The year was 1976. Dawson Grimsley, 19 years old at the time, had just started as a lot attendant at Wichita, Kan.-based Davis-Moore Automotive when the group’s dealer at the time, the late Grant Davis, gave him words of advice he’d live by for the next 40 years.
“He said, ‘I want to make something perfectly clear: If your word’s no good, you’re no good,’” Grimsley, now president of Davis-Moore Automotive, recalls.
Those words may sound like some folksy motto befitting this Midwest operation, but everyone from the lot attendants to the group’s management team knows it’s more than that. And as Grimsley’s soon-to-be successor, his stepson and group vice president, Sean Tarbell, says, it’s not uncommon for customers to get free window tinting, a free tank of gas, or even a $400 CD player if Grimsley discovers a customer didn’t get what was promised.
“That’s his way of encouraging the guys to make sure they do it right the first time, because it’s going to cost your department money, which in turn, costs you money,” Tarbell says.
There were other words of advice Grimsley took to heart, such as Davis’ belief that Davis-Moore should always hire from within. Remarkably, up to half of the group’s current employees were around when Davis passed away 15 years ago. It was Grimsley who Davis tapped as his successor. He wouldn’t do it alone, however, as Davis also made Tarbell and Stuart Ray, the former dealer’s longtime financial advisor, co-owners of the 60-year-old operation.
“Grant definitely had a succession plan in place,” says Ray, who served as Davis’ accountant through the ’80s before officially joining the group as CFO in 1992.
Davis is remembered as always being upbeat, fair, and in the showroom greeting customers. And he always knew exactly how many vehicles his stores had sold. “What sticks out to me about him is — because he always preached it — no matter what, if you told somebody you were going to do it, do it,” Tarbell says. “Nothing else mattered.”
Davis-Moore Automotive is F&I and Showroom’s 2015 F&I Dealer of the Year, an honor recognizing operations that demonstrate the ability to balance performance with a customer-first approach. It also recognizes operations committed to regulatory compliance and the communities they serve.
“We’ve been a partner of Davis-Moore for over three decades, and those guys expect a hell of a lot from us,” said John Pappanastos, president and CEO of the group’s F&I product provider, EFG Companies. “But they do what they say they’re going to do, both with us and their customers. They’re focused on doing business the right way, which is why they don’t worry about waking up and finding themselves on the front page of the Wichita paper.”
Warming Up the Torch
Davis-Moore Automotive operates five franchised dealerships — Davis-Moore Chevrolet, Davis-Moore Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, Davis-Moore Mazda, Davis-Moore Lincoln, and Davis-Moore Fiat — that line Kellogg Boulevard, the main thoroughfare running straight through the heart of Wichita, a blue-collar town with half a million residents. But it’s also a wealthy, entrepreneurial city where Pizza Hut was founded, Koch Industries is based, and where 43% of all general aviation airplanes in the United States are made. According to Equifax, the average credit score there is 708.
“Wichita is a great town,” Tarbell says. “It’s what you’d think of the Midwest. People are friendly, nice, and they expect to be taken care of.”
Tarbell was destined for the car business. As a child, he hung on Grimsley’s every word as he recapped his day at the dinner table, and begged him every Saturday to let him tag along to the dealership. Tarbell recalls the day Grimsley finally gave in. He was 12 years old. “He told me, ‘Yeah, you can, but I’m going to get you lined up with one of the lot attendants, and they’re going to work your butt off.’”
Tarbell loved every second. It wasn’t just the cars; it was seeing customers arrive in beat-up cars and hearing the salesperson call out to him hours later to get their new vehicle prepped. “I felt like I was part of the transaction,” he says. “And I took a lot of pride in my work.”
The bite of the car business was so deep, in fact, that Tarbell pulled himself out of Wichita State University after his freshman year. He was majoring in business administration, was on a partial academic scholarship and had decent grades. But he had also started selling cars by the time he entered school in 1989.
“My mom didn’t necessarily think that was the right path, but I think she’s OK with how it worked out,” Tarbell says.
In his corner at the time was Davis. “I remember it well. He needed a ride out to the Infiniti store he had at the time, and he asked me to give him a ride out there,” Tarbell recalls. “On the way, he said, ‘Dawson told me you’re not going back to college.’ I told him that was correct. He said, ‘Well, son, I’ll tell you, you’re going to get all the education you need right here at Davis-Moore University.’”
Tarbell spent two years in finance before becoming the used-car manager at Davis-Moore Mazda and then Davis-Moore Lincoln. In 1996, he was promoted to new-car manager at Davis-Moore Nissan. “He basically grew up in the car business exactly like I did,” Grimsley says. “He didn’t get any preferential treatment. He did all the things people don’t like to do.”
