Taking on the role of president of Zeigler Auto Group at just 28 years old, Aaron Zeigler now operates 30 retail automotive dealerships, three finance companies, a leasing firm, insurance firms, a motorsports dealership, a Carquest Auto Parts store, and the Elevate Leadership and Team Building Academy. With so much going on, F&I spoke with Zeigler about how the organization maintains annual sales of more than $1 billion and ranks nationally in the top 1% of all dealers, all while keeping a smile on the faces of their 1,800 team members and customers alike.
We want them to think of us as their automobile concierge, and we will do everything we can to help them out during the life of that vehicle.
With such an extensive portfolio, what’s it like keeping up with so many different brands?
We run them all similarly with our philosophies, our culture, and how we treat our customers. The processes that we go through are similar from one dealership to the next, so the brands are somewhat interchangeable because we are very consistent in our behavior and how we interact with our customers.
Certain brands will always be hotter at certain times and not as hot at other times. That’s one of the reasons having a lot of different brands is helpful — if you have one that’s up and one that’s down, they average one another out. It also gives our customers a lot of options for different brands. Inventory is obviously tight right now, but normally we have 11,000-12,000 cars in stock. So, if someone goes to our website, they can slice and dice it any way they want and find vehicles they’re interested in. At the end of the day, there’s a good chance we have something they want to buy.
When a customer buys a vehicle from us, the relationship is really just getting started. We want to be able to take care of whatever that customer’s needs are going forward. For example, if a customer lives in Chicago but has a winter home in Florida, and they need transportation to get their vehicle down there, we’ll make it happen. We want them to think of us as their automobile concierge, and we will do everything we can to help them out during the life of that vehicle. We do a tremendous amount of pick-up and delivery. Our mobile service units are also seeing great success. Our Mercedes store has two vehicles that are on the road with technicians, and they meet the customer at home or at work and fix the vehicle right there in the driveway, and then move onto the next customer.
Your mergers and acquisitions activity is off the charts, can you share some of your keys to success in that arena?
I figured you either need to grow your business or get out. It’s going to be really hard to compete without multiple dealerships, and it comes down to a couple of fronts. One is the inventory aspect we already talked about. The other is being able to share costs between multiple dealerships. The buying power that we have from an advertising standpoint with a lot of locations is something you wouldn’t get with just one or two — it’s invaluable. We’ve built a brand and everything is branded under Zeigler, unless a manufacturer won’t allow us to put our own name on the dealership. A lot of our customers may come buy a Chrysler and have a good experience, and then down the road when they’re looking for something new, they come back to our website where they can buy whichever new brand they want.
Our latest venture involves our BMW dealership in Orland Park, which we bought seven years ago. It was a brand-new facility, and we’ve since tripled our sales. It’s a big facility, but we’ve run out of room. BMW has its next generation coming out in terms of what it wants dealerships to look like, so we are going to upgrade the facility to meet its new program. That involves acquiring four acres, which is going to add 300 parking spots.
A lot of our success with mergers and acquisitions comes down to the team that we have, it’s all about our people. We’ve got a tremendous amount of longevity, and one of the other motivators for growing the organization is that it creates opportunities for our team. When we go out and buy other businesses, we almost always take someone from within to run that new business. People can continually get promotions and keep moving their way up within the organization, and they don’t need to look outside the company to take those next steps. When you look at what we’re doing internally, we’ve got a really extensive development program. When we promote from within, they already know how we do things and what our culture is like. That’s a big focus of ours, especially the culture piece. I think a lot of what we do and our success goes back to this culture we’ve built. We look at it as the foundation to our organization.
When deciding what to add next, we look at location first and foremost. We only want dealerships that are in great locations. Typically, we look at locations that have a bigger volume and are either very stable or growing. You need to look at a dealership’s lifecycle over the next 25-30 years. We try to stay with the major brands for the most part, brands that we believe in and know will be around for a long time.
How does F&I play into your path to higher profits?
Overall, we keep our processes very consistent. On the F&I front, we firmly believe in the products we sell, and I see firsthand how those products help customers out. I think there is a direct correlation between how happy a customer is over the life of their vehicle and the F&I products that they buy. The more products they buy, the happier the customer is, because if something breaks in their car, they know we will take care of it.
We spend a lot of time developing people, and on the F&I side of things, Sam D'Arc, who runs all of our F&I programs internally, does a weekly podcast that is pretty unique. He’ll bring in our top F&I people from across the auto group to interview, which has been popular with our team. We also have a lot of fun together as a team. We like to keep it lighthearted, and that’s part of the culture. The way I see it, if people are excited to come to work, then they are going to be very productive. I think you’ve got to have happy employees to have happy customers.
What does digital retailing look like at Zeigler Auto Group?
Digital retailing is extremely important. I think 100% of customers these days do their research online. If they’re looking for a specific vehicle, whichever dealer that has it listed on their website is going to win the sale. That’s why I think having a lot of locations and brands is a huge advantage for us. We also do a tremendous number of deliveries to customers homes or offices and they never need to step foot in the dealership. They find the vehicle online, and then we take care of everything over the phone or computer.
You can buy a car 100% online with our website, but hardly anyone does because they still want to talk to someone before the transaction is finalized. They get about 95% of the way there, but ultimately, they’re going to have some questions that a computer just can’t answer. They’re going to want to hear some assurances on their vehicle of choice and what options are available to them. There is always going to be some aspect that the customer doesn’t want done completely digitally.
What kind of toll has the pandemic, and now the semiconductor shortage, taken on your business?
A: The pandemic was interesting because when it first hit everyone was nervous that sales were really going to drop down, and maybe for a short period they did. But as things started to open back up, the demand for sales well-outpaced the inventory that was available nationwide. We looked at it and wondered what caused sales to be so high over the past year, and it came down to the fact that there’s things people would normally be doing and spending their money on, but suddenly they couldn’t because of the pandemic. People would go on vacations, to kids sporting events, or to concerts, but now they couldn’t do any of that. People’s expenses were lower, which means they had more disposable income to make big purchases like cars. People also had a lot more time on their hands, so we weren’t competing with the everyday things going on in their life. Those are the main things that have made sales so hot, and they continue to be up to this day.
But now we’re also dealing with the semiconductor shortage. Obviously, inventory is tight nationwide, so we’ve been out aggressively buying used cars. Prices are all about supply and demand, and demand is high right now, so prices continue to rise on the used car side. We will continue buying because you’ve got to have the supply to move forward. Currently, we are selling more late-model preowned vehicles right now than what we have previously — that’s really how were filling in the demand right now. We never fully recovered in building back inventories from COVID, and now the microchip shortage is a big deal.