Joe St. John will be a fresh face on the stage when he hosts his inaugural “Ask Joe” session on Sept. 9 at Industry Summit. But the director of training for IAS has the car business in his blood and a drive to improve the connection between dealers and their customers.
With degrees in both management information systems and accounting, St. John wasn’t looking to sell cars. But after becoming hooked on the industry both his parents worked in, he excelled at almost every job in the dealership before landing at F&I solutions provider IAS as a passionate industry advocate.
F&I and Showroom caught up with St. John to find out what keeps him motivated to train and where he thinks the industry needs to go to keep car buyers satisfied.
F&I: Several studies have come out this year indicating that the F&I office is falling short in the eyes of car buyers. They don’t like or trust F&I managers, and they don’t see the value in their products. What can we do to change that?
St. John: I believe passionately that the way F&I is being handled in the majority of dealerships isn’t just outdated, it’s antique. This industry needed an update decades ago. That’s the reason why, at IAS, we teach a method that is a drastic break from the standard menu presentation. Our unique system is not only more customer friendly, it drives superior CSI, customer retention and incredible profitability. And we’re relentless in our pursuit of improving our process and teaching method. We won’t ever settle. It will always be getting updated and improved.
But I think the reason most customers hate the F&I experience is because it feels like a giant waste of their time. Think about it: They just finished negotiating for the car and now they’re in a cramped office getting argued with for an hour about products that, according to experts, have incredibly low-perceived value. Of course they hate it, and so do most finance managers who are grinding it out in the modern-day salt mine that is the F&I office. They work, in many cases, extreme hours in highly stressful situations. It blows my mind and breaks my heart every time a finance manager walks away from a job that put him or her in the top 5% of income earners in the country because he or she can’t take it anymore.
So we need to start by actually providing customers with valuable information about what to expect in their ownership. Let’s educate them and stop with the whole smoke and mirrors thing. Let’s stop pressuring them and start helping them make decisions that genuinely improve their ownership experience. If the primary driver of our F&I business is profit, we will never make as much of it as we could otherwise. Customers are buying aspiration vehicles and financing for the longest terms with the biggest carries in our industry’s history. So how about we start taking responsibility for informing them about what they can do to avoid suffering a catastrophic financial loss?
F&I: Both your parents were in this business — your mom was a service writer and your dad was an F&I manager. What was it like growing up in a household of car people?
St. John: Well, it was never dull, that’s for sure. I think the main difference between my family and other families in our neighborhood was it was still important for us to eat dinner together as a family — but it just didn’t happen in our house until 9 or 10 p.m. And when my dad came to my football games, he was suited and booted, and immediately went back to work when they were over.
F&I: Were you planning to follow in your parents’ footsteps?
St. John: Oh no, I was never prepping for a career in this business. I was trying to get the hell out! I just happened to stumble into selling cars at my dad’s dealership. I was 16 and hustling produce to all the salespeople and managers. Then Tony Bunn, the new-car director, asked me if I’d like to start selling cars. It was summer, and after my first paycheck, I was immediately hooked.
Then, in 1998, I started at Jim Norton Toyota in Tulsa, Okla., as a sales consultant. It was so insanely fun. Up to that point, all I’d really ever done was manual labor and hustle; I had no idea that work could be such a great time. I’m so nostalgic for my time selling cars that I still have a box of my business cards from then. But I’ve pretty much done it all. My fixed experience really came through during my tenure as a general manager.
F&I: Do you remember the first car you sold?
St. John: When I was a little kid, I loved playing in the showroom vehicles. I would make believe for hours in those cars. One summer night, when I was five, I was waiting for my dad to finish one of those late night turns — and I was pretending that the car I was in was a submarine. Well, a customer came in and was looking at the car. So I immediately began to tell him about all the cool features, like the fact that if you closed the air vents it could drive underwater. Puzzled, he asked me what I was doing, and I told him, “Waiting on my dad.” I explained that he was the credit manager, and he has customers take out their wallets to see if they have enough money to buy the car. Right about then my dad walked up, and he ended up selling the guy the car I was sitting in. The customer wrote the owner a letter about how great the experience had been with his five-year-old salesman, and I received a $50 bird-dog check, which I spent on super hero pajamas.
So that was my first sale. But, and I can’t believe I’m admitting this, when I first started selling cars — somewhere around early 1999 — they had a factory “ride and drive” with the newest model to make the Toyota lineup. I was so smitten by the training and so confident in talking about this car that I’m pretty sure there was a period when I was the only person in America selling it. I mean, I’d flip people to this car no matter what they were looking at. And it’s so embarrassing because there was nothing cool about this car; it was the Toyota Echo. In fact, they even gave me a disparaging nickname for a while, “Echo Joe.” I’m telling you, I loved that little car. The first F&I product I sold happened to be a Millennium service contract.
