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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dealerships are a Cost? - I Don't Think So!

Mike Smitka
The statements of the CEOs of GM and Chrysler at today's Senate hearing on dealership closures make very little sense overall. (For details, see the National Automobile Dealers Association website. Full details should be on the website of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.) It is true that some dealers run shoddy operations that hurt the brand in the communities where they operate; that is a problem in any franchise system. Current state franchising laws make it very difficult for "the factory" to yank the franchise of such dealers. Well and good if those are the dealerships being targeted – but there is no evidence that is the case. Are there that many bad apples in the GM dealership barrel? I don't think so.
The only GM statement that had any numbers in it refered to incentives paid to dealers and sales people, along with training, advertising and other support, at an average of $1,000 per vehicle.* For GM to save money, they have to cut that number a lot. Is there a lot of fat to be cut?
I don't think so. Here's why.
So let's say GM trims the number of dealers. IT and the like are fixed costs, independent of the number of dealers – though generally dealers get charged for software, brochures, everything. There are thus big savings only if the incentives are trimmed. So the bottom line is that for consolidation to save GM money, the productivity of sales staff and the dealership as a whole has to increase. With 20% of dealerships being cut, each sales person has to sell 25% more (= 1/.8), because for this to make sense the dealership can't add personnel or other costs. All while the dealership is earning significantly less for each car they sell. Is that realistic? I don't think so.
With fewer sales points, GM will somehow have to attract more customers, a lot more customers, to each physical location. They've failed at that in the past two decades. Are GM products so hot now and henceforth that they can get by with fewer locations? I don't think so.
OK, so GM wants newer dealerships, sometimes in new locations, so that volume per dealership can increase. But if I'm making less per vehicle because GM has just cut the wholesale discount, why would I want to do that? Not unless I'm making so much money that I can be coerced by GM into handing more over to them. If I were the banker for such a dealership, how would I react? They want me to lend them a lot of money to build a new dealership in a down market under a marketing plan that intends to cut the margins that dealers earn? Would I as a banker lend them the money to do it? I don't think so.
And hasn't GM ever heard of the internet, customers shopping online, test driving here and there, but coming to a dealership only to sign the paperwork? Does a fancy store add value in the new retailing world? Carpet reeking of mildew is one thing, I've been in dealerships like that, and walked out. But will fancy brick and mortar make me more likely to say "yes" to a harried salesperson? I don't think so.
Finally, what of Certified Preowned Vehicles? GM needs to sell those – especially once leasing starts to increase and rental car companies renew their now-aging fleets. "Underperforming" dealers are still in business because they were doing something right. Looking only at new vehicles is narrow-sighted. Are the fewer number of urban megastores going to let GM move that metal? I don't think so.
One possibility is that this is coming from the Administration's automotive team. They've proven to be brilliant workout specialists, getting the potentially viable portion of Chrysler through Chapter 11 in a manner the bankruptcy lawyers I've talked to thought impossible. Is that skill set likely to suit them to understanding the complexities of franchising, particularly franchising in the multiproduct context of a car dealer? (Dealers have at least 5 business lines, new, used, service, parts sales, finance & insurance brokering, and often a body shop.) Probably not. This lack of understanding may be further muddied by a comparison of dealer averages between Toyota and GM. That assumes that Toyota does well because of its dealerships, rather than the other way around: Toyota's dealers do well because Toyota's market share has steadily risen, ahead of their dealer count. But Toyota's attempt to sell full-sized pickups has flopped, because they don't have all those small, rural dealers who at GM sell their most profitable product. See David Ruggle's post below on The Task Force. He's actually seen restructuring first hand, and knows more of the specialized skills that entails.
Let me hazard a guess, [after consulting with a friend, almost surely wrong] that the incentive system for GM's factory reps focuses on the number of new cars they sell. For them, an "underperforming" dealer makes them look bad, there's no way they can match the bonus of a rival who drew "better" dealers. The smarter dealers watch the mix of used and new vehicles, and if they can snap up preowned on the cheap at auction and make more money, they'll shift their emphasis in that direction. But the reps who handle the certified preowned side of the business, well, they're kept in the back room, out of sight. Management doesn't see their success. [Again, GM was the one to launch the CPO business, and it's built into their rep system, so that doing well on CPOs was a positive, not a negative to reps.] But that means GM will be cutting their smarter dealers, the ones with the best business skills and feel for the market. Does that make good business sense? I don't think so.
* CEO Fritz Henderson: "GM pays about $1,000 a vehicle for dealer and salesperson incentives, advertising, field sales, service and training, and information technology support, he said." Automotive News. There was no breakdown or support for this $1,000 figure. GM does not have anything to say about salespeople and their compensation; that's up to the dealer, whether they work salary, straight commission, or something in between.