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April 2010, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

by Justina Ly

Deal Jacket
Name: Bill Pearson, co-owner of Finish Line Ford
Location: Peoria, Ill.
Software Providers: DMS – Reynolds; Menu – Ristken; Inventory – vAuto, Reynolds and Liquid Motors; Desking – Reynolds; Lead Generation – Dealer.com, AutoTrader.com, Cars.com and more; CRM – Dealer.com
F&I products: vehicle service contracts, GAP, credit life insurance, roadside hazard protection, tire-and-wheel protection, key replacement

The last 28 months for Bill Pearson have been the busiest period in his 23 years in the business. Lately, he has spent more time standing in airport security lines than on the lots of his Peoria, Ill.-based dealership, traveling two to three days a week visiting auctions to fill what he says is the largest used-vehicle showroom in the Midwest.

“I think … being smacked around by the economy a little bit has made us who we are,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve ever worked as hard … for the same or less [amount of] money.”

Pearson is not alone in his experience or his attitude toward the economy and the auto retail market. With 2009 capping off two consecutive years of dismal sales with the lowest sales figures in three decades, many dealers are emerging from the slump with a more calculated approach to the industry.

Pearson, a co-owner of Finish Line Ford — one of 24 franchises spread throughout Illinois and Iowa under the Green Family Stores name — embodies this new mentality and has helped his dealership succeed because of it. But it wasn’t the new-car market that took Pearson from zero to hero in a little more than two years.

Calculated Move

The control Pearson has over his business wasn’t the case when he and his partner, Jeff Green, first took over the dealership five years ago. The dealership was in bad shape, losing money every day it opened its doors. But in just three years, Pearson got the dealership out of the red. Unfortunately, he did so just as the recession was beginning to take hold. Ford Motor Co. was wrestling with its own financial problems, and the crash of the credit markets was pushing prospective new-car buyers out of the market.

Sales at his dealership began to plummet, forcing Pearson to go back to the drawing board to come up with a plan for survival. “We started implementing different ideas when we realized that we had to change or die,” he said.

What Pearson did was plunge head-first into the used-vehicle market. His initial goal was to sell 100 cars per month, but he exceeded that expectation in just over two short years. Today, Pearson’s used-vehicle business averages 300 units per month. “We thought we could sell 100 used cars and that turned into 150,” he says. “Then around the corner came 220, and now, 300 is a bad month for us.”

A key tool for Pearson was vAuto’s inventory management solution, which helped him create a strategy for managing, pricing, marketing and selling his inventory. Most of all, the software solution helped him take more educated risks — both in pricing and inventory sourcing.

Pearson also cites his work in search engine optimization for his marketing success, adding that partnerships with companies like AutoTrader.com, Cars.com and Dealer.com were crucial during the tough times.

Today, Pearson travels nationwide to find vehicles. He also has three additional buyers who attend auctions and scour the Internet for vehicles. On an average week, Pearson and his team will travel to Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, Nashville, Tenn., Atlanta, Orlando, Fla., and Dallas to find the right vehicles for his lot. In addition, Pearson makes monthly trips to Riverside, Calif., and West Palm Beach, Fla., to buy high-line vehicles for his dealership, which sells everything from Lamborghinis and limousines to $300 and $400 vehicles.

Seventy percent of the dealership’s total inventory is comprised of used vehicles, according to Pearson. Several months ago, when the dealership needed more room to accommodate its used vehicles, he and Green found a 95,000-square-foot indoor showroom, which the dealership occupied in January. Its official grand opening, however, is scheduled for April 15 — tax day.

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