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Down But Not Out

After nearly 20 years of steady growth, Easterns Automotive founder Robert Bassam almost lost it all. Learn how old friends and a new business model put his operation back on track.

September 2011, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

by Tariq Kamal

Robert Bassam credits his senior staff, his partnership with lenders such as Capital One Auto Finance and a focus on Internet sales as the main reasons Easterns Automotive Group is still around today.
Robert Bassam credits his senior staff, his partnership with lenders such as Capital One Auto Finance and a focus on Internet sales as the main reasons Easterns Automotive Group is still around today.

Robert Bassam doesn’t pretend to know everything about the car business. The plain-spoken founder and owner of Easterns Automotive Group says he was as surprised as any other dealer by the 2008 downturn. As the bottom fell out of the economy, he watched as the used-car empire he spent nearly two decades building began to crumble around him.

“That’s the only time I was ever truly scared,” Bassam says now. “I realized I might lose everything I had worked for.”

After being forced to close 11 of 16 locations and let go of hundreds of loyal employees, the group is profitable again. But getting leaner is only part of the story. Bassam credits his senior staff, his partnership with lenders such as Capital One Auto Finance and a focus on Internet sales as the main reasons Easterns is still around today.

Self-Made Dealer

Bassam moved to the nation’s capital from his hometown of Miami in the mid-1980s. He was working as a waiter when he got into the car business “accidentally,” reselling a car his father bought off the street on a whim.

After selling two more vehicles he purchased from a Salvation Army sale, Bassam was hooked. He set up shop in Arlington, Va., and spent the next six years building a wholesale operation. As his volume increased, he began expanding into larger lots, inadvertently attracting car shoppers.

“We just needed a place to store cars,” Bassam says, “but retail customers continued to roll in.” The would-be buyers he spoke with were looking for quality used cars, and many had been turned down by area dealerships.

For Bassam, the trend was too obvious to ignore. “We realized very quickly that the subprime market was underserved and mistreated,” he says.

Bassam founded Easterns Automotive Group in 1991 and the business grew quickly. He was soon booking 100 deals a month with Credit Acceptance and would expand his lender spread to include AmeriCredit Corp. and the now-defunct National Auto Credit. In 2003, he signed up with Capital One Auto Finance, which would become the group’s top finance source.

Robert Bassam’s cousin, Eiman Bassam, joined the operation in 2004. His experience at the now-defunct Auto-Mall Online provided him with a nice template for what would become Easterns.com.
Robert Bassam’s cousin, Eiman Bassam, joined the operation in 2004. His experience at the now-defunct Auto-Mall Online provided him with a nice template for what would become Easterns.com.

The Widening ’Net

The business was motoring along when Bassam’s cousin, Eiman Bassam, joined the operation in 2004. He had spent several years working up the ranks at the now-defunct Auto-Mall Online, an e-commerce site that was based in the Washington, D.C., area before it filed for bankruptcy in 2005.

Eiman’s experience there provided him with a nice template for what would become Easterns.com. “A lot has changed since then,” he says. “In 2004, Easterns had a Website — not as strong as it is now, but it was a presence.”

At its height, AutoMall Online — known more for its mall kiosks than its e-commerce strategy — marketed inventories for about 19,000 dealerships nationwide. Unfortunately, the dot-com investment bubble popped before it was ready to make its initial public offering. The most important lesson Eiman learned there was the importance of transparency when marketing online. That’s why Easterns was quick to partner with Carfax, and why each vehicle listed on its site boasts a link to a vehicle history report and a minimum of 20 photos.

“Our goal was to answer all questions before they come in,” he says. “‘Can we see the Carfax? Is it a one-owner vehicle? Can you move it to another location?’ And we found that people were willing to drive as long as one or two hours to get the vehicle they wanted.”

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