As the general manager at Germain Toyota of Naples, Brian Kramer channels his 26 years of dealership experience into creating an environment that keeps employees and customers on the digital forefront. Following his latest endeavor, revolutionizing dealership processes from paper to digital, F&I caught up with Kramer to find out what it was like to bring Germain Toyota from old school to new school.
It takes a true F&I professional with sales ability to feel comfortable doing all of these things we’re talking about on a zoom call or over the phone.
F&I: How did you get started in the automotive industry?
Kramer: I started detailing cars at an Oldsmobile store back in the mid-90s and then got promoted to sales. I did well initially, but ended up getting fired because, honestly, I wasn’t taking it seriously at the time. Then I started at another dealership and ended up working F&I by the time I was 19. When I started at the dealership, the existing managers were doing things they should not have been doing, and they ended up leaving the store. No one else knew how to use a computer back in 1998, so once the F&I guys left, everyone was terrified of it. So there’s the credit bureau machine, which was hard enough to use at the time, and while everyone was looking at the computer, they asked me if I knew how to use one. So I said, “Sure, it can’t be that hard.” And that’s how I got an F&I job — right place, right time.
F&I: Fast forward to 2020 — what led you to developing new processes within the dealership to propel growth?
Kramer: The first thing was the pandemic freeing up so much time. Usually, you have to spend so much time sawing that you don’t have time to sharpen the blade in this business, just because we run hard and we run fast. Then, we had a lot of employees feeling uncomfortable with COVID and a lot of people going home, and then we had to start doing layoffs. Since no one was coming in, we had a lot of idle time on our hands for once. To me, it felt like a flashback to the recession, and the mentors that I had during that time taught us to batten down the hatches and get to work. So we actually got more productive and just started drawing out what, in a perfect world, this should look like. We didn’t know if we had three weeks or three months, or who knows how long it was going to be, but you never waste extra time. We were able to totally reinvent ourselves. No one was going to be making any money, but if we were going to be here anyway, we may as well be doing something.
F&I: Moving from primarily-paper to a fully digital store, how did you leverage what you already had working in the dealership into this new, digital way of life?
Kramer: Some of my employees said it was almost like I had unknowingly set it up, because I had been trying to advocate for this for a long time. It had always been something I wanted to do, not that we had to do, but I said at some point this is coming. I am blessed to have a very strong management team around me, so it kept me freed up, especially in the last year, to really start looking at some of this stuff. It played to our advantage because we already had a lot of the pieces in place, but the difference now was that we had to do it. So it forced us, with no other option, to connect all the dots. We delivered our first digital deal in February and that was before the pandemic was even affecting us.
F&I: Was the end goal to convert processes to a fully digital format or were you just trying to get the ball moving in the right direction?
Kramer: I worked at Autonation for a period of time and got to spend some time with Mike Maroone. One night when I was at the Autonation headquarters after hours, he sat down with me and we spent about an hour talking about his vision and where I thought the industry was going. I asked him where he thought it was going, and it was like talking to Walt Disney. He thought there would be digital F&I, video communication in the dealership, a full virtual environment, and at that time it sounded like he was talking about something out of a Star Wars movie. He said, “My goal is to deliver a vehicle to a customer in Montana more quickly and more efficiently than a dealer in Montana could.” And I said, “Well, how would that look?” He painted this elaborate picture that actually isn’t too different from what is happening today. At the time, I thought to myself we may get there, but I doubt it will be five years from now — it ended up taking seven.
F&I: What new processes and procedures have you implemented?
Kramer: At this point, we have gone paperless, and in order to do that, we needed to streamline and even eliminate some of our forms, because in this business there is a significant amount of redundancy. Since we had all that time, we just took every deal and examined it. New car delivery, what should that look like? Trade-in, what should that look like? Lease, what should that look like? Do we need this form and do we need that form? Anything that wasn’t 100% required from a compliance standpoint was eliminated.
F&I: You mentioned working with Gil Van Over as a compliance advisor to get everything sorted. What was that process like?
