In 2008, Ryan LaFontaine was busily overseeing his first big business project – the construction of the LaFontaine Automotive Group’s sprawling flagship dealership in Highland, MI – when he got horrible news about his health.
He had cancer. It was a jolt, emotionally and otherwise. The road to recovery was sometimes a blur, such as when he spoke at the opening of the Highland store, which has earned honors as an environmentally friendly facility.
Today, LaFontaine, 42, is in full remission. He is chief operating officer of the automotive group founded in 1980 by his parents, Michael and Maureen LaFontaine. Sister Kelley is group vice president.
They began with a single store. The group now consists of 34 automotive retail franchises, 17 stores and six body shops across southern Michigan. A new dealership opened this year in Fenton, north of Detroit.
With 1,300 employees, the organization represents Ford, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, GMC, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram, Fiat, Toyota, Genesis, Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen, Subaru and Volvo.The group sold about 28,500 cars last year. This year, the goal is to sell 31,500, Ryan LaFontaine says. “We’re outpacing that right now.”
He served as president of the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn. Last year, he was the youngest chairman of the North American International Auto Show in the event’s 112-year history. He sold his first car as a mid-teen.
In a Wards Q&A, Ryan LaFontaine talks about his business style, what he’s learned from his parents, how he pays employees and his life as a cancer victim and survivor. Here’s an edited version of the interview.
Wards: Talk about your management style.
LaFontaine: I had the pleasure of learning under my mom and my dad. That was a strength in how we develop our culture and strategy. Or management style.
I started selling cars when I was 15 at this (Highland) store’s old location. At the time it was Pontiac-Cadillac-GMC. My mom ran it from when I was six to when I took it over in 2008.
My dad ran our Toyota store in Dearborn. He is an old used-car sales guy. His attributes included growth and accountability.
My sister and I learned under the blended styles. The “family deal” we offer is not just a slogan. It’s based on the core principles my parents taught us.
When hiring, the main attributes I look for in people are passion, heart, integrity, a great work ethic and that they care. I like teaching, but those core values are either innate or not. You can’t teach those.
We’ve been more successful than other dealer groups, but it’s not that we know any more. We don’t. I learn every day and surround myself with great people. About 70% of customer-facing employees have to go through a second interview with myself or my team. I don’t look at it like, “You’re selling 25-30 cars, I have to have you.” I look to see who you are. (Opening of LaFontaine's Fenton, MI, dealership this year, left).
Wards: What’s that mean exactly?
LaFontaine: I look for those attributes I mentioned. Heart. Passion. Can I trust you? What makes you tick? And what are your motivations and work ethic?
Wards:What sort of question would you ask to get that read on someone?
LaFontaine: You’ve been around the business a long time and interviewed a lot of people. You can look people in the eye and pay attention to body language and hear their reactions, see if they are genuine or not.
Wards: Employee retention is an issue in this business. One of the factors that might contribute to the high turnover is the way some people are paid. If a dealership is too commission-based, some people just don’t like that, it’s too risky for them and their financial planning because they want a steadier cash flow.
How do you pay people?
LaFontaine: We offer multiple pay platforms for sales and service. There are three elements: hours, compensation and flexibility of their time. You can choose your pay-plan structure.
In 2017, we changed the template giving raises to salespeople, service advisers and customer-facing people. A pay plan should be a job description almost.
Here, you can go full commission, getting paid full front and back, and really grow. You can go to an aggressive base plan that pays hourly and some commission. It gives you opportunities throughout to analyze it with your manager to see if you are ready to take the next level to full commission when your business is built up.
Some people will take a little less commission in a plan that (ultimately) pays less money but it works better for their home life.
If we don’t give the roadmap to succeed, we’re going to be constantly replacing people.
Wards: If someone opts for the full commission, the risk seems like they will do anything to sell cars, and that could include bad behavior. How do you protect against that?
LaFontaine: Even the full commission plans have categories that define who we are, such as customer satisfaction, which is what you’d be worried about regarding bad behavior. If you are not at high customer-satisfaction levels, it directly affects your pay. We look for people that can create great relationships and want customers for life.
It goes back to what my mom taught us: (The employees) are part of the family.
Wards: Regarding your mom and dad, a husband-and-wife dealer team is not an oddity. But it is unusual. How did it come about that both your parents were active dealers? And how did they manage that without trying to kill each other? (LaFontaine and his sister Kelley.)
LaFontaine: In the 1980s, it was even more uncommon to have a female running a dealership. A lot of females have been active inside the store with their spouses, but rarely do you see each spouse running separate stores.
