FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — AutoNation Inc. executives put third-party lead providers on notice last week during the group’s investor call to discuss its first-quarter performance, a period in which the group’s F&I operations set a new record for gross profit per vehicle retail (PVR). 

In the first quarter, net income for the nation’s largest dealer group rose from $83 million in the year-ago quarter to $95.1 million, driven by higher gross profits in all four of the company’s business categories, including F&I. Revenue increased 7% to $4.36 billion. But stealing the attention of investors and media on the group’s April 17 call was the reason its president and COO gave for the group’s accelerated digital push.

“First, when we look at the investment of our marketing, resources and how it generates business, the third-party lead providers are our most expensive business,” said Michael Maroone, noting that the group’s websites generate more sales than all of the group’s third-party relationships combined. “And that was one of the reasons a year ago that we looked at it and said, ‘They were increasing prices every year, and they are taking the money we are giving them and building their brand. And if you just play that out over the year, we become more dependent upon them and we have to continually pay higher prices …”

AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson added that traffic on all AutoNation websites was up 20% from a year ago. He added that the company expects to fuel its digital push with more than $100 million over the next several years. Officials, however, were quick to note that he doesn’t view the world as an online and a brick-and-mortar world.

“I think the customer wants one experience with the retailer that’s seamless between their interactions with digital and brick-and-mortar, and, clearly, mobile, where they bring the devices right into the stores,” Maroone explained.

The COO, however, was also quick to note that his comments about third-party leads should not be viewed as cost-savings move. “I am simply saying I’d rather take that money I am spending on third-party providers and spend it on the AutoNation brand and AutoNation sites …,” Maroone said. “And we are not pulling the plug from one day to the next, but, certainly, there will be a conversation that says, ‘Hey, third-party providers, you’re going to have to become more cost-effective to stay in the game …’ And if their costs continue to go up, then there will be a fast migration to AutoNation sites.

“If they become more competitive, then we can work out some of the disconnect issues …”

The biggest disconnect in Maroone’s eyes is the handoff between third-party lead providers and retailers, which he described as “disruptive” and “not very customer friendly.” His vision of future transaction sounded a lot like a TrueCar-like transaction, in which customers visit an AutoNation site, select their vehicle, secure a SmartChoice fair price, reserve their vehicle online by putting down a deposit and are then issued a purchase certificate they take to an AutoNation dealership to pick up their vehicle.

“So we’re looking at the whole spectrum of how we interact with a customer, and we are going to be looking to broaden the brand attributes of AutoNation and move into different business fields with branded products from AutoNation, whether that’s service contracts, warranty contracts.”

In the first quarter, the group’s F&I operations raised its PVR average by $85, or 6%, from a year ago to a record $1,407. Total gross profit increased $14 million, or 9%, from a year ago to $170 million.

“We continue to be extremely pleased with our performance here, and remain focused on the overall customer experience, continuous improvement at store-level execution, and long-term customer retention through value-added products offered through customer financial services,” Maroone said.

The company’s CFO also reported that same-store total gross profit for variable operation increased 6%. On a per-vehicle basis, gross profit increased $117, or 4%, from a year ago to $3,352 per vehicle, driven by solid contributions from used vehicles and customer financial services.

Combined, new and used unit volume was up 3% on a same-store basis, with same-store new vehicle sales volume up 4% from a year ago to 69,700 units. Same-store, new-vehicle revenue increased $131 million, or 6%, from a year ago to $2.4 billion. New-vehicle gross profit grew by $2 million to $144 million, with gross profit per new vehicle retailed increasing $50, or 2%, from a year ago to $2,060.

As for used, same-store revenue was $932 million, up $32 million, or 4%, from a year ago on 51,100 retailed units. Revenue per used vehicle retailed increased by $421, or 2%, from a year ago to $18,225. Retail used-vehicle gross profit increased by $137, or 8%, from a year ago to $1,788.

The company’s Customer Care initiative, which includes updating and expanding the group’s service capabilities, realized a $24 million, or 4%, revenue increase from a year ago, with revenue totaling $661 million for the quarter. Gross profit was up $10 million to $282 million.

The group also ended the quarter with 269 franchises and 228 stores in 15 states, representing 33 manufacturer brands. Officials noted that the group has a solid pipeline of potential acquisitions that are currently being evaluated. “The franchise and store count each increased by one on April 1, when we proudly opened the Audi store in South Orlando (Fla.) for business,” Maroone said. “This manufacturer aware point further strengthens our premium luxury position.”

As for the harsh winter weather in the first quarter, Jackson said it was “really a hibernation on the part of the customer.” But he said business began to pick up in the last 10 days of March, one of the reasons company officials maintained their full-year forecast for unit sales.

“We see the same intensity continue into the month of April, which gives us optimism that, in the second quarter, we can regroup some of the disruption that occurred in the first quarter because of weather,” Jackson said. “This gives us the confidence to confirm our forecast for the full year — industry growth between 3% and 5% and breaking through 16 million units. And I think you’re going to see a strong spring for the industry.”