John Stephens, senior vice president of dealer services for EFG Companies, has worked with Davis-Moore for years. He says Tarbell is no “Ph.D.” (parents had a dealership). “This is really Sean investing a lot of time in the stores and really being engaged with each one. And I think he is the correct successor.”
Tarbell, whose main duties are overseeing the group’s new-vehicle and F&I operations, says his time in F&I taught him a valuable lesson about motivating behaviors without the authority to fire or discipline salespeople. It’s what made him a better sales manager, he says.
“It’s not like I could go out and chew somebody’s butt off, so I had to learn how to get the behaviors I wanted,” Tarbell says. “And that’s why, when I became a sales manager, I never ruled with an iron fist.”
It also gave him an appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between sales and F&I. It’s why the group demands 100% turnover to F&I, even when customers say they’ve secured their own financing or are paying cash. It’s also why the group has finance directors parked in the sale office.
“They may be the silent person in the corner, but they’re aware, and there might come a time while we’re quoting payments on the floor that they get involved,” the group’s platform F&I director, Dena Moore, says, adding that F&I is the only department that can print off the retail purchase agreement a customer’s bank requires.
Moore, no relation to Bob Moore, the group’s founder and Davis’ stepbrother, joined the group in 2002 after graduating from college with a degree in finance. She spent a year in sales before moving to F&I in 2003. “My family is in the car business, so I knew all along that this is what I wanted to do,” she says.
Moore says the group’s F&I process starts with the credit application, with producers interviewing customers to ensure the information they provide is correct. Once the customer steps into the F&I office, producers will first get a few forms signed — documents, she says, that tee up the products her 11 producers are going to present.
“So if we’re having the agreement for insurance signed, we’re doing a soft plug for GAP,” she explains, noting that the credit application also sets up the service-contract sale by requiring that customers provide the number of miles they drive per year.
“So when the customer comes in, we get through some preliminary forms, hit on some stuff about the products we’re getting ready to offer, and then we go into what the factory warranty provides — or doesn’t, if it’s a used car. And then we piggyback right off of that and start going into our service contracts and our menu.”
That process, which takes between 30 and 45 minutes, has her team averaging $1,230 in F&I profit per copy for new and $1,017 for used. And the group only offers three products: service contracts, which penetrate at a 55% clip, GAP, and a combo appearance product. The latter two penetrate at a rate of 47% and 38%, respectively.
“My theory, and the owners’ theory, is we will never offer product that we would not personally buy,” Moore says.
Moore, 36, spends the first part of her day working at the group’s corporate office. By the afternoon, she’s at the stores working with “her guys,” as she calls them. Those guys have 133 years of combined F&I experience, with two of Moore’s store directors having been with the group since the early ’90s.
The tightness of the team is one of the reasons the video training Davis-Moore employs works so well. It started about seven years ago, with the group equipping each F&I office with IAS’s SmartEye video-recording system. The process revolves around what Moore calls the Eagle Award, an honor that goes to the top producer of the month.
“The top guy gets a bonus, and everybody else falls in line where they fall,” Moore explains. “But if you’re at the lowest two, you get a peer evaluation done on you.”
What that involves is a form each producer completes while watching live footage of the bottom-two producers running through their process. “But it’s not a hostile thing,” Moore stresses. “It’s all positive criticism. All these guys are friends.”
EFG Companies also has reps at the stores 10 days out of the month to answer product questions and to provide one-on-one training. Once a year, EFG Companies will conduct a full week of all-day clinics on the laws and regulations, as well as training on closing and objection-handling techniques.
“They’re always open to new ideas, and we never have to ask twice when we say we’d like to come in,” says EFG Companies’ Stephens.
But there is a running joke between the two business partners. Last year, EFG mandated all of its field reps to become certified with the Association of Finance & Insurance Professionals, a requirement Davis-Moore instituted about seven years ago for its F&I team. By next spring, Moore says two-thirds of her team will be AFIP-Master certified.
“It’s an ongoing joke around here where they’re trying to get certified to give the AFIP test, but we’re more certified than they are,” Moore says.
Consistency is the name of the game when it comes to compliance. The group employs a deal checklist that ensures all steps are followed. If a sales manager, F&I director, or member of the accounting team catches something missing — like a signature on a menu — the deal gets sent back.
“We really focus on doing it right the first time,” says Ray, who also oversees fixed operations. “We have a really good accounting staff. Our controller has been with us for 35 years, and our office manager has been with us for 20. But it’s black and white to them, and I really think what really makes a big difference is everybody supports that.”
