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Ventura Highway

May 2008, F&I and Showroom - Feature

by Tariq Kamal

At Saturn of Ventura in Ventura, Calif., every day begins the same way for special finance director Carmellina Smith. “In the morning, I need fifteen minutes to just settle, have my coffee and my doughnut and read my horoscope,” she says. “I’ve tried different ways to get started. It didn’t work.”

After that, there’s no telling where the day will take her. As a member of the Leo Bunnin family of General Motors dealerships, Smith is part of a new- and used-car sales force that prides itself on more than just closing deals. General manager Mark R. Berman wants to be sure that each customer receives the respect and fair treatment they deserve. Going the extra mile helped his dealership earn GM’s Standard for Excellence (SFE) distinction.

“Carmen treats each subprime customer like a doctor or a CEO,” Berman says. “They walk away feeling special. She gives the customer something they didn’t think they had coming.”

Making the most of subprime

For her part, Smith says she enjoys working with credit-challenged buyers. “I was doing regular F&I for 22 years,” she says, “and I was so bored! I would sit there, write my deal … I had to get out of there.” When Berman, a longtime associate, asked Smith to help build up special finance sales at Saturn of Ventura, she accepted the challenge. “It feels so good to help people re-establish their credit,” Smith says. “When they first come in, I don’t know if I have a deal. Mark has given me a lot of latitude to get that deal done.”

“We get excited about selling cars,” Berman says. “Right now, nobody’s paying cash. Somebody with an open foreclosure, that’s tough to deal with. But we’re up 70 percent over last year. Why? It’s our location, our new facility, and Carmen.”

“You have to do the interview,” Smith says. “You have to do the work up front. It’s all about completing the application. If they have the down payment, the work history, if they’re saying the right things, maybe we can find a way. If they say they have $500 to put down, I say, ‘When can you get another $500?’”

Sales force

For a high-volume dealership, Saturn of Ventura has preserved the personal touch. Berman’s staff sends the daily sales reports to owner Leo Bunnin by fax. “He still reviews the reports from each location, at home, for three or four hours every day,” Berman says. He attributes the group’s focus on customer and community service to Bunnin’s leadership. “He’s a hands-on guy, a third-generation dealer, and his 600 or so used cars are still his baby.”

Like any other management team, Berman and Smith are constantly on the lookout for new ways to bring in business. “We’re working on our Website,” Smith says. “We’re testing four different lead-generation providers. Mark was willing to spend the money and we’re beginning to see which leads are producing closed deals.”

Matching those leads with the right vehicle helps. That’s partly the responsibility of Smith’s assistant, Ralph Encinas. When a new lead or prospect walks in, Ralph pre-screens them before introducing them to Carmellina. While she and the customer discuss the finer points of their credit history, he and General Sales Manager J.C. Gomez study the inventory, looking for a match. Encinas will then take the customer onto the lot while she prepares their application, and, hopefully, an approval will be waiting when he and the customer return. The tag-team approach works, even when a buyer shows up with a specific car or truck in mind.

“The typical Saturn customer has done their homework,” Smith says. “They’ve educated themselves. They know we offer an excellent product, and they’re willing to spend an hour in the sales department.”

As more and more buyers begin the acquisition process online, the well-informed customer may soon become the standard. No problem, according to Berman.

“Education has not hurt the business,” he says. “We’ll still look at the prior year and try to do better.”

Comment

  1. 1. lonnie albert [ October 13, 2011 @ 08:19AM ]

    great and inspiring article. also found it quite amusing. its obvious this lady loves what she does.

  2. 2. Alex Barrera [ March 20, 2012 @ 02:07PM ]

    This woman had a passion like no other. I had the privlige to work under her fora long time. Unfortunately she passed just yesterday (March 19,2012). She will be missed by all whom had the privlige of working with her.

  3. 3. Katy vizzo [ March 21, 2012 @ 09:07AM ]

    Carmellina smith was the queen of special finance and sub-prime auto financing. I had the pleasure of working next to her until her passing. She has a heart of gold that everyone felt in the car business being a mentor to so many over the years. He customers all love her and she made them know we are here to help them. She dedicated her life to special finance and helping people. During her final years at team Nissan she kept the same routine... With settling in, coffee, and well the donuts stopped. She reminded me everyday interview, interview, interview... That is the key. This passing has been a shock to all of the car business as with this business no matter what locaton or title u may be you become family. Carmen worked very close with all her sub-prime banks and had a relationship with everyone like no other. We will continue to carry on carmellina legacy in the sub-prime lending as she wanted... Rip Carmen we all love you very much. Our thought and prayers are with your family

  4. 4. VERONICA MUNOZ [ March 22, 2012 @ 12:23PM ]

    CARMEN SMITH WAS LIKE A MOTHER TO ME. IVE KNOWN HER SINCE I WAS 17. I KNEW HER WORK WISE AND ON A PERSONAL LEVEL.SHE HAD A DRIVE TO HELP HER CUSTOMERS AND THE BIGGEST HEART. I WAS FLOORED WHEN HEARING OF HER PASSIN. MY LAST MOMENT WITH HER WAS A GREAT ONE TO REMEMBER. IF I COULD ONLY HEAR HER SAY I LOVE YOU ONE LAST TIME........MY FAVORITE TIME WAS WORKING WITH HER AT SATURN OF VENTURA, IT WAS TRUELY A SATURN FAMILY TEAM (HER SON RALPH ENCINAS, MARK BERMAN, CAMI GONZALES, JC GOMEZ, TED ROSAS, TED W, LUIS CARMONA, DEBBIE, REENA RUBIO, ALEX BARRERA AND MYSELF.) CARMEN YOU WILL TRUELY BE MISSED AND WE ALL LOVE YOU WITH ALL OUR HEARTS. OUR PRAYERS AND BLESSINGS ARE WITH UR FAMILY. RIP CARMELLINA E SMITH... I LOVE YOU

 

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