Part 2: How Local Car Dealers Survived, Thrived
American-made is rebounding. Ironically, one suburban dealer found success selling to Polish- and Spanish-speaking buyers. Dealers recount manufacturers' mistakes, tell how they rode them out.
(Part 2 of two parts)
Three years after the auto industry plunged into bad times, local dealerships of American-made vehicles have turned the corner--on two wheels.
One of them did it with a strategy of appealing to immigrant and ethnic buyers in Niles and the surrounding areas.
Mario Sosnowski, general manager of Golf Mill Ford in Niles, says his dealership enjoyed a 22 percent sales increase for 2011--largely a result of tapping into the immigrant Polish- and Spanish-language markets in this area. Golf Mill has the most sales to the Polish community of any dealership in the Midwest, he says.
Jennings Chevrolet in Glenview saw its own brand of success, rebounding by exceeding its 20 percent annual sales increase goal the past two years, according to General Manager Jim Walsh.
Their improving situation reflects a national uptick in vehicle sales. They rose 10.2 percent in 2011, according to DetroitBureau.com.
Bruce Berger, general manager of Niles' Star Nissan, said his sales kept on a more even keel since 2008.
But for sellers of domestic vehicles, it was a roller coaster drop and rise.
Walsh and Sosnowski reflected on how bad things got a few years ago, partly because buyers couldn't get credit.
Good credit didn’t matter to lenders
Sosnowski recalled a story of a car buyer -- a police officer with sterling credit -- possessing a FICA score of 760. He was still turned down for a loan from the bank as lending ground to a halt in 2008.
“Our guy called the bank and was told, ‘If you don’t like our conditions, send him elsewhere,’” he said.
But a modest revival in lending starting in 2010. That, along with new Ford products and a specialty of serving the Hispanic and Polish immigrant markets, brought the customers back into Golf Mill Ford.
Advertising in Spanish and Polish
The dealership advertises heavily in both Spanish and Polish language media.
"With the current recession we are dealing with, this has been a great mix, and I call it recession-proof," Sosnowski said.
The Spanish-language market is huge for the dealership, he explained, and it advertises on WOJO Radio, La ley, Univision television and Spanish-language newspapers and magazines. That has put Golf Mill in the top three dealerships for Spanish customer sales in the Midwest for Ford, Sosnowski said.
Those customers represent 30 percent of Golf Mill Ford's sales; Polish speakers, who are numerous in the area, represent 20 percent. The dealership advertises on ITVN, a Polish TV channel, as well as the 1080 AM radio station and publications such as the Polish Daily News, Kurier and Super Express.
"We hired Spanish and Polish speaking salespeople, sales managers,
finance managers and office personnel so when they do come in to the dealership, they feel like at home," Sosnowski said.
Winnowing the dealership ranks also helped Golf Mill Ford's success.
“Niles, a community of 30,000, had two Ford stores within two miles,” Sosnowski said of the former Landmark Ford, which closed in 2006. Five other Ford dealers within 10 miles also closed.
Jennings' history of surviving bad times
Two miles away, Jennings seemingly can survive anything. Founder James Jennings started the dealership in Feb. 1958 – near the bottom of the worst recession between the Great Depression’s end in 1942 and the inflation/oil-shock-fueled downturn in 1974. Car sales cratered in 1958, but Jennings has thrived most of the time ever since.
“We never worried about ourselves making it in the worst of the financial collapse,” said Walsh. “But when GM got into their difficulties, all of a sudden that became a real concern because that was out of our control.”
Too many lookalike GM cars
Walsh said GM, and in turn his dealership, has benefited by paring down its formerly huge product line. Icons like Pontiac and Oldsmobile have been discontinued in the past decade.
“We were in competition with ourselves,” he said. “We were all offering a different version of the same vehicle. The Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Regal, Chevy Monte Carlo.
“GM made the mistake of having 10 children--too many divisions to be responsible for. They were trying to keep Hummer, Saab, Olds, Pontiac, it just didn’t work. Now with Chevy, Buick-GMC, Cadillac, that’s a viable business plan.
“Look at other manufacturers other than the Big Three. They didn’t make mistakes. Honda brought out the Acura line, that was it. Datsun became Nissan, and came out with a second division, Infiniti. All these companies had one car line, at the most two.”
Now that the domestics have slimmed their offerings and are making cars many reviewers rate with the best of the imports, sales gurus of the foreign manufacturers hope that the rising tide of auto sales lifts all boats.
“We’re looking for 2012 to be a banner year,” said Star Nissan’s Berger.