Lori Church’s introduction to automotive retail was inauspicious at best. Having grown up as the daughter of a preacher in Southwest Arkansas, attended a small, private, Christian college in Nebraska, and worked first as a junior high and high school English teacher, then as a corporate trainer, her ethics and morality had rarely been tested. In need of work, she successfully applied to an entry-level sales job at a Denver-area dealership she had once patronized. For the first two days, she was sure she’d found her new home.
“On the third day, I learned they were spiffing with lines of coke. I was shocked, flabbergasted,” she says. “I had to do a reassessment that weekend. I decided to give it some time. So I started selling cars.”
Nearly 20 years later, her choice would appear to have paid off. She succeeded in sales, graduated to F&I, and in 2011, enrolled at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, changing employers several times along the way. Shortly before graduation, she joined John Elway Dealerships, where she now serves as corporate compliance and training director for all three of the group’s Colorado stores.
Church’s boss, Todd Maul, co-owns those businesses with Elway, the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback turned general manager of the Denver Broncos. Maul recruited Church personally. He says her background and rare combination of skills makes her the ideal utility player, serving as the dealerships’ first line of legal defense while driving F&I revenue skyward.
“Lori is one in a million,” Maul says. “But you don’t have to have a law degree to do this. You have to have a non-negotiable desire to do things the right way, 100% of the time. That’s my definition of integrity: Do the right thing, even when no one’s looking. That’s Lori.”
Adapt and Survive
Church taught school for three years before falling out with her administration (“You don’t know how to pick battles when you’re younger,” she admits) and seeking a new career path. She started as a customer service rep at a cellphone company. About a year in, management asked for volunteers to train fellow employees on a new software platform. For her first training session, she was joined by a senior supervisor.
“I presented to my group, and she was scribbling furiously the whole time. I was thinking, ‘I’m going to get an earful after this.’” Instead, she learned, the supervisor was taking notes for herself. “She said, ‘Why are you not a trainer?’ It was a fantastic moment. I’ve had three or four really great bosses, and she was one of them.”
Church went into training full-time, then was recruited by telecommunications giant Qwest, where she led a team of four trainers and 30 indirect reports. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and CEO malfeasance conspired to put the company out of business and Church out of a job. After living off savings for nine months, she applied at that first dealership. At some point, a new GM was hired, the cocaine spiffs disappeared, and her automotive career began in earnest.
“Another good boss,” she recalls. “He took chances on me, made me lease retention manager. We created that department out of thin air. Now that type of position exists in some fashion just about everywhere.”
After four years, Church was recruited to serve as a finance manager at a different store, then finance director at another. Along the way, she gained a reputation as a hired gun — “Get in, clean up the processes, then get recruited again” — and kept in the back of her mind lessons taught to her by Joyce Slanovich, the F&I director at her first dealership who now serves in the same capacity for John Elway Chevrolet of Englewood.
“She was my mentor,” Church says. “I didn’t realize how much she was teaching me. She gave me the confidence to get 450s and 500s bought. She would say, ‘You know what to say!’ as if I actually did.”
Slanovich says she appreciates the endorsement but credits most of Church’s success to her moral foundation, which comes out in her training.
“Her talent is to do it the right way. That’s how she trains,” Slanovich says. “And it’s so much easier that way. You can be compliant and still run great numbers and make money.”
Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Church says she once worked for a “very mean, very sexist” GM who unwittingly convinced her to go to law school. After butting heads over numerous matters, including her work schedule, he called her into a meeting with the dealership’s controller and announced — repeatedly — he was ready to accept her resignation.
“I kept telling him I hadn’t resigned. I think he thought he could bully me into doing what he wanted. I stuck to my guns. Finally, I said, ‘That’s the fifth time you’ve asked, and it’s the last time. And if you’d like to fire me, you can tell the owner why, and you can tell him about the hostile work environment and discrimination happening here, and tell him he’s got a lawsuit on his hands.’”
The GM backed down, chalking the incident up to “miscommunication,” says Church, who went home that night and vented to Sharon, her partner of 10 years, who appeared amused. “I said, ‘What in the world is so funny?’ And Sharon said, ‘Do you realize he was prepared for that meeting and you had to argue your case by thinking on your feet? You could definitely be an attorney.’ That was the catalyst. I signed up for the LSAT that night.”
The First Line of Defense
Church joined the Elway group in 2014 and finished law school the following year. She worked as an F&I manager for a Chevrolet store that was later sold to Sonic Automotive, then moved to John Elway Cadillac of Meadows Park. By 2016, she was managing compliance for all three stores and working closely with dealer compliance expert and F&I and Showroom contributor Gil Van Over, who reduced his onsite audits from quarterly to annual once Church was established in her role.
“Her moral compass absolutely points in the right direction. She has an attitude and approach that says, ‘We’re here to make money, we’re here to take care of our guests’ needs, and we’re here to avoid regulatory oversight and litigation,” Van Over says of Church. “And she is a great teacher and sounding board for everyone in the organization. She listens more than she talks.”
Joe Castillo, finance director for John Elway Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of Greeley, concurs. “Lori is a great listener, mentor, and friend. She truly cares about growing everyone around her.” Castillo notes he was impressed by Church from his job interview onward. “In my mind, I had a good grasp of how compliance should look. Since working closely with Lori, I have learned so much more. I can attribute much of my success as a finance director to Lori.”
The three Colorado stores are staffed by a total of 15 F&I directors and managers. The entire group convenes for offsite training on a quarterly basis, and Church makes herself available for one-on-one sessions as needed. She also directs training for the sales and service departments, attends weekly all-managers meetings at all three dealerships, personally conducts all new-hire training, and audits 10% to 15% of her stores’ deals on a monthly basis.
In her spare time, the self-described “Swiss Army knife” assists Maul with legal matters, handles personnel issues as they arise, and negotiates dealer agreements. If a finance manager or staffer gets sick or takes a vacation, she fills in.
The results? Since Church joined the group, F&I revenue has grown by 15% in all three dealerships and the Chevrolet and Chrysler stores are running better than $2,000 per vehicle retailed. Even the Cadillac dealership, which handles a high percentage of cash customers, is averaging $1,250 per copy, including $400 per cash deal — up from $150 just a few years ago.
“And it’s all done legitimately, with product caps on everything, all disclosures made, no kink, no leg,” Church says.
Par for the course, says Maul, who credits Church with upholding a standard of excellence and accountability he and Elway share. But the quality he admires most is her unflappable confidence. He recalls that, when Church was a full-time, top-producing F&I manager, she switched from Chevrolet to Cadillac following the Sonic deal. He worried the prospect of lower overall volumes and a greater frequency of cash deals would put her off. It didn’t.
“She loved the Chevrolet store. But when we talked about it, she said, ‘Oh, no. I’ll be OK,’ and she made it work. That’s what Lori is all about. She finds a way.”