John B. Prince III was a college student in 1963 when his dad died.
Although the young man was on the verge of starting a career in agriculture, his mother encouraged him to finish college and then return home to run the car dealership his father and uncle had established. It wasn’t long after that he decided to strike out on his own, becoming a Chevrolet dealer in Tifton, Ga. He was 23 at the time and has worked in the dealerships ever since. A lot has changed through the years, but the focus of Prince’s business — now a group with seven different franchises in four South Georgia cities — has not.
“I have been very successful with what we do here. It is my place and my headquarters, but we never have a meeting when we don’t discuss how to enhance quality and improve our community,” says Prince. “My children being in the business and wanting to be in the business and understanding the business makes me want to stay in it.”
By every measure, the business is in good hands.
Prince Automotive Group was named 2018 F&I Dealer of the Year by F&I and Showroom magazine at the recent Industry Summit in Orlando, Fla. Prince was selected from a field of seven 2018 F&I Pacesetters, all recognized for their adherence to ethical and compliant F&I operations and dedication to their communities.
Vice President Jay Prince accepted the award, but he says the dealership family — particularly Finance Director and Manager Brad Richardson — are the keys to their ethical and business success.
“A lot of our success should be attributed to Brad,” Jay Prince says. “He is really incredible at what he does.”
Although, like Prince, Richardson considered himself a banker, he decided to make the change 18 years ago when he realized the corporate culture and ever-growing dependence on technology didn’t suit him.
“I didn’t know who my boss was. Everything was just changing,” he says. “I wanted to get back to a family environment.”
That’s just what Richardson found at Prince Automotive Group. Jay Prince’s sister, Heather Stripling, serves as a general manager of Prince Honda. Heather’s husband, John Stripling, is the Chevrolet new-car manager in Tifton. Heidi Massey assists with the advertising and marketing for the company. Prince’s wife, Betty Jean Prince, is the manager of the company’s rental and leasing company.
A Sophisticated Business Geared Toward Families
Prince Automotive Group may be a family company, but it is far from a mom-and-pop organization. The group has six Georgia rooftops with stores in Tifton, Valdosta, Douglas, and Albany. The group’s F&I products provider, American Financial & Automotive Services, nominated the group based on its reputation for excellence.
Ethical relationships are key for the dealership group and that boosts success,” says Jay Prince. “The dealership goal is to run about 60% service contract penetration, but Brad runs about 70%. He is a great salesperson, because what he does is consultative selling. The goal isn’t to sell things. The goal is to add value to the customer. That’s one reason the dealership has less than 10% chargebacks.”
Richardson not only excels at his work, but mentors the other finance managers so they can hit their lofty goals. He relishes the dual role of manager and director.
“I like dealing with the customers, but I also enjoy training,” Richardson says. “I wanted to be part of the management training program at Bank of America. They turned me down, and I wrote the president and asked him why he’d offer the opportunity to someone he didn’t know instead of an employee.”
Richardson was invited to join the pilot management training program and soon received a leadership award. He learned skills that boosted his career and which he still uses.
“We do a lot of in-house training,” he says of the financial team. “But I don’t consider myself their boss. I consider myself a mentor on their team. That makes everyone more comfortable when they realize they work with someone who cares about their success.”
The results speak for themselves: The finance managers, all promoted from within the ranks, and the in-house mentoring and training has boosted the group’s finance penetration to 79% with fewer than 10% chargebacks, says Jay Prince. The group employs about 200 people and sells about 375 new and used vehicles a month.
Jay Prince mirrored his father’s career trajectory and pursued a career as an accountant before joining the dealership.
“It wasn’t my first calling,” says Prince, who joined the dealership at his father’s behest. “I was 27 when I started at the dealership and it was very hard to manage people who were in their 60s. I wanted the dealership to be successful, really more for my dad than for me. Still, I guess in the back of my mind I always thought I’d eventually work in the dealership. I thought my business background would be beneficial. I’ve always liked math and accounting; I understood it. At the time we had the one location. I didn’t know where I’d fit in.”
He soon found that returning to the dealership was a return to a familiar and comfortable way of life.
“We are not a real high-pressure group at all. My dad worked a lot of hours. We had a lot of late-night dinners when I was growing up. I realize that’s part of being the dealer, but working here gave me a greater respect for what he did. He was always there for his children, never missed a sporting event or a dance.”
Jay Prince follows his dad’s path, ensuring that his employees don’t sacrifice their family’s wellbeing for their careers. “I’m not doing it for praise,” he says. “I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s one reason we have so many long-term employees.”
The Right People in the Right Positions
Although Jay Prince is a CPA, he didn’t see himself as an F&I expert, saying Richardson’s background and style make him a better fit.
Perhaps that’s because many members of Richardson’s family were bankers and taught him that if he had confidence and believed in a product, it would sell. But they also taught him to only offer products that would benefit the customer. That made the switch from banking to F&I a natural transition.
“I don’t sell anything I don’t truly believe a customer needs,” he says. “I have customers that I’ve worked with for 18 years, and they often know what they want. But they also know they can trust me.”
Richardson looks for honesty, integrity, and a commitment to value before he promotes someone into the finance manager position.
“I don’t believe in strong-arm sales tactics,” he says. “When I tell people what they need and why they need it, they believe me.”
The auto group shows family values in myriad other ways, too. John B. Prince III says profits are often left in the business so that it can offer needed support to its community and its employees.
When Hurricane Michael roared through the area, the Prince Auto Group leaders paid everyone for the days the dealerships were closed. They also gave each employee $100 and made available an array of supplies. The auto group also hosted a pre-Thanksgiving meal during which no business was discussed, says John B. Prince III.
“There is not a meeting that goes by that we don’t discuss how to add more value,” he says. “These are the little things that make an organization more of a family.”
Nancy Dunham is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Contact her at [email protected].