Believed to be one of the oldest Chevrolet franchises, McClinton Chevrolet was founded in 1915 and is in its fourth generation of ownership by the McClinton family. While its sister-dealership McClinton Mitsubishi has a few less years of history under its belt, the tag-team dealerships, located in Parkersburg, West Virginia, proudly serve the Mid-Ohio Valley. In January 2020, Virginia “Ginny” Bowden, great-granddaughter of founder J.S. McClinton Sr., stepped into the dealer principal role alongside her husband Charles “Wyn” Bowden, who serves as the dealer group’s general manager. Ginny’s father, J.S. McClinton III, remains CEO.
We met with Ginny Bowden to uncover the secrets to a long-lasting family-run business, find out how McClinton Auto Group is phasing into the digital era, and see how the dealer group’s strong community ties act as a pillar of their success.
Can you tell me about the road that led you to dealer principal of McClinton Auto Group?
I am a fourth generation dealer. This is my family’s dealership, and my father is still here and involved in the business as the owner. I did not grow up coming to the dealership or working in any capacity. My dad always kept his work life and personal life very separate. I think he wanted my brother and I not to feel any pressure to be involved in the business. It was always made known that it was available to us and that if we were interested, we could get involved. I went to Wofford college in South Carolina. Following graduation, I moved to Wyoming and worked on a guest ranch and eventually decided to live in Wyoming long-term. When my father approached my brother and I to see if we were interested in the business, it was very important to me that to return home and get involved in the family business, I needed the support and desire from my husband, Wyn. Wyn and I met in Wyoming and spent many years living different places and working different jobs in different industries. I needed Wyn to want to be part of the business instead of me making him feel like it was something we had to do. Much to my father’s delight, Wyn was very much interested and wanted to carry on a tradition that’s more than 100 years old. How could we not just give it a try? Four years ago we packed our bags for West Virginia. The intention was to work in every department and every role to learn as much as we could for the first couple of years, but the car business had other plans. Due to a shift in personnel, we were forced to quickly fill the management and leadership role much earlier than anticipated. We did not get to work in every role as we had hoped, but we prevailed, drinking from the firehose every day and learning as we went. Being in that management role before we were ready was a difficult thing, but I strongly believe that it really is the best way to learn. Wyn and I shared the GM role in the early days, and then I eventually became dealer principal in January 2020.
What inspired you to launch McClinton Difference and what exactly does it entail?
Our dealership is a staple in the community. This year we are 106 years old, and with that comes a lot of, “this is the way we’ve always done things,” as well as a level of comfort and unwillingness to adapt to the new age. I’m not super tech-savvy, but I am aware of how businesses are moving forward. You must have technology and be ever evolving. The world, and specifically this industry, is moving at a rapid pace. One of our goals was to bring this dealership up to speed instead of being behind the eight-ball. We want to lead our community as far as dealerships being technologically savvy in the 21st century and follow the consumer trends of how people want to buy a car.
When I decided to move back home, I knew the car business was changing. We slowly have been making improvements and adopting software programs over the past few years. The pandemic kicked those changes into high gear. We knew we had to adapt to the rapidly changing market. We never fully closed during the pandemic because we were considered an essential business. For a few months in 2020, however, we had our sales team work from home and sell cars via our website, Facebook, text, and email, and even opened our online showroom. The sales process was catered to the customer and working the deal from the comfort of their home. We would then schedule test drives and deliveries, whether the customer came to the dealership, or we brought the vehicle to them. Luckily, GM had developed the digital retail tool, Shop Click Drive. We are in a market where customers still want to come in and have a personal experience when buying a car. It’s not because I didn’t believe in it, it’s just that few of our customers were asking for an online buying experience — that changed almost overnight with COVID.
What were some roadblocks in transitioning your staff to a digital process?
It wouldn’t be the car business if everything went smoothly the first time. We had some early challenges. With our sales team working remotely at the time, training was difficult and managing our expectations of how we were moving forward as a company in that digital space was tricky. We have a lot of employees that have been with us for 20 to 30 or more years. We changed their mindset by tweaking processes and adding new solutions — a difficult thing to overcome. We’re not broken, but if we don’t keep evolving, we’re going to get left behind. A year later, we are all up to speed with the digital process and looking for more ways to improve and expand our digital experience.
Is your F&I department also digital?
