Two years ago, Chris Brown called a meeting. The principal at Subaru of Puyallup, Wash., one of four new-car dealerships belonging to the Harnish Auto Family, had gone online, wondering how a regular Joe who wanted to buy a car without visiting a dealership would do it.
“So I started Googling different phrases, and all of a sudden, this thing called ‘Joydrive’ pops up. I click on it, and I realize the cars they’re advertising are right down the road at Northwest Motorsport, so I thought this must be Don Fleming’s online store,” Brown recalls, referencing the owner of the 11-rooftop, high-volume used-car retailer. “I figured if Don can do this, I can do this. So I pulled my team in.”
The response was less than encouraging. It quickly became evident that building a similar platform from scratch would be no small task.
“I left that meeting frustrated,” Brown says now. “I wanted to give people an alternative to coming into the dealership and spending your Saturday buying a car. I wanted to give them an Amazon experience. And I knew right then that we couldn’t pull it off.”
Months later, in October 2017, opportunity knocked. Brown’s sister-in-law, Shannon Harnish, daughter of group founder Keith Harnish and principal at the family’s Volkswagen and two General Motors dealerships, asked him to join her for a meeting with Fleming. There they met Hunter Gorham, a former GMAC and Ally executive and the inventor of Joydrive, the new platform Brown assumed belonged to Fleming.
“They had started with Don, and they took a lot of money and time to build the technology and work through all the issues associated with retailing a car online. They were ready to take it to the next level,” Brown says. “And one thing that’s interesting, they were really only discussing used cars. I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is a new-car platform. That’s the easier transition to a 100% online purchase.’ We had a second meeting a week or two later, and we said, ‘We’re in.’”
A Different Kind of Dealer
Brown makes no effort to conceal the fact that he likes to do things a bit differently. One reason may be his initial introduction to the industry: He joined the family business in 1993, shortly after Keith Harnish, who started the group with a Puyallup (pronounced “pew-AL-up”) Lincoln Mercury dealership in 1977, landed a Saturn franchise. Brown was initially unsure whether car sales would be for him. Saturn’s friendly, no-haggle approach drew him in.
“If you’re going to break into the car business, that’s a good way to do it. I loved the Saturn philosophy, loved the product, and started selling them.”
Two years later, Brown was alone atop the leaderboard. He graduated to F&I, then to sales management at the Lincoln Mercury dealership. Harnish added the Subaru franchise in 2002 and Brown, by then a partner in the group, was named principal in 2010. In 2018, the store sold 1,145 new vehicles and 1,655 pre-owned units, retaining its place among the factory’s top 100 U.S. dealerships.
Much as he had with Saturn, Brown found his personal outlook reflected in the brand, which in March registered its 88th consecutive monthly U.S. sales gain.
“Let me tell you something about Subaru: I love it. They build vehicles people want,” he says. “And our tagline is, ‘We’re your stress-free dealership.’ It started with ‘stress-free pricing,’ and the feedback was so great, we decided to make it a stress-free dealership — sales, finance, and fixed ops.”
The F&I Question
As of March, Subaru of Puyallup was moving 10 to 20 units per month online, all directed by a three-person team led by Joydrive Manager Rick Whyte. Whyte, who has been with the Harnish group since 2010, is typically accompanied by “Stan,” the dealership’s dedicated Joydrive phone, which he checks first thing in the morning and monitors until 10 o’clock at night.
The platform allows customers to find a vehicle and price, put down a refundable $199 deposit, calculate their trade-in value, learn about and self-select a service contract and GAP coverage, and schedule delivery. Of course, not every Joydrive customer completes the entire process online. When they pick up the phone, Whyte or one of his team members is on the other end.
“Initially, a lot of people thought we were some sort of scam. They would ask, ‘Are you really here in the States?’ We had to laugh,” Whyte says. “But we are starting to gain momentum. We are already getting repeat business.”
Asked whether moving part of the F&I process online has compromised production, Whyte says that responsibility still falls to the dealership. Customers who decline the service contract or GAP online get a second chance to opt in when they visit the store to pick up their vehicle — or better yet, Whyte says, when Subaru of Puyallup delivers it.
“Then you get to present F&I in person, in the kitchen. They meet you, see who you are, and then you get your ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ People are so receptive. You’re in their territory.”
Brown reports storewide penetration rates approaching 50% for service contracts and 35% for GAP. The per-copy average for Joydrive sales is “a bit lower, but not by a tremendous amount, and we’re working on that right now.” Taking a “crawl-before-we-run” approach, Brown adds, he is now working with Joydrive to add more of the store’s F&I product lineup to the platform. “When they’re at home, at work, they feel in control, and they will say ‘Yes’ if they see the value.”
No Way Around It
Whyte notes that one benefit of working in his department is the travel. Digital retail has expanded the dealership’s reach to the point where some deliveries are an all-day event. “We’re not stuck in the store. Washington is beautiful. I’m seeing areas I haven’t been to in 40-plus years.”
This news “fires us up,” says Joydrive’s Gorham, who continues to work directly with Brown and Whyte to enhance the platform. “The majority of our new features are coming from our dealers. There’s a critical texting feature Rick has wanted. That’s just one example.”
Gorham stresses that his network consists solely of hand-picked dealers like Brown and Fleming. He says the right selection of dealers is paramount to the company’s success.
“And the best way we have found to inform that is when a dealer tells us they’ve been looking for this answer. When we hear that from the dealer, and they have that level of passion, those are good indications we likely have a good fit. That’s what we saw and heard from Northwest and the Harnish group from day one.”
Brown acknowledges a large percentage of car shoppers still want to see, touch, and test-drive their next vehicle before buying. But when he looks at the teenagers who accompany their parents to Subaru of Puyallup today, he doubts many will feel the same way when they enter the market. He predicts digital will account for half his sales by 2024.
“And I would love to see that,” he says. “Our sales staff is going to be trained to sell cars the traditional way, and they’re going to be trained to sell cars online and deliver them. There’s no way around it.”