1952. Over the next 15 years, he became general manager and part owner. But Vaden knew he was destined for more.

“My dad always wanted his own dealership, so he approached General Motors because he didn’t have the funding to do it himself,” Thacher said. “GM helped him start his dealership, which, at the time, was the second Chevy point in Savannah.” That dealership opened in 1968 on the site of an old dairy farm. Today, that stretch of Abercorn Street is called “Car Row.”

Vaden ran the dealership singlehandedly, and his wife, Jane, whom he referred to as his boss, approved his marketing campaigns. His daughter joined the team as a teenager.

“My dad was big on work ethic, so the summer I turned 13, he decided it was time for me to go to work. And I wasn’t happy,” Thacher recalls. “All my friends were at the pool, and I was operating the switchboard, filing out service ROs and basically doing all the grunt work nobody wanted to do. And I did that every summer until I went off to college. That’s when I decided I wanted a career of my own.”

Vaden became the first Isuzu dealer in the nation in 1980, then opened a Datsun point in 1983, a Suzuki franchise in 1988, a Hyundai franchise in 1991 and Vaden Volkswagen in 1993. He also opened his first store outside of Savannah in 1989, a Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealership located in Brunswick, Ga.  

The more successful Vaden became, the more he gave back. It’s a legacy Thacher continues today. The group supports a host of causes, including the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Wounded Warrior Project, the Humane Society and Ronald McDonald House.

Thacher says her father loved the business. More than anything, he loved talking to people and solving problems. And he was big on customer service. In 1994, he told the Savannah Morning News, “I always wanted to give the customer more than they paid for. In other words, if they spend a dollar with me, I want them to get at least $1.10 in value.”

“I guess I coined the term ‘the Vaden Way,’ which is the way my dad did business,” Thacher says. “That means doing it the right way.”

A Daughter’s Return
Thacher spent most of those expansion years in college at Vanderbilt and the University of Georgia, where she earned a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications. She then landed her first job at Ketchum Inc.’s Atlanta office, where she specialized in consumer products and marketing. But her father kept trying to lure her back to the family business.

“My dad was a very good salesman, and he kept on selling my husband and me on the benefits of coming back and going into the business,” Thacher says. “It took him about two years to get us to make that decision.”

Pictured with Jane Vaden Thacher are CEO West Beaver and Sales Director Jeremy Jimenez. Hired the same year Thacher returned to the dealer group in 1994, Beaver says Thacher’s greatest quality as a leader is her ability to empower her people to drive the business forward.
Pictured with Jane Vaden Thacher are CEO West Beaver and Sales Director Jeremy Jimenez. Hired the same year Thacher returned to the dealer group in 1994, Beaver says Thacher’s greatest quality as a leader is her ability to empower her people to drive the business forward.

Thacher chose to start in F&I. “I felt if I could master that, it would be a great stepping stone for understanding how everything worked,” she says. “But more than anything, I knew it would give me the street credibility I needed in order to eventually take over the business.”

Thacher began her F&I training at the group’s Nissan store. She also attended F&I school at Resource Dealer Group, a subsidiary of The Warranty Group. She then floated from store to store until she decided the group needed somebody to oversee F&I for all stores. So in 1996, she became F&I director and immediately instituted a system for monitoring F&I performance, CSI and contracts in transit (CIT), with every F&I office faxing her reports on every deal handled that day.

“I was tracking everything and I found out pretty quickly that by simply tracking it, you improve it,” Thacher notes. “I didn’t realize how uncommon that was at the time until I was invited to present my process to a group of dealers. I just thought it was the normal way you should conduct business.”

On Her Own
Thacher had big plans for the group’s F&I operations, but her father had even bigger plans for her career. He promoted her to general manager at the original Dan Vaden Chevrolet store in 1997, then executive manager for the group’s Nissan store. The experience did exactly what her father had hoped.

“I wanted a dealership of my own that I didn’t inherit,” Thacher says. “So in 2000, I went to General Motors and petitioned them for another Chevy point, and my dad heartily agreed the market could handle another Chevrolet store.”

