Photos by Cindy Dyer

Photos by Cindy Dyer

Marva Laws well remembers lobbying her general manager to move from retail automotive sales to finance. She was a top car salesperson at Don White’s Car Center in Dundalk, Md., for more than two years at that point — starting the month she took the job — but hungered for a new challenge.

Behind the scenes, she secretly learned the ropes of finance even as she repeatedly grabbed top sales numbers. She was enthusiastic, she was knowledgeable, and she was ready to delve in. And finally, after three requests, the dealership’s general manager agreed to move her from showroom sales to finance — but with a caveat. She’d have to take a pay cut.

“When you say ‘pay cut’ to me, that’s the wrong thing to say to me,” says Laws, now a 24-year retail automotive veteran, as she sits in her orderly, immaculate, glass-enclosed office at Volvo Cars Annapolis (Md.), where she serves as a business manager. “What I later understood is that you don’t take your No. 1 pointmaker off the court in their prime. I’m the player that you give the ball to when you’re down to two seconds and need a three-pointer to win the game. I’m the girl with the highest probability to make it happen, and I’ve got the confidence. Give me the ball!”

She’s That Good

Just after she transferred to Don White’s store in Cockeysville, Md., in 2007, she received a telephone call that changed her life. Paul Spence, then GM of Cook Auto, Aberdeen, Md., contacted Laws and asked her to become Cook’s special finance manager.

“I had no doubt that Marva would be incredible,” says Spence, now principal at SEO Page One/Deal Pro in Hawkins, Texas. “And she was. Marva is the best at what she does. She gets to know the customers, and she sells based on their needs. And she brings in [an array] of customers.”

Laws knew she had the skills, talent and knowledge to work the offered pay plan to top her sales earnings.

“Marva is a smart person,” says Spence. “She knows how to take an opportunity and make the most of it.”

That talent hasn’t faded. Finance report after finance report, from both Volvo and her dealer group, shows Marva with consistent top sales that average $1,500 — on product, not finance — with an average of 75% finance penetration.

“That’s not surprising,” says John Azizi, district manager, JM&A Group, who worked with Laws for years. “She has been at $3,000 PVR and over 250% product penetration. She’s that good.”

Although Volvo Cars Annapolis is no longer with JM&A, Azizi says the company’s thought-tracks and menuselling techniques fit perfectly with Laws’ approach.

“Her personality is what really makes the difference,” he says. “She knows how to work with all personalities, to steer people back if the customer changes the subject. She will never get stuck. She has the personality to stay on top of the entire conversation and process.”

Among Marva Laws’ secrets to F&I success is a 12-step process that begins with a handshake and ends with “the little things that matter.”

Among Marva Laws’ secrets to F&I success is a 12-step process that begins with a handshake and ends with “the little things that matter.”

Learning the Ropes

Laws “didn’t know a four-cylinder from a six-cylinder” when she first decided to apply for an auto sales job. She was working in telemarketing when she gave a co-worker a ride home on three consecutive evenings.

“He had sold cars but was suspended,” says Laws. “He was working with me in telemarketing and saw how well I did. The first night he told me I should try selling cars. The second night, he said, ‘I’m telling you, you’d be great at selling cars.’ After the third night when he told me I should sell cars, I [thought] maybe I’ll give it a try, so I applied.” After three attempts to land a job at an auto dealership — after what she thought were positive interviews — Laws received a call from the hiring manager at Don White’s where she had previously applied.

“I went in on Sept. 9, 1994, and he gave me a stack of books to read,” she says. “In October and November, I was the top salesperson of the month and continued to lead sales until I left 11 years later.” Laws talks about continually giving everything to the auto business.

“You sacrifice a lot in this industry. I am not unique in that,” she says. “Personal relationships. Health care. Family events. In my best year (as a sales consultant) I earned $247,000. I remember I had checks in my nightstand drawer I didn’t have the time or energy to cash, deposit, or spend.”

Talking the Talk

Walk into Laws’ gray-and-white themed office, and you find an oasis of calm. Her desk is clear. A subtle jasmine fragrance fills the air. A George Michael song plays softly in the background.