My dad started selling Volkswagens in 1966. He was in the jewelry business before that. He excelled and became part owner of the VW store. In 1980, he decided to risk it all, mortgaged his house and bought a Toyota store in Dearborn, (MI), home of Ford Motor Co. It wasn’t popular to sell Toyotas in Dearborn then.
Wards: It’s a good franchise, though.
LaFontaine: It worked. In 1984, we bought this store that originally was on a side street in downtown Milford. The store sold 25 cars that year. We bought it in November and sold that many in a month.
My mom went from being a stay-at-home mom with four children to selling cars part-time in Dearborn when I was six. She did that one year, three days a week, and was competing for top salesperson.
In 1984, she took over the Milford store and grew it from there.
My parents dated since they were in the eighth grade. When you have two A-type personalities, you’re not always going to be on the same page. But they find ways to work through disagreements. And they are always there to care about each other.
My parents are still active in the business. They’re not in every meeting, but I can talk to them about big strategies and get their opinion. It’s a blessing.
Wards: What did you learn from them individually?
LaFontaine: Most of my career I was under my mom at the Highland dealership. My mom’s philosophy and strategy is different than my dad’s. My mom is the best relationship-builder. She valued people. Look at her people. They are very loyal because she treated them that way. I get my heart from her. Some people say I run this business with my heart. That could be good or bad. Certain people might take advantage of it, but it’s who I am.
Wards: And your dad?
LaFontaine: He taught me more the decisiveness, the growth, the passion to take things and see what they can be vs. what they are today. He also taught the value of selling used cars and fixed ops, and how we should invest in what we can control opposed to what we can’t. He has vision and knowledge.
My dad’s office was in a single-wide used-car-lot trailer for most of my career. Mind you, he’s earned every right to do anything he wants in life and be in any office he wants to be in, and yet he sat in a trailer in Dearborn. I asked him why. He said, “Because the pulse of the store goes right through this (used-car) department.”
Wards: The LaFontaine Group spends a lot of money on facilities and facility upgrades, which I’m sure automakers you represent love. But some dealers push back a bit on facility projects, especially the ones that are kind of mandated by the OEMs. You don’t seem to do that. Why not?
LaFontaine: It’s a partnership. I can’t always just look at what’s best for me. I’ve got to look at what’s best for them. In fairness, I need that in return. We analyze and make sure it makes sense, but you need facilities that showcase what you are doing and support what the vision is. It demonstrates to customers the value of the brand. Every facility tells a story of who you are.
Wards: You have five children under the age of 11. Would you like to see one, some or all of them become part of the LaFontaine Auto Group? (LaFontaine and wife Wendi at charity drive.)
LaFontaine: If it’s in them and they are passionate about it and find the reward as I have, then, yes, I’d love to see them become third-generation dealers. But I’ve seen too many dealer kids fail because they tried to fake it. They got in it because they thought they had to. You have to enjoy it. I knew when I was selling cars at 15 that I loved it.
Wards: Is it legal to sell cars at 15?
LaFontaine: Hey, times were different then. The Pontiac Montana was the first car I sold.
Wards: Talk about being a cancer victim and survivor.
LaFontaine: I was with dinner with my parents in March of 2008. I happened to find a lump on my neck. I was coughing at the time. I went to my family doctor. He said, “Don’t worry about it.” He gave me an inhaler to get rid of the cough.
A month later, I was still coughing. A physician’s assistant took an X-ray and said, “I think you have walking pneumonia, but I want to send out the results to be sure.”
She called back and set up a CAT scan because of the lump on my neck. That test showed I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (a cancer affecting the lymph immune system).
The hardest conversation I ever had in my life was when I told my dad I had cancer; my mom and sister were in Chicago at the time. When my sister and mom came back, we had a family meeting. It was emotional. I went through chemotherapy for two months. My hair was falling out.
On June 2, 2008, I did a speech to open this store. (Because of the effects of chemotherapy on me), I have no clue what I said. I figured I bombed. Everyone said it was an amazing speech. I didn’t know. It was all racing.
Wards: You went on to help raise funds for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma research.
LaFontaine: My sister and I created U CAN-CER VIVE. We raised $1 million in five years. Now, our goal is to raise $1 million a year. Last year, we did just under $700,000, One hundred percent goes to research grants.
I’m not the only one who has faced adversity. We all have. The key is what you do about it and learn from it. My adversity taught me the importance of prioritizing my life with faith, family and friends. My wife Wendi reminds me of that and keeps me grounded.
I truly believe if you have good intentions in doing something, that’s rewarded.