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F&I Dealer of the Year

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The Winning Formula

October 2010, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

by Gregory Arroyo - Also by this author

F&I Director Tom Wilson (left) said he was convinced to join Riverside Auto Group after Tim Dagenais (right) told him, “We’re a family company. We put more value in family and in people than we do in profits.”
F&I Director Tom Wilson (left) said he was convinced to join Riverside Auto Group after Tim Dagenais (right) told him, “We’re a family company. We put more value in family and in people than we do in profits.”

Spread across four markets in two time zones, Riverside Auto Group might be the best dealership the rest of the country doesn’t know about. At least, that’s how Tom Wilson, the group’s corporate F&I director, describes it. Now that the 44-year-old operation has been named 2010 F&I Dealer of the Year, anonymity is no longer an option.

Wilson joined the Escanaba, Mich.-based group in 2006, after five years directing F&I operations for a high-volume store. Having seen it all in his 18 years in the dealership world, he knew exactly what he was looking for. And as he describes it, his meeting with the owners of Riverside — brothers Matt, Tim and Paul Dagenais — was as much about him interviewing them as it was about them interviewing him.

“I’ve got an obligation to myself to start with, and I have certain moral, ethical and legal boundaries that I don’t cross,” Wilson says. “I told Matt, ‘As long as you’re OK with that and you allow me to do business that way, I’ll show you how to make more money, and we’ll do it straight up and clean.’ Since that matched their philosophy and way of doing business, he agreed.”

What sealed the deal for Wilson was a conversation he had with Tim as they drove around to each of the group’s seven locations. After opening up about his experiences, his highlights and lowlights, Tim turned to Wilson and said: “We’re a family company. We put more value in family and in people than we do in profits.”

“The way this company is structured is, we’re boots-on-the-ground,” Wilson says. “You don’t have to dial 1-800-ivory-tower to talk to the assistant who locates them on the yacht. More often than not, you’ll turn around and bump into the brothers because these guys have worked from the ground up, learning the industry.”

(Left to right): Technician Joe Bellmore — the first technican hired by ‘Papa’ Dagenais — Service Manager John Malnar, Parts and Service Director Dan Berry and Matt Dagenais share some laughs.
(Left to right): Technician Joe Bellmore — the first technican hired by ‘Papa’ Dagenais — Service Manager John Malnar, Parts and Service Director Dan Berry and Matt Dagenais share some laughs.

A Tribute to Dad

Riverside might not be known to the rest of the world, but it’s a household name in the Escanaba community. The brothers are also well known to the 20 Groups, industry associations, vendor advisory boards and auction houses. 

“We’re definitely a ‘show-me’ organization from the top down,” says Matt, who, at the time of the interview, was on his third day of monitoring call volume to his Marquette, Mich., and Marinette, Wis., stores. “We’re that way because of the training we got from Dad.”

“Dad” is Robert “Papa” Dagenais. He was born in Escanaba in 1940 and began building his Dagenais Enterprises in 1966 after the purchase of Riverside Auto Sales. His wife Jeanine was involved from day one, while his boys began their dealership training as soon as they could walk and talk. What their father instilled in them was that no job was beneath them.

The family patriarch’s teachings were put to the test in 2008 when he passed away unexpectedly at the age of 67, leaving the brothers to oversee a business that now counts seven dealerships, a local banking institution, a shopping center, three manufacturer housing communities, a residential subdivision, numerous commercial real-estate holdings, and a community foundation under its banner. As Wilson recalls, Robert’s passing was difficult not just for the family, but for many of the employees as well. Many of them had known him for 25 years.

“He was simply an amazing guy,” Wilson says. “The boys were at a loss when Bobby died, but because of the way the company has its processes in place, we were able to push that auto pilot button for awhile and know that things would continue.”

Wilson says the spirit of Robert Dagenais is alive and well through the three brothers, not just in their expectations for how customers are treated, but in how the company deals with the rest of the industry.

“Matt’s been instrumental in helping a lot of vendors develop their products. In fact, people come in from all over the country to see how our CRM works,” Wilson says. “The fact is, the brothers have done a lot in this industry, but they are low key about it. That’s how their father brought them up.”

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