“I am in control,” she says. “I know what I am doing and how to do it, and it’s a win-win for all concerned.” Her secret to success, which she’s always asked about, is “know your customer. How can you satisfy them when you have not taken the time to find out what it is they want and need?” When wants and needs are addressed, price becomes less of an issue. Her first step in getting to know the customers is to team with the sales consultants. When they bring a deal in, Laws has an array of questions. She wants to know everything from personal preferences (Are they tech-savvy? Do they have kids?) to driving habits. She then makes a point of going to meet the customer in the sales consultant’s office or the showroom.

“You have to build some type of intimacy, so to speak, and trust with your customer in a very, very short time,” she says. “You have to know what they are about. I listen carefully to what they say and what they don’t say, watch body language, and never lose eye contact. This is how I arm myself with knowing who I am dealing with, [and] repeating to them what they’ve said. That’s how you build trust.” Laws makes it a point to always first shake the hand of a female customer before she shakes that of a man. She initially directs her remarks about her role in the transaction and the overall process to both with a balance that sometimes leans toward the female, as an indication of respect.

“You want them to know you don’t just have the title of finance manager or business manager. You are qualified, capable, professional and well-respected in the industry. They are safe with you for that 30- or 45-minute period you’re together,” she says. “For me, being nice, being professional, being all-around polished shows that I am in control.”

Marva Laws joined Volvo Cars Annapolis as business manager after forging a career as a top-performing salesperson and special finance manager.

Marva Laws joined Volvo Cars Annapolis as business manager after forging a career as a top-performing salesperson and special finance manager.

Those that want more proof of Laws’ meticulous approach to finance need only scan the outline she developed for a training class she taught to finance professionals in her auto group. In it she details the 12 steps she takes with every customer, from the handshake introduction to the way she converts cash customers to finance, to strategic menu presentation to funding to “little things that matter.” Looking at July sales figures for the auto group — a slow month, according to Laws — underscores that her system works. With 61% finance penetration for 41 deals, she had a PVR of just under $1,400. That compares with 77% finance penetration on 111 deals with a PVR of just over $1,000 logged by a colleague. A three-month sales breakdown shows that most of the $1,400 average PVR Laws generated were from the all-important back-end gross, though about 75% of her deals during that period were financed.

“It all comes back to knowing your customer,” she says. “Most of our customers are savvy. They know about finance. So you need to sell your products.” Frank Ferrogine, owner of several auto dealerships, including Volvo Cars Annapolis, praised Laws not just for her success rate but her style of selling.

“Our style is very low pressure. Marva knows that style is the key to selling success,” he says. “She strongly believes in the proper interview up front. That makes it easier to sell product, which she does very well. She is truly the best I’ve ever seen.”

He also praised Laws for devising and teaching a training program for his group’s finance managers. “She did a great job. She elevated the entire group,” he says. “People feel they hit these glass ceilings and they can’t do better. She showed there is no glass ceiling, we can sell as much as we want.”

Meeting People on Their Terms

Laws is open about her hardscrabble past that began with a violent and abusive childhood in Harlem. She credits Narcotics Anonymous as playing a big part in saving her life and the reason she has 25 years of sobriety.

“After awakening from the nightmare of a lifestyle I lived due to drugs, I knew there could be a better life if I worked for it,” she says. Her first full year in the car business, she earned just under $60,000 and knew she found her calling. But that didn’t mean she forgot her past. The professionalism and respect she shows customers brought her a loyal following, including from her own LBGTQ community.

“It’s great to have a solid relationship with that community,” says Spence. “They are a very loyal customer base, especially when you’re loyal to them. And Marva is loyal to her customers.”

But Laws doesn’t stop there. She is involved in the LBGTQ community and the pet lovers’ community. She recently opened the retail store Same Gender Love that stocks an array of high-end items, including apparel, housewares and greeting cards that spark conversations and alliances. Laws moved the store from Annapolis to heavily trafficked Charles Street in downtown Baltimore to better draw people to the space that she plans to use to promote area artists, musicians, and authors. The concept has drawn praise and interest from an array of celebrities and business leaders.

“I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve achieved,” she says. “I want to use what I’ve learned and achieved to help people that struggle with having a voice.”

Nancy Dunham is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Contact her at [email protected].