COOL SPRINGS, TN - Spend time at the Saturn retailer nearest to Saturn Corp.'s assembly plant in Spring Hill and one begins to understand why Saturn customers will travel many miles to celebrate the "Saturn experience."
"I'm going to a hotel to drop off a set of keys for a lady who locked her keys in her car," reports a Saturn of Cool Springs employee, popping his head into General Manager Robert Miles' office.
"That's the reason people are so happy with Saturn," says Mr. Miles, a 25-year veteran of the car business who signed on with Saturn before the first retail outlets opened.
"It's the way Saturn takes care of its customer base - retailer plus man-ufacturer," continues Mr. Miles. "If there's a legitimate problem, there's no hassle.
"I've worked for other manufacturers: Pontiac, Nissan, Toyota, GMC and Lincoln Mercury 15 years before I worked for Saturn," he says. "I've never seen a company take better care of its customers than Saturn."
Just like it did five years ago when Saturn Corp. hosted its first Homecoming for customers, the Cool Springs retailer sees a boost in its service business during the weekend of Homecoming '99.
People drove their Saturns from as far away as Washington State into 100-degree-plus temperatures of middle Tennessee.
"The last Homecoming it was the rain that got us," recalls Mr. Miles. "We were washing people's muddy cars until 8-9 p.m. "Now it's the heat. This time they're having problems with alternators and air conditioning."
Other visitors to this esta-blishment during Homecoming weekend need oil changes after a long trip or just stop in to say hello. Whatever, the dealership has food and beverages out for its guests.
Originally owned by Nelson Bowers of Chattanooga, TN, the Cool Springs store opened in January of 1993. Since 1996, it has been the property of C.M. "Bill" Gatton of Bristol, TN.
The facility sells between 2,200-2,400 vehicles per year, 1,200 of them new.
"The factory employees buy a lot of cars," says Mr. Miles describing the benefits of being the closest retailer to the factory. "Probably 25% to 30% of our sales are employees and other family members who qualify for employee discount prices."
He adds that although the destination charge is the same as anywhere else, he gets his hands on inventory faster than other stores.
"The only downside that I could ever see would be that I know things prior to other people - some information I really don't care to know," says Mr. Miles referring to tidbits he gets from his customers who are Saturn employees. "There might be a problem on the line as far as a fit and finish. It would never get delivered with a problem, but I'd just as soon not know about it."
He says, however, the benefits of proximity far outweigh the negatives.
"They help us sell the car," says Mr. Miles. "The employees will come in and call me out and say, 'This one right here you need to put it in the shop because this is what I do at the plant and I can see this fit's not exactly perfect.'
"They critique their own work even after it hits the sales floor. And of course we fix it while they're here. It's great when you have people working like that together."
Mr. Miles is upbeat about the future of Saturn, especially with the new L-Series mid-size car.
"We're getting people who have never been to a Saturn store before because the car was too small for their family," he says. "And we have people who want to order the sport-utility and they haven't even started building it yet."
Saturn of Cool Springs already has sold 23 L-Series cars and expects the addition of that product to boost monthly sales from 100 to 165 or 170.
As hoped, the new L-Series Saturn is bringing more people into Saturn retailers.
Says Mr. Miles, "Twenty-five percent of the orders I've taken are from Saturn owners getting a larger car, but 75% have never owned a Saturn before and they're trading in imports and domestic alike."
Saturn of Cool Springs cooperates with other Saturn retailers.
For instance, Mr. Miles just sold a shipment of cars (at no profit) to a retailer in Jackson, MS, which needed some inventory.
"If the situation were reversed, I know they'd do it for me," says Mr. Miles. "We work as a team. We've pulled them from everywhere, even certified used cars."