It’s the end of another big month at Paragon Honda and Paragon Acura in Queens, N.Y., and the stores, lots, and service and reconditioning centers are packed. From his richly decorated oasis of an office, longtime dealer manager Brian Benstock runs the business with the help of his managers, an army of sales, finance, and service professionals, and the counsel of Edith Singer, wife of the late Paul Singer, the dealership’s founder.
F&I and Showroom sat down with Benstock to learn more about his career, his views on the industry, and his interest in new technology, which led to the development of Paragon Direct, the voice-operated, Google Assistant-powered solution that allows customers to schedule and receive service with as little friction as possible.
Brian, how did you get that first job with PS Honda in ’82? My father was in the car business, and my father said to me, “If you’re gonna be in the car business, you should work on the North Shore of Long Island. And if you’re gonna work in the car business on the North Shore of Long Island, you should work for Paul Singer.” I did, and eventually, I became Mr. Singer’s partner at Paragon Honda, in 1997.
Was he an early Honda adopter? Yes. This was originally an Oldsmobile dealership. In 1970, Honda knocked on his door. They gave him enough space for three little Civics on the Oldsmobile showroom floor. And then he was a Honda dealer.
To be fair, those were incredibly small cars. They were, right? A guy I played hockey with, Scotty Bennecke, had one. He’s 6-foot-4. He sat on three telephone books, opened up the sunroof, and drove to practice with his head sticking out the top of it.
Do you feel lucky to have started with Mr. Singer, or would you have succeeded either way? No, I don’t think I would have succeeded either way. Because I didn’t like the car business at first. I am fortunate to have had very good mentors early on in my career. I had a fantastic sales manager named Nancy Phillips, who was a very classy, professional, intelligent woman. She, in turn, worked for Mr. Singer, who was the same.
Were you good at it right away? I was OK at it. And in 1983, Mr. Singer got the staff together to see Joe Girard speak. And I would say that that was a turning point in my decision to be all-in on the car business.
What did he say that resonated? He told the story about going back to his high school reunion. One of his old friends, Mike, asked how he was doing, what he did for a living. And Joe goes, “I’m doing great. I sell automobiles at Merollis Chevrolet.” And he said the man looked at him like somebody put a turd under his nose. “You sell cars?” And Joe Girard said, “Yeah. Why? What do you do for a living?” And he said, “I’m a doctor.” And Joe gave him the same face. “You’re a doctor? With all the blood and guts?” And Mike said, “Well, I made $300,000 last year.” And Joe said, “I made $600,000, and I didn’t get any blood on me.”
In 1983, it was an unspeakable amount of income as a salesperson. And he spoke of how he had people do all the things that could be outsourced, like the delivery and confirming appointments. His job was to take the appointments one by one and make sure he sold to those people. And so I think that really motivated me to look at different ways of doing it and see the possibility that was there.
And I take it Mr. Singer saw things the same way. He was elegant, eloquent, and articulate. He was a real businessman. I tell my colleague Julian [Windfield, Paul Singer’s grandson and Paragon’s strategy consultant], “Hey, look at that guy. That guy is in shape. That guy is smart. That guy is a sharp dresser.” And it wasn’t too many years ago that many dealers were just, you know, overweight, sloppy, not professional, used foul language. Not all of them. But there’s a reason for those stereotypes. As we get more professional dealers, I think we’ll have more professional sales staff.
You’re trying to push the industry forward. Well, it’s in my intelligent self-interest to do so. In order to attract better people to come to work for Paragon, I have to set a benchmark that would be attractive to the kind of people I would want to work here. I want people who have a good work ethic, perseverance, and that are willing to push themselves to a higher level. The best associates are always looking for a better way to satisfy our customers.
Paragon Direct is a great example. Where did that idea come from? Well, it’s funny. Julian purchased an Amazon Alexa for me. We opened the thing up, plugged it in, and figured out how to use it. I said, “Alexa, order coffee,” and it gave me a bunch of choices. I made my selection and the order was complete. I didn’t think much of it. The next morning, there’s a box. I open it up and it’s the coffee. And I was really — “impressed” is the wrong term. I was concerned at how perfect that transaction was. It was completely frictionless, executed flawlessly.
The thought came into your mind, you expressed the thought, and it was realized. And I had a stack of coffee probably three feet high in my office because, one by one, I kept bringing people in. “Look, I didn’t swipe, I didn’t click. I didn’t do anything. And here it is.” And as I said, I was concerned. How do we compete with that? The way that we decided to compete is not to compete but to create and to be a part of it.
So you’re the Honda and Acura dealer for New York City, essentially. Well, we think we’re more than just New York City.
Of course. But being in New York, doesn’t that bring a higher profile, extra pressure, more invitations to speak, to comment, opportunities like this? It brings a lot of difficulties mixed with those opportunities. We have mass transit here. New York happens to be one of the cities with the lowest automobile ownership compared to any major city in the country, and it’s not a question of affordability it’s a question of sensibility. When you have a car in New York City, even if you own it, you have five monthly payments: insurance, parking, registration, tickets, and parking.
You counted parking twice. I’ll tell you why. A guy has a parking garage at his home in Brooklyn. He drives into the city and parks in another garage. Or if he parks it in the street, so he’s going to get clipped with a ticket every month, right? People figured out that’s a bad deal.
I’ll point out that there is no Honda dealership in Manhattan. There’s no Acura, no Nissan. They went out of business. The only dealers that are there are being subsidized by their manufacturers. If you’re a private individual, and you want to run a dealership in the city, you need to be prepared to lose buckets of money.
So there were challenges being a dealer, and those challenges made us good. Those challenges made us hard, and those challenges have made us resourceful.
That’s great. Nobody can go into competition with you at this point. You can, but you’re gonna get a bloody nose if you do it.
