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Industry Getting Its Second Wind

January 2010, F&I and Showroom - Feature

by Gregory Arroyo - Also by this author

I hate to start this month’s editorial on a somber note, but I thought it appropriate to share a piece of sad news. The F&I Forum lost a key member when Greg “Streets” Streeter of Hibbing, Minn., passed away at the age of 40 on Nov. 28. Streets joined the Forum in June 2006 and authored 3,597 posts, a mark that only five or six other members can claim.

I checked his last post on Nov. 14, and man, what a pro. He had just returned to work after battling cancer and he was asking for advice on how to right the ship at his dealership. Here’s a guy who had every excuse to simply crawl into a hole, but the only thing he could think about was getting back in the saddle.

I tell you this story because there’s been some doubt about our recovery. While there are some economists who believe we’re on the right track, there are others who believe the economy could dip back into a recession. My take is, if we believe we’re heading for another recession, then we probably will. As for me, I’m going to do what Mr. Streeter did and focus on what I can control.

Yes, as CNW noted, lenders are still buckling down and are catering more toward prime-credit customers (85.7 percent of new-car sales). But there is plenty of evidence to show that we’re on the right track.

For instance, DealerTrack announced in December that the number of active finance sources connected to their lender network reached 800.

“We believe that this is an indication that the U.S. automotive market is improving,” said Mark O’Neil, the company’s chief executive.

October also marked the first time in two years that vehicle sales were solidly in the red. Even better, November saw the seasonally adjusted annual rate continue to climb from 10.5 million in October to 10.9 million.

Then there was the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book report. Released on Dec. 2, it revealed that eight of the 12 federal regions surveyed indicated some pickup in activity or improvement in conditions. Even more important, consumer spending was reported to have picked up moderately for both merchandise and vehicles, with a number of districts noting relatively robust sales of used cars and trucks.

As another sign of our progress, the National Association of Credit Management said its November Credit Managers Index continued to indicate expansion after breaking into expansion territory in October for the first time in more than a year.

What I’m getting at here is there is opportunity to be had for those who refuse to stick their heads in the sand. Take Julie Horns. She was an F&I manager at Continental Chrysler Jeep in Countryside, Ill., when her dealership found itself on the OEM’s 40-page hit list earlier this year. You may recall that she shared her story with the magazine in the June issue. Rather than crawl into the proverbial hole, her dealership kept fighting and now operates as a used-car dealership.

It wasn’t easy. The owners of the renamed Continental Auto Center had to lobby civic leaders to amend an ordinance against allowing independent dealerships to operate in Countryside. They also had to rebuild their lender network, as most of their longtime partners bailed once the dealership lost its franchise tag. 

They prevailed, and according to her latest Forum posts, she and Continental are doing just fine. In fact, they had a big Black Friday weekend thanks in part to some help from an unexpected source.

See, a few months after her dealership went independent, a couple of reps from the local credit union dropped by. Julie said they didn’t seem to care that Continental had lost its franchise tag; they were just looking for a solid business partner. They signed the store up immediately, but they didn’t stop there.

Julie and the credit union decided to partner up for a Thanksgiving weekend, members-only sale at the dealership. The CU took on a third of the cost for a direct mail campaign and plastered banners and posters promoting the sale in both of its branches. It also posted links to Continental on its Website and paid to change its telephone hold message into a full-fledged commercial for the sale. When the big day came, they sent a buyer to the dealership to greet customers and review applications on the spot.

“They have done more for me in the past three months than I’ve ever seen a bank do in 20 years,” said Julie. “They get it, and they are more than willing to become a full-fledged partner.”

See, there are still opportunities for those who have hope. Thanks, Streets, for reminding me of that.

Please send your questions or comments to Executive Editor Gregory Arroyo at gregory.arroyo@bobit.com.

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