On the surface, Steve Ewing appears to have it made. In the business since 1982 and a dealer since 1989, Ewing owns and operates Wade Ford of Smyrna, Ga., just north of Atlanta, as well as a sizeable fleet facility and “Motor Trend Certified Delivered by Wade Ford,” a used-car superstore that sits across the street from the main showroom.
But Ewing is restless. He takes nothing for granted. The Motor Trend store is the product of a program that includes certification as well as a six-month, 7,500-mile warranty. In fact, he beta-tested the program several years ago. He says he was willing to experiment because he realized the importance of maximizing used-vehicle profits and he anticipated improved service retention.
The opportunity to pilot Motor Trend Certified was made possible by Ewing’s relationship with Atlanta-based EasyCare. He had connected with the company upon his arrival in Smyrna, when he was looking for ways to improve Wade Ford’s numbers across the board while settling in as owner and president.
“We formed a relationship early on, and because of the proximity of EasyCare and Wade Ford, I suggested we start a laboratory here where we could try different products and services and see how they work,” Ewing says.
The partners’ latest experiment is a customer- and dealer-facing mobile app suite. Ewing sees it as an opportunity to get in on the connected-vehicle craze while improving the sales experience and giving the F&I department a compelling new offering.
From Jersey to Georgia
A New Jersey native, Ewing, 58, began his automotive career in 1982 at Apple Chevrolet in Fair Lawn. He was “immediately hooked” and quickly advanced from salesperson to sales manager and then general manager. He made known his intentions to make a career of auto retail, and thanks to Ford’s dealer development program, he had the opportunity to purchase Crossroads Ford, located 16 miles south in East Orange, N.J., in 1989.
It was an inner-city dealership, the economy wasn’t great, and it didn’t work out. After three years, he sold the point back to Ford, took a corporate-level job, and waited for his next opportunity.
“That was a very difficult market. The number of customers who qualified for retail financing was limited,” Ewing says. “When I went to Pennsylvania, it was a completely different mindset.”
Champion Fordland opened in Scranton, Pa., in 1993. Bolstered by a healthy market of blue-collar union workers, Ewing was able to pay off Ford’s interest in the store within four years. In 1998, he opened Champion Nissan in Scranton. A year later, he added Champion Lincoln Mercury in Hazleton, an hour south.
In 2002, the opportunity to purchase Wade Ford arose. With the blessing of his wife, Terri, and their two children, he sold the Champion stores and prepared to move south. He says he knew the big-market, big-box, been-there-since-1933 Wade Ford was a step up, and he was determined to make it work.
“I went in trusting the processes, but the reality was I bought a very good company with dedicated and extremely competent employees. I had to adapt my management style to fit in with the team, and I was able to do that,” Ewing says. “And I’m a big team guy. I love sports. It’s really important to me that my employees understand we are all on a team, and everyone has to do their job.”
As reported by F&I and Showroom’s Gregory Arroyo, last year’s Consumer Electronics Show was a hotbed of new in-vehicle technology (“The Connected-Car Opportunity,” August 2017, Page 16). Among the representative companies were brands familiar to dealers, including Spireon and CalAmp/LoJack.
But vehicle manufacturers continue to push for greater connectivity with their customers. As Arroyo reported, General Motors’ OnStar brand now boasts 12 million users globally (about half of which are fleet customers), and every major brand but Honda offers a factory-branded, cellular-based telematics platform.
Those factories face stiff competition, and Steve Ewing knows it. He was an early adopter of SAVY, a dealer-branded mobile app suite that provides comprehensive inventory and lot management and connects their customers to the dealership — and to their vehicles — through a device that plugs into the OBD-II port or is installed behind the dash. Sold customers get a full demo of the “Wade Ford” app, which they can use to set sales and service appointments, locate their vehicle, set teen driver alerts, and run a virtual diagnostic check, among other features.
SAVY is now preloaded on every vehicle in Wade Ford’s inventory. Customers can pay to keep it for five years, and Wade Ford makes $200 per copy. They started offering it on Jan. 19 and achieved 55% penetration in the first 30 days. Their goal is a consistent penetration rate of 70%.
“From the time they purchase the car, they have a connection,” Ewing says, and that connection is valuable. “Every day, a customer can open up their app and look at the different pieces — the fuel, their battery level, run a health check on their car.”
Of no less interest to Ewing are SAVY’s dealer-facing tools. He and his managers can get a snapshot of Wade’s inventory, look up vehicles by stock number or VIN to locate them, read details, check (and receive alerts for) low fuel or battery, and more. They are also using SAVY to create and broadcast service specials, helping them maintain an edge over competing dealerships and shops.
EasyCare’s chairman and CEO and Ewing’s frequent collaborator, Larry Dorfman, said SAVY was developed in part to streamline and improve the sales process and benefit F&I. He wants to connect the online and in-store experiences, allowing dealers to reward and capitalize on the enthusiasm customers bring to the showroom.
“They come in excited because they think they know what car they want,” Dorfman says. “It’s the zero moment of truth. What happens if their first interaction is with a person who hasn’t got a clue?”
Dorfman says he spent several months asking dealers how long it takes before their newly arrived customers see the car they picked out online. The average was about 20 minutes. The longest reported wait was two hours.
“We can cut an hour out of the process. Half the time is spent negotiating the deal. The other half is finding the damn car.”
Dorfman says he is grateful for Ewing’s partnership and proximity. He describes him as “the first to raise his hand” when he is offered the chance to try anything that makes sense for his dealership or his customers. For Ewing, SAVY is only one in a string of experiments to drive greater used-car and service revenue.
“In 2013 and 2014, we went through a major renovation on the sales side and a minor renovation for service,” he says, and a service expansion is next. “We are in the design phase of what would be an 18-bay expansion. Right now, internally, we have 26.”
After racking up nearly 30 years as a dealer, and with 85 years of Wade Ford history behind him, Ewing says he has been in the business he loves long enough to make an educated guess at the future: Sales will go up and down, service revenue will smooth out the waves, and staying connected with customers will be paramount.
“When the economy gets tighter, people will hold onto their cars longer and make sure they’re maintained. We have to be user-friendly and cost-competitive. Adding the app and constantly reviewing service pricing between the two gives us an advantage. We can smother our customers with as little or as much service as they would like.”