You mentioned hockey. When I read about your running hobby, or career — what do you call it? Addiction.
Addiction. And I thought when I read that, this guy must’ve been doing something. He didn’t just train for six months and run a marathon. No, I really did. I went to a meeting in Boca Raton in March of 2006. And Mr. Singer had been diagnosed with lung cancer at the time. He was a runner, and he told me his goal was to beat lung cancer and run a marathon again. And by late 2005, he had pretty much had beat the lung cancer. But in early 2006, there were additional complications.
At the time that he was sick, I was working every hour of every single day with the exception of a handful of days. I’m talking about 13 total. And my wife was going to divorce me. I’m not joking. It was that bad.
So I went to this meeting in March, and the guy was talking about Rick Hoyt, who was disabled and in a wheelchair, and his father, Dick Hoyt, who pushed the wheelchair in marathons and triathlons. And the man who showed the video asked everybody in the audience, he said, “Who has goals?” Everyone raised their hands. “Who has written goals?” Maybe 50% raised their hand. And he said, “For $100, who can show me their goals?” And one hand was up. It was mine. I have two books with me all the time: a goal book and a schedule. And I said, “Would you want one year, three years, five years, or a lifetime?
And I opened up the book, and he handed me $100. And I said, “I’m gonna add one: the New York City Marathon, for my partner.” That was March. My partner passed away May 10. And in November of that year, I ran my first marathon. And I ran it for him, because we were partners. You gotta take the good with the bad. I had his initials, a giant “PS” on the back of my watch hands so that every time I looked at my watch, I saw his initials. And I finished the marathon. I was 46 at the time.
That’s amazing. You just never know when you set out to do something where it’ll take you. And running a marathon is very analogous to running a business because you have to learn how to use limited resources. I mean, I could double sales here if I spend $2 million on advertising in one month. I don’t know that I’ll make a profit. In fact, I know I won’t make a profit, but I can double sales. But you can’t just do that. You use limited resources to get the job done.
Given all the investments and advancements you’ve made here, are you concerned that the rest of the industry isn’t keeping pace with consumers? We, as an industry, are not keeping pace with the consumers.
Does that bother you, or do you say, “Well, let them do what they do, and I’ll keep doing do what I do”? No, I’m smart enough to realize I can’t do it alone. If the shift away from dealers is so strong, Paragon might not be able to fight back. This building is a real good reminder. When I first started working for Mr. Singer, he was selling 3,000 Oldsmobiles a year. Not too many more years later — to no fault of his own — he was selling only 350 cars a year. He told me, “The irony is that I consider myself a much smarter dealer today than when I sold 3,000 cars a year.”
There is only so much you can do against market forces. The market forces don’t care how smart you are. If the macro market is not there, you’re gonna struggle. And so my quest is self-serving. If we can deliver services to customers, instead of relying on them coming to us, then I think that we’ll make this business less appetizing for some of the outsiders that are looking to come into our business.
And the outsiders, whether they’re running software companies or they’re the average Joe, their view of the business is, “If it weren’t for these dealers making all this money on new cars …” They have no idea. And no manufacturer has done it successfully, including Elon Musk. And I would argue this: If Mr. Musk had gone with a traditional dealer network, his outcome would be much better, because he wouldn’t have his capital on the line for storing and retailing the cars.
You became America’s No. 1 Honda dealership during the Great Recession. How did you do it? And how bad did it get before you got there? Bad. I was sweating bullets. In fact, that’s not direct enough. I was shitting my pants that I was gonna lose my house and everything that I had built. And I was afraid that I was gonna screw this place up.
How did you respond? I cut and cut and cut and laid off people and cut and cut some more. Initially, I was slow to react. I didn’t want to overreact, because I thought the market was going to turn around. Once the cuts were made, it was time to go on offense.
So I met with a buddy of mine, Sean Wolfington, who was launching a digital marketing company. And we heard rumors of an economic stimulus. He said, “There are three ways to go: You can play conservative, you can be a little bullish, or you can go all out.” And I said, “Let’s go all out. The market is ready for it.”
We set up the marketing. I bought 300 extra cars in advance of the stimulus plan while many dealers had turned down their inventory allocations. So I called the factory and asked for them. He pushed the button, and the next day, the cars arrived.
That was fast. As fate would have it, we were perfectly set up in advance of the program. In fact, we sold the first car under the Cash for Clunkers in the United States of America.
No kidding. We had the sale done at 7 in the morning and reported it at 9. It was on MSN’s homepage the entire day. And we had a substantial net profit in the middle of a recession. We were the No. 1-selling dealer, all brands, in the United States of America. We had every major news crew here and their national network affiliates — NBC, ABC, Fox. I was on Erin Burnett’s CNBC show, and I pointed out how the Cash for Clunkers program was geared towards domestic cars. On the government’s website, they didn’t have the foreign cars. And she said, “We’re gonna have to check into that.” And they did, and that got it fixed.
So, it really was a special time. I was in the right place with the right people with the right strategy at the right time. I’ve been running pretty hard since then.
And your service department is getting bigger and bigger. You have the new facility offsite. And that recon center is massive. Yeah, it’s OK.
What are you working on now? I’m excited about the opportunities and for preparing for the difficulties that will likely come in the next couple years. You know, we’ve got an economy that’s been growing for 12 years. And I hope and pray that we can continue to grow; however, marketing forces just won’t allow it to happen forever. Potential rising interest rates and many of our people have forgotten what a recession looks like. Trees don’t grow to the sky. Eventually, they stop. That’s just the way it goes. And when the poop hits the fan, everyone is going to be looking for someone with gray hair.
Absolutely. You can write a mini-novel now, on that.
Yeah. It’ll be about three pages in the magazine, but that’s just the way it goes.