When word got around that Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally had tried his hand selling cars at a couple of dealerships recently, people from the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Assn. had a question.
“What was your closing ratio and your gross?” Association President Mark Schienberg asked Mulally at the 2007 New York International Auto Show, a big event in a city that allegedly disdains cars. More on that in a minute.
Mulally didn't say what numbers he posted at Village Ford in Dearborn, MI, near Ford world headquarters; then at Galpin Ford in North Hills, CA, the top-selling Ford dealer in the world.
But the Ford chief did expound on why he made time in his executive schedule to work a few hours at dealerships. “I did it for several reasons,” he says. “One of them is that the dealer body is critical to us.”
Mulally recalls one of his customers who was interested in an F-250 pickup truck. “I got him a good lease rate and gave him a good trade-in value, but he said he had to convince his wife.”
Like a good salesman who doesn't let the customer get away, Mulally suggested the man call her from the dealership, rather than go home to talk.
“At one point I got on the phone and told his wife — Victoria — what a dynamic new truck the F-250 is.” Then Mulally did something that he thinks may have cinched the deal. “I threw in the floor mats.”
As a car salesman, he says he learned customers want to be respected and listened to. Do the right things, and you can “kind of bond with customers.”
He tells of two brothers at Village Ford shopping for a car for their mother, who was visiting Michigan from New York. She was reluctant to go to a dealership herself due to a prior bad car-buying experience.
“She was down to considering a (Toyota) Camry and a (Ford) Fusion,” says Mulally. “I went through all the Fusion's features. She ended up buying one and driving it back to New York.”
While he talked to her sons, one of them said to Mulally: “Do you want to see my surgical scars?” He lifted up his shirt to reveal a pattern of staples running up the front of his chest like railroad tracks.
“He just had major surgery, yet here he was taking care of his mother,” says Mulally. “I realized then that we are doing something important; we've got to take care of these customers.”
Schienberg tells me he asked about Mualley's dealership performance at the urging of dealers who were with him at the New York show. Schienberg's dealer association puts on the annual 10-day event. It attracts about 1.2 million visitors.
They come by train, subway, bus, taxi, and some daring types even drive to the show in their cars. In which case, parking is three blocks away and not cheap.
Some wags call New York a city where no one owns a car. Well, someone does. The streets are clogged with them — and not just the ones that are yellow and have meters mounted at their dashboards.
Actually, the greater New York area is a huge new-car market, one of the nation's biggest, with retail sales of about 500,000 units a year, notes Schienberg.
That totals $20.8 billion in revenue and $2.28 billion in regional economic impact, according to an association study.
New York's auto show itself pumps about $118 million into the local economy. Veteran auto writer Jerry Flint remembers the show from the 1950s when it was a modest expo of mainly foreign vehicles.
The Japanese hadn't arrived yet. Displayed cars included VW Beetles, tiny Fiat roadsters and iconic British sports cars such as Triumph and MG.
“It was basically a European car show,” says Flint.
Schienberg says the strength of today's New York show is it includes all brands.
“The Detroit show is great, way above a lot of others, but it is handicapped in some respects because domestic auto makers try to take too much control,” he says. “In New York, we're an equal-opportunity auto show.”
Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business.