Nick Waddell is a Toyota guy. He has spent most of his nearly 25-year career with the brand. The infatuation began in 2003, when he went to work as a finance director and later general sales manager for Penske Automotive Group’s Central Florida Toyota. It intensified through stops at Southeast Toyota Finance (div. World Omni Financial) and Toyota franchises owned by the Morgan and Gettel groups, then culminated in his appointment as general manager of Peterson Toyota of Sarasota (Fla.) in April of last year.
Somewhere along the way, he spent five months as GM of a Central Florida Nissan point.
Though not inclined to disparage other brands, “That’s tough for a Toyota guy,” Waddell admits. “Toyota is so organized as a manufacturer. They just make it easier to sell cars.”
Waddell had worked as a finance director or executive for more than 10 years before making the jump to the general sales manager level, where he would set monthly records under the tutelage of some “really good GMs” and set the stage for further advancement.
“They got me ready from an operational standpoint,” he says, crediting that guidance — plus his multifaceted finance background — with leading him where he is today. But as he approaches his one-year anniversary, this Toyota guy is focused firmly on the future, having gone all-in on digital sales and F&I. “I’m not necessarily an early adopter, but having worked with larger organizations, I do consider myself innovative. Penske, Morgan, Gettel — give them credit, because they innovate well, and they will use something if they consider it cutting-edge.”
Toyota of Sarasota was acquired by the Peterson Automotive Collection in 2017. It is the first Toyota franchise and the first Florida store for the Louisville, Ky.-based group and its owner, David Peterson. The group also includes Mercedes-Benz and Mini stores in Louisville and Mercedes-Benz dealerships in Cincinnati and West Chester, Ohio.
Peterson Toyota is one of several new-car dealerships on Sarasota’s Tamiami Trail, a stone’s throw from Little Sarasota Bay, and was averaging about 250 new and used units per month going into the fourth quarter of 2018. Waddell’s goal is 300, and he is determined to use every tool at his disposal to get there. He and his management team considered three digital retail providers, demoed two, and chose AutoFi.
“After looking at the two platforms, I felt theirs was the most user-friendly — both from the dealership’s standpoint and from our customers’ standpoint,” Waddell says. “It’s possible to take a program like this and overthink it.”
The installation began in late August. Today, visitors to Toyota of Sarasota’s website can select a vehicle, connect with a salesperson, request a quote, get a trade-in estimate, submit their credit application, structure their deal, and self-select F&I products. If they can wrap it up remotely, all that’s left to do is sign the paperwork and take delivery. But the pump is primed for the F&I manager, who can greet the customer and take the opportunity to continue the conversation about protection products. (AutoFi claims its dealers’ F&I gross profit per vehicle is $500 higher than NADA averages.)
Waddell notes that only 5% to 12% of customers who start the AutoFi process take it to the end of the funnel; most reach a stopping point and make an appointment. The progress and pricing they reached online is honored onsite. Customers love the feeling of control, Waddell says, and the dealership’s F&I team enjoys the credibility they feel the platform builds into their in-person presentation.
“I believe that, anytime you can have information in front of a customer, on their own computer, the level of credibility goes up when it comes to products,” he adds.
Asked whether the same F&I professionals who are embracing the system now should be worried about their jobs in the future, Waddell is unequivocal.
“No. We are still a people business, and people buy from people they like. I see AutoFi as a process enhancement, not a replacement.”
I Hate That Word
Peterson Toyota of Sarasota’s foray into the digital realm dovetails with Waddell’s long-held views that, to a great degree, the auto retail and finance industry, thriving though it is, has in many ways failed its customers. Prospective buyers who call or email most dealerships for the most basic information — price, incentives, trade-in value — are asked to hang up, drop whatever they’re doing, and visit the store.
And they might, Waddell says, but they might also try calling another dealership first.
“The culture I want to build is one where, if the customer asks for the price, we need to give them the price, and it needs to be the real price. … In today’s market, customers believe they’re going to go into a store and get the runaround — ‘internet price, plus fees.’ My team will give them everything they want to get.”
Waddell advises dealers who are on the fence to consider digital retailing less as a threat that needs to be managed and more like an opportunity to meet customers where they live, work, and shop.
“And if the reply is, ‘That’s not how we do things around here,’ I would say that, if the way you do things was working, you wouldn’t be shopping for something that’s going to work better,” he says. “There are times where a little bit of blind faith in technology can go a long way.”
If a new tool can deliver one more car per month, that’s another chance to sell F&I products, each representing several more chances to bring a customer back for service or their next vehicle. It’s a matter of creating the kind of “measurable difference” that makes a lasting impression in each customer’s mind.
“If a customer buys from Peterson Toyota, and they tell a friend, ‘They treated me really nicely,’ we appreciate that. But it goes in one ear and out the other,” Waddell says. “If they say, ‘They have this thing on their website. I found the car myself, got myself approved, and went down and picked it up,’ that’s a measurable difference.”
That may sound to some like the frequently mentioned concept of “transparency,” Waddell adds, but it’s not.
“The No. 1 term I hate is ‘transparency.’ Why can’t we just say we provide an upfront and honest transaction instead of using made-up words?”