With Shop Click Drive on our Chevrolet website and Online Shopper on our Mitsubishi website, a consumer can pencil a deal with their trade and interest rate as well as load accessories and F&I products. They can digitally complete a deal almost in its entirety, with the exception of electronically signing. We like to see their trade before we finalize the numbers, and we prefer that the customer sees the vehicle they are purchasing in person just to be sure it’s exactly what they want. This is most people’s first or second largest purchase — we want them to get what they want and be satisfied. Technology is amazing and we continue to adapt — we can accept credit apps online, and customers can even choose F&I products — but in the end, they need to come in and sign the old-fashioned way. We plan to tackle that in the near future. We are eating this elephant one bite at a time. I have found if you try to do too much, too soon, you do not do anything well.
Any F&I success stories you would like to share with our readers?
In the past 18 months we’ve really worked hard to kick our F&I department up a notch. Our two finance managers are rock stars. Ross is still relatively new to the position, but he has really stepped up and increased his knowledge and performance in a short period of time. He’s a wiz with sub-prime and this is something we are trying to grow. Deanna is a seasoned vet who does not mess around. She is new to our team and has great relationships with local as well as national banks. Her customer service and attention to detail is bar none.
Historically, we have been a prime dealership, and that is something that we are having to change in order to grow. We need to be able to service customers of all financial backgrounds. It is no secret that as a country and a community we all have financial challenges, especially in these uncertain times. As a result, we are expanding our portfolio with the banks we do business with to work towards getting everyone approved and get them into a car. As I stated previously, change is hard, but we remain focused on serving our community’s needs. Our goal is to rebuild credit and help get people on their feet. I want to sell customers multiple cars and earn their trust — they will tell their family, friends, and coworkers, and our repeat and referral business will multiply. When you can help someone get a car in difficult times, you have gained a customer for life.
Can you tell us about the McClinton Million-Mile Warranty?
The McClinton Million is a 10-year/1,000,000 mile limited powertrain warranty and comes standard on every new Chevrolet we sell, every new Mitsubishi, and most of our pre-owned cars. We wanted to expand on our “why buy here” and do something meaningful for our customers. It provides extra peace of mind for our customers driving around in a car they purchased at McClinton, because people are keeping their vehicles longer. Around McClinton Chevrolet/Mitsubishi, you will often hear the phrase: “A Tradition of Trust since 1915.” It’s not just a slogan, it’s a way of life. For our team, this phrase means peace of mind. We’ve been doing business in the Mid-Ohio Valley for more than a century, so we know a few things about peace of mind. For us, it means stability, integrity, and reliability. Purchasing a new or preowned car is a big deal. While we know it’s not the biggest decision you’ll ever make, it ranks near the top. If you’re willing to spend your hard-earned money with us, you deserve peace of mind. That’s why we developed the McClinton Million.
What is the Roger Brown Tool Scholarship?
Staffing is an issue for all businesses, but especially in the automotive world of technicians. Unfortunately, it is a dying breed. As I mentioned, we have a lot of employees who have been with us for decades, and we need to prepare ourselves for when they retire so that we have a secure future. In March of 2020, one of our long-time employees, Roger Brown, retired. He was a staple in our dealership for more than three decades. We wanted to find a unique way to honor him, and so we created the scholarship. We know a lot of these young people pursuing skilled trade work, fresh out of trade school, don’t have the money to buy new tools. So, we offer the Roger Brown Scholarship to any body shop technician who is new to the business and exemplifies teamwork and a willingness to learn more about the trade. With that program, $1,000 is lent to a new employee to set them up with the tools required to do their job. For new body shop hires, the scholarship is $4,000 given over four years as long as the recipient maintains the necessary hours for 12 consecutive months. Our hope is to attract young talent and grow them into long-term, loyal employees like Roger Brown.
How does McClinton utilize social media as a tool?
I believe we have embraced social media completely. We’re on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, to name a few. We don’t just post pictures of cars and say good day. We try our best to tell a story and inform our audience. We highlight the people who work here, and I think this helps build more trust with our customers. We also highlight the community and events going on in the area to promote good causes and other local businesses. We are fully embracing video every step of the way. New technology and software programs allow us to do more and share more with our customers. We have found great success this year with Mitsubishi on YouTube and Chevrolet on TikTok. Social Media allows us to follow the trends and get in front of the right customers at the right time.
What’s next for McClinton Auto Group?
It’s simple. We want to continue to make a good thing better. I am so fortunate that my great grandfather, grandfather, and father created and sustained this company. It has afforded my husband and I the opportunity to continue to serve the Mid -Ohio Valley. We are extremely proud of our products, excellent service, and reputation in the state of West Virginia. It is our continuing intent to provide our employees and customers with a cordial atmosphere in which to work, shop, and obtain expert service. It is our goal to keep providing excellent jobs and customer service to this community for another century.