Then there’s Sean Hudspeth, Davis-Moore’s 13-year human resources director and compliance officer. According to EFG’s Stephens, he’s Johnny on the spot when it comes to new regulatory threats. “We like to believe we’re on the cutting edge — out in front of any directives coming out of the [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau] or the Department of Justice,” Stephens says. “But when we speak with Sean, he’s saying, ‘I’ve already put together a paper we want to pass on to all of management. Can you have somebody take a look at it?’”
The group even includes a CSI component in F&I manager pay plans. They get paid off a pool and whatever percent of region their CSI score is. So if their score is 95% of region, they get 95% of their pay. As for video-recording transactions, Ray says he can count on one hand the number of times they’ve had to go to the video.
“It’s not a critical tool for us from a liability standpoint,” he says.
This past August, Davis-Moore Automotive earned the Better Business Bureau’s 2015 Integrity Award for its region, an honor recognizing companies that demonstrate leadership in the community and a commitment to ethical business practices. Even though the group is no stranger to accolades, Tarbell admits the BBB award caught Grimsley by surprise.
“I just remember [Dawson] saying, ‘We might be the only car dealer ever to win a Better Business award,’” Tarbell says.
The group has also made the Wichita Business Journal’s “Best Places to Work” list, received the People Saving People Award from the Federal Highway Administration, and earned 14 Reader’s Choice awards from the Wichita Eagle. Grimsley was also the 2011 Kansas Time Dealer of the Year, while Ray made a Top CFOs list in 2013.
Then there are the group’s community service awards, including the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ 2012 Outstanding Corporation award, the United Way’s 2011 and 2013 Spirit of Caring awards, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s 2013 Business of the Year award. In fact, the group supports more than 30 causes.
“Dawson has set the tone that we need to be involved in the community, both financially and with our time,” says Ray, who spends his weekends volunteering at the Humane Society and sits on the board of several organizations, including the Wichita Children’s Home. Years ago, the Wichita Auto Dealers Association staged an annual car show to help raise money for the home. But when the group began shifting its efforts to other organizations, Davis-Moore stepped up and took over — with financial support from EFG.
“The event has these auctions and Dawson knows how much we value our partnership,” EFG’s Stephens says. “Well, I’m not even raising my hands, but supposedly I’m bidding on whatever’s up there on stage. At the end of the day, I’m giving them my credit card to pay for whatever I bought.”
It was Grimsley who also came up with an advertising strategy built around public service announcements. It started in 1997, when the group came up with a child safety seat check at its Dodge store. Twenty-six of the 27 seats checked failed the highway patrolman’s inspection.
“People ask me all the time why I do this,” says Grimsley, who also stars in a series of PSAs dedicated to such topics as seatbelt use and texting while driving. “And I say, ‘Hey, it’s a simple message that makes a difference.’ But it’s a double-edged sword because everybody knows who I am. They call me the safety guy.”
Into the Sunset
Grimsley doesn’t hesitate when asked if he’s sticking with a promise he made to himself years ago, that he’d retire when he turned 60. And even though that day is coming up next September, he knows his 60-year-old dealer group is in good hands.
“Believe me, I’ve seen a lot of ups and down and all of the things that happen in the car business,” he says. “So it’s time. It’s time for me to step away and let the new generation do their thing.”
When Grimsley steps away, the group will be losing its outgoing leader and chief marketer. Tarbell, who Ray describes as more reserved, has been stepping into the spotlight more and more. But where his strengths really lie is in working with manufacturers the group represents. And as Ray notes, Grimsley was never one to make decisions in a vacuum.
“We’ll have to fill in the gaps with Dawson’s departure, but I’m confident we can,” Ray says.
Tarbell is equally as confident. “Rarely does Dawson just say, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this.’ And because of that, I don’t feel the pressure that, ‘Oh gosh, am I going to make the right decision?’” Tarbell adds. “I think Stuart and I will continue to just discuss everything, and we’ll collectively come up with the best answer.”
Asked if his group is prepared for the Digital Age, Grimsley says his team still needs to take care of the community of Wichita. He then talks about how he spends every morning greeting his service customers and offering to drive them to work.
“Too many people worry about those [web] numbers,” he says. “And that might have something to do with why it’s time for me to move on down the road, because I came from the generation that, by God, you ran newspaper ads, you had customers come back and buy cars from you over and over again. And if you didn’t take care of them, they’d go buy elsewhere.”
Maybe Grimsley isn’t so out of touch after all.