The OEM agreed, but on two conditions: The new dealership couldn’t be branded with the Vaden name, and it had to open by mid-2001 — which wouldn’t have been a problem if Thacher wasn’t pregnant with twins and caring for her one-year-old son.

“The twins were born at the end of March ’01, and we opened Coastal Chevrolet that July,” she says. “It was challenging, but it was such a neat experience. I was able to build it from scratch.”

Coastal Chevrolet is now one of eight Vaden stores, which include two Chevrolet-Cadillac stores in Savannah and Brunswick, Ga., a Chevrolet-GMC-Buick store in Beaufort, S.C., three Nissan outlets, and a Volkswagen franchise. They all average about 100 cars per month and have earned several awards, including five-straight Mark of Excellence awards, six straight Nissan Owner’s First Awards, and Buick’s Honor Award for operating one of the Top Three Buick dealerships in South Carolina.

“Jane has done a great job of continuing her father’s legacy in terms of how we treat our employees and customers,” says Beaver, who was hired as CFO the same year Thacher returned to the family business in 1994.

“We came in as the second generation. Our approach to the business was more about accountability,” he adds. “We wanted to be the best, and we established a goal of being No. 1.”

Entering F&I
Even as Thacher’s role evolved and the group added more stores, she never lost her passion for F&I. The reason, she reveals, dates back to the days when she and her husband of 23 years, Peter Thacher, were dating. He bought a car from her father, who insisted he add a service contract.

“As it turned out, we needed a new transmission as we were driving from Atlanta to New Mexico on a camping trip,” she recalls. “It was $3,000, but we had the service contract and it was covered. … I remember thinking, ‘Everybody needs one of these.’”

Comment

  1. 1. Chad Albertson [ November 12, 2014 @ 10:55AM ]

    Great article about the history and commitment to the Vaden Way. Congratulations Jeremy, Toby, West and Jane on this great achievement of F&I dealer of the year. Thank you for taking the ServiceDriveChallenge.com with Revlink Looking forward to assisting your team in reaching for #1 again in 2015.

  2. 2. Peter Thacher [ November 12, 2014 @ 05:35PM ]

    I am biased. But, more than anyone, I know the heart behind the effort. Jane is up before 5am every morning. She has her day planned by 7am. She is a leader by example; hard work, smart work and high ethics. And she has a team that understands - believes this philosophy. They are given the reigns to achieve, create and prosper. Revlink is a perfect example of the entrepreneurial freedom that has benefitted not only the Vaden Automotive Group, but the partners who share our business vision.

  3. 3. Stephen Staton [ November 12, 2014 @ 07:28PM ]

    Jane is the best dp I ever worked for, and West is a brilliant leader. This is undoubtably well deserved! Great job to the whole team.

  4. 4. Robert Ables [ November 13, 2014 @ 05:47AM ]

    Wonderful News to hear, & well deserved. I must say the VADEN organization is the best I've ever operated for and I miss the group often. Wonderful people, products. & process.
    Great Job to all!!

  5. 5. Gus Skarlis [ November 13, 2014 @ 12:52PM ]

    Congratulations.

  6. 6. Jimmy Atkinson [ November 13, 2014 @ 02:58PM ]

    I have had the chance to get to know Jane, West and the Vaden team for quite a few years. The level of excellence they set begins with Jane and West, who hold themselves to the highest standards. We at AUL are fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them and learn from them lessons that help make all of us stronger leaders. Vaden Automotive Group is a wonderful example of all that the automobile business can be offering tremendous opportunities for employees to grow and prosper while meeting the highest customer expectations. Congratulations!!

  7. 7. Conrad Hawkins [ February 26, 2015 @ 02:09PM ]

    Jane, what a great story of you and your dad. I knew Dan from way back in the Nemincht days,
    and he was everything that has been said. When he went to his new store, we became even better friends,as we were sharing ideas and problems that were concerns of all dealers. He was a great person and friend!

  8. 8. Rose McGuire [ June 07, 2017 @ 12:12PM ]

    I would like to talk to Mrs. Vaden Thatcher about my experiences at Vaden Cadillac service and repair.

 

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