F&I: What kind of numbers were you running?
St. John: You know, I was working part time and going to high school, but out of 30 salespeople, I was constantly in the Top 5. But that’s not what really defines my career. What matters most to me is the success of the people who were on my team. The people I hired and trained to sell cars, whose success was life changing. The people who were working manual labor or flipping burgers who came to work for me and climbed into completely different tax brackets — guys like Brian Smith, who was a fry cook at Buffalo Wild Wings when I convinced him to start selling cars. This month, he’s averaging more than $1,800 in F&I profit per retail unit and 72% service-contract penetration. It’s people like him who’ve defined my career.
F&I: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about the car business?
St. John: I’ve been so blessed to have an incredible mentor for almost a decade in Eric “Frenchy” Mélon, senior vice president of dealer development for IAS. He’s given me so much good advice. I was at a low point once, and it felt like I couldn’t do anything right. I called him and said I needed some help. He immediately hopped in his plane, flew to where I was living at the time, took me to lunch and told me, “Sometimes the path we take doesn’t end up where we want to be, but the experience you pick up along the way will navigate your next adventure.” I have that quote framed in my office, as he could not have been more right. Right now, I know I’m exactly where I should be, and I’m grateful to Eric for helping me see that.
F&I: Why do you think this industry has such a difficult time recruiting college graduates?
St. John: It’s not just about hiring college kids. Right now, our industry is struggling to keep anyone. Our turnover for sales is 66%. If you take out highline salespeople, who are paid, on average, 42% more than their nonhighline counterparts, that number jumps to 74%. We’re bleeding, and it’s one of the most pressing issues of our era.
We’re going to have to stop looking at our people as expenses and start looking at them as investments. One factor that sets great dealerships apart from not-so great ones is they are full of great people who are happy. Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, once said, “If the employees come first, then they’re happy … A motivated employee treats the customer well. The customer is happy so they keep coming back, which pleases the shareholders. It’s not one of the enduring mysteries of all time; it is just the way it works.”
We as an industry focus so much on customer satisfaction. You know what drives customer satisfaction? Employee satisfaction. You show me a producer who is working 100-hour weeks, and I’ll show you a producer who is drastically underperforming. Hours at a dealership do not equate to production. Being busy does not equate to production. We have to understand the difference.
F&I: What do you hope to accomplish in your role at IAS?
St. John: My goal is to make sure we are always the most cutting edge and always deliver the highest results. I take seriously my responsibility to our students. It’s about equipping them to perform at their highest level. Our president, Chris Kerby, once shared a quote with me by William Arthur Ward: “A mediocre teacher tells, a good teacher explains, a superior teacher demonstrates, and a great teacher inspires.” I work incredibly hard to be a teacher that inspires.
F&I: Where do you think your passion for this industry comes from?
St. John: Man, the reason I’m so passionate is because I genuinely love the car business. I love the wonderful and flawed people like me who work in it. I love the opportunity it gives people. I love how it’s not about who you know or what your background is; it’s about how you perform.
Everything I have — my education, my upbringing, semesters abroad, summer camp, my mom’s Christmas dinners, my mortgage payment, my daughter’s eventual education — all of it was provided by the automotive retail industry. I’m just hoping to give something back in return.
F&I: What’s your take on the current regulatory environment?
St. John: I think this regulatory environment has come about because of frustration and complacency. I think it all goes back to our mindset. Are we genuinely interested in helping our customers, or are we just trying to scam them out of a buck?
I think the people who aren’t worried about regulations are the ones who are doing things legally, morally and ethically. I’m willing to adapt processes and focus all my efforts on helping F&I managers provide customers with relevant information so they can make decisions based on their financial situations. And I sure as hell don’t believe profit is a dirty word.
F&I: Lastly, what would your advice be to a newbie F&I manager?
St. John: Get help! Don’t just do what the other F&I managers in your department do. Get trained and work your program consistently. Look for ways you can genuinely give an advantage to your customers. Quit trying to sell them so hard, and start trying to help them buy. Stop believing your own BS. And treat salespeople with the upmost respect and celebrate their victories. Make everyone around you better. Be a team player. Show up early. Stay late. Don’t bitch. Don’t get caught up in the drama. Work hard and do the right things when nobody is looking.
Joe St. John will lead a special agent- and F&I manager-only session at Industry Summit 2015. It's scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 9 a.m. For details, visit www.industrysummit.com.