Kramer: We have always been on the edge of compliance. It wasn’t that we weren’t doing it, but it wasn’t centralized and in one easy place for Gil to go in and audit and streamline. So it was very inconsistent and frustrating for him, and in return, frustrating for me whenever he would ask me questions. I could feel his pain and wished it had been more clear-cut. So I asked him to partner up with me, and we started working on the virtual project together. He would call me up and ask, “Well, how would you do this?” or “Have you seen this?” He referred some people to me, I referred some people to him, and as I kept building new procedures, I would email it to him to check from a compliance standpoint. I actually wrote a new F&I compliance and procedures manual while doing this because we had the time. I would send it to him and he’d send back corrections, because during this time everything was changing.
I’ll give you an example. We had gotten all the paper out of the way and were now working on all the e-contracting elements, setting things up correctly, which takes days to go through and make it so it becomes frictionless. I didn’t understand how many different touch-points and interactions there were until that time — there’s literally thousands of them. And that’s with every lender. So maybe you have one lender streamlined, but you need to get them all streamlined. So we reverse-engineered that with the end goal in mind of being able to deliver a car 100% end-to-end without the customer ever having to visit us. Everyone thought that I was out of my mind for envisioning this, but I thought if someone is going to do it, why shouldn’t it be us? Our owner, Mr. Germain, is amazing at empowering us to take calculated risks. That trust is what makes our progress possible.
F&I: You mentioned writing a new F&I manual. What is that used for?
Kramer: We use it for onboarding new employees, and it essentially acts as a living and breathing reference guide. I had an associate ask me a question about a Darwin system and I turned around and said, “Well, did you reference the reference guide?” That’s what it’s used for. The natural thing is to just give them the answer, but I want to teach my staff how to fish rather than catch it for them. It takes a really long time and it keeps on changing, but my goal is to have the F&I managers focused on selling. All of the compliance pieces should be automated so paperwork isn’t something F&I managers need to spend their time on.
Take tag-and-title as an example. I kept on saying, “Why can't we get these forms digitally,” and was told that the state of Florida doesn’t allow it, as well as some other states, that all require wet ink. But since I had the free time, I just kept calling the DMV, ended up calling the main office in Tallahassee, and kept working my way up the chain, because nobody was giving me a definitive answer; they all just told me what they thought it was. When I finally got to the root cause of it, I found that for a while you could do tag and title work and reassignment work, digitally, but you had to transfer the information via an EFS (also known as an encryption file system). I didn’t know what that was at the time, but its what they use in healthcare for personal info because you cant email it securely. And that was actually the holdup for why we couldn’t use e-signatures. So I asked how we could fix that and DMV told me what to do. I called up CDK and asked them, and they said they didn’t know, since no one had made it that far yet. We kind of ended up writing it as we went along with CDK. We are currently able to facilitate electronic trade-in titling in all 50 states, finalize electronic title and registration in 31 states, and electronically e-sign in 34 states.
F&I: In making the transition from paper to digital, have you faced any pushback from employees?
Kramer: Oh hell yes, a significant amount. I’ve got an amazing staff, so it’s not them; it’s the rate at which everything is changing. We started e-contracting a couple of years ago, and in that time we had started toying with the idea of a fully-digital process. Once March rolled around, there was no turning back. Eventually, I turned off the ability to print forms and took most of the printers out of the offices, and that’s the day we went 100% digital. That’s what it took.
F&I: What other challenges have you encountered along the way?
Kramer: We had integration issues because the changes were happening so quickly some of it was being done in haste without getting other departments involved. There were instances where I would change one thing in the F&I line and then accounting would realize that’s not going to work on their end.
When we delivered our first digital deal there was no paperwork, so the F&I manager turned to me and said, “Well, what do I do now? There’s no deal jacket because there’s no paper. How do I get it to accounting?” I looked at him and said, “I don’t know.” Then the next morning, accounting comes to me and says, “There’s all this money here, but there’s no deal for us to reconcile everything with, so what do you want us to do?” At that moment I realized there’s a whole other side and whole other process to map out from an accounting standpoint. We had to standardize a compliance pack, and a tag and title pack, and a customer info pack — all for accounting to work with. And we haven’t even scratched the surface, there’s still so much to simplify.
We actually lost a couple of F&I personnel during the process, but we still had our best month ever, last month. Don’t get me wrong though, there’s still so much work to be done. It takes a true F&I professional with sales ability to feel comfortable doing all of these things we’re talking about on a zoom call or over the phone, and I am blessed to have an amazing team that has learned the process and are doing it very well.