A day at the office for Charlene Burch-Hein-zig could include a few hours at Anderson Honda in Palo Alto, Calif., then a drive across Silicon Valley to Courtesy Chevrolet in San Jose, followed by a 200-mile flight north to Chico, Calif., to pay a visit to Courtesy Motors Auto Center. All three stores are part of the Anderson Dealership Group, and each lists Burch-Heinzig as its finance director and compliance officer.
It’s a tough sled, but Burch-Heinzig knows the territory. It’s been 11 years since the San Jose native was hired at Anderson Honda, where she started a special finance department before being promoted to finance director three months later. Owner John Anderson eventually put her in charge of F&I operations for all three stores, and business was good.
Then, about three years ago, the Great Recession set in.
“During the recession, customers were coming in with lower credit scores,” Burch-Heinzig says. “We saw a lot of our customers who had lost homes, going through the foreclosure process, or could no longer make their house payments. We saw business customers who were just dropping off trucks because the businesses they had owned for decades were now bankrupt.”
It wasn’t the first economic downturn for Burch-Heinzig, who has been selling cars since 1978. “It was harder than it was in the ’80s, because people weren’t just concerned with higher interest rates,” she says. “They were concerned with losing their homes, jobs, investment income, businesses, etc. … We also saw a lot of customers whose debt-to-income levels were not within bank guidelines. The instant approval programs all went away. So even if the customer’s credit score was over 700, they still had to be within the debt-to-income and payment-to-income guidelines for the banks, both of which had tightened up tremendously.”
The company got leaner, and Anderson’s managers took on additional responsibilities. Having trained several compliance officers from the F&I desk, Burch-Heinzig prepared to take the job on herself.
Can I Help You, Officer?
The downturn reached Burch-Heinzig’s market right on the heels of the passage of AB 68, better known as the California Car Buyer’s Bill of Rights. Passed in July 2006, it established new restrictions on new- and used-car sales, including guidelines aimed at preventing payment packing — a hot topic at the time. The legislation also extended the cooling-off period on used-car purchases to three days and sought to define the word “certified” in CPO sales, among other initiatives.
“Staying ahead of compliance is especially important in California,” Burch-Heinzig says. “No assumptive close, no extra DMV charge, and then the Bill of Rights. But we didn’t wait for the enforcement date. We were compliant the first day out.”
The Anderson team took several additional measures to protect their customers’ personal information, such as locking offices and file cabinets, as well as restricting access to their Websites. Then they revamped their compliance training program.
At the beginning of each year, Burch-Heinzig hands each F&I manager a binder that includes the “Compliance Flow Sheets” she developed to help staffers handle any scenario they might face with a finance customer. “They cover everything from address discrepancies to Social Security number alerts to credit freezes,” she says. “The sheet identifies the problem, then takes you from one step to the next.”
All told, Burch-Heinzig says her programs account for 95 percent of the training her staff receives. She also has invested in Chandler, Ariz.-based Team One Research and Training for the Chico store, and provider reps help with product-specific training at all three stores.
Burch-Heinzig’s own education includes certification via online courses provided by Tustin, Calif.-based Auto Advisory Services, plus hundreds of books’ worth of outside reading. She also attended classes provided by the California Motor Car Dealers Association, Team One, American Honda Financial Services and more.[PAGEBREAK]
Masters of Finance
Despite the extra time on the road and in the air, Burch-Heinzig says working as the finance director for three different stores provides her with a unique perspective on the business.
“You get to work with different teams, different products, different buyers,” she says. “Trust me, there’s a big difference between a Subaru buyer and a Honda buyer.”
Anderson’s Honda buyers have been well served by Honda Financial Services (HFS) — the captive accounts for 65 to 70 percent of the group’s total contracts. Burch-Heinzig says HFS continued to buy deep during the downturn, though they did write fewer leases.
Leasing is notorious among F&I managers as offering little opportunity for product sales, but Burch-Heinzig says the repeat business and brand loyalty it inspires outweigh the negatives. “You can make money on leasing,” she says. “Our sales manager offers the lease option to everybody. The question we’re asking ourselves now is, ‘What products do lease customers want?’”
Burch-Heinzig limits her menu offerings to four products, with an emphasis on factory-backed service contracts. The strategy has paid off: Anderson Honda’s acceptance rates for service contracts, GAP coverage and tire-and-wheel improved by 9.4 percent across the board from 2010 to the first quarter of this year.
As for lease rates, Burch-Heinzig’s team has achieved an 11 percent rate at Anderson Honda, 9 percent at Courtesy Chevrolet, and 20 percent at Courtesy Motors — and she foresees increases at each store in 2011.
Credit unions have a strong presence in Silicon Valley, where several have sprung up to serve the big tech firms headquartered there. Burch-Heinzig and her team have established strong relationships with several, including Provident Credit Union, National 1st, The Golden 1 and KeyPoint. All told, CUs account for 10 to 15 percent of the group’s contracts.
Training and Retraining
Each year begins with a “Kick Off the New Year” meeting, complete with the latest edition of Burch-Heinzig’s “Commitment to Excellence” binder. She lists her four
primary commitments as:
• Raise the dealership’s profit per vehicle retailed,
• Achieve 100 percent compliance, 100 percent of the time,
• Expedite the cash flow and
• Provide exceptional customer service.
Believing there’s no substitute for loyalty and experience, Burch-Heinzig is fiercely devoted to hiring from within. That’s why all but one of her five full-time and three part-time F&I managers were promoted from the sales department.
“No bad habits,” she says. “No, ‘I did that at my last dealership.’ We have no prima donnas here.”
That extends to the director herself. Burch-Heinzig says she’s not one to micromanage or withhold information. She wants her staff to feel empowered to pick up the phone and call lenders, review receivables and check for funding delays. And when the sales desk is overwhelmed, she wants them to step up.
“It could be help with a problem customer or credit app, or just to help get the paperwork together,” Burch-Heinzig says. “My advice is really simple: Give more than you ask for.”