David Robertson is a realist when it comes to the prospect of totally eradicating finance and insurance offenses that occur at some auto dealerships.
Sure, you can cut down on the misconduct by training employees in compliance rules, setting high standards and prosecuting offenders who think cheating customers is one way to earn a bonus.
The industry has come a long way cleaning up its act. But you're not going to completely wipe out the bad behavior, Robertson says. Not as long as human beings staff F&I offices.
There always will be some dealers and dealership personnel who consider it OK to charge customers for unordered items or to knowingly send false credit information to lenders.
“There are dealers who will never get it,” says Robertson, a former F&I manager who is now executive director of the Assn. of Finance & Insurance Professionals.
“There is a certain percentage that, no matter what the consequences, are not going to do it right,” he says. “It's like drug addicts comprising a certain percentage of the population.”
Alas, it is “a quirk of human nature we must recognize,” Robertson says at the 2007 F&I Management and Technology Conference in Las Vegas.
He offers a ghastly analogy on such ironies of human behavior:
Pickpockets once were publicly hanged in unmerry old England. Yet, where was the best place to find pickpockets working the crowd back then?
“At public hangings,” Robertson says.
He can encounter resistance in his efforts to certify F&I managers and have them promise to obey the law.
“To be certified, you must sign a pledge saying you are personally responsible,” he says. “I had a guy who wouldn't sign because he said he knew the dealer was doing things wrong. I contacted the dealer. His solution? Not to certify the guy.”
Robertson recalls traveling to another dealership to conduct certification procedures. “Over lunch, the dealer told me, ‘We pack payments.’ I said, ‘That's illegal.’ He said, ‘Well, it's a business decision.’
“I got on a plane and went home, because I can't certify people committing felonies.”
Then there was a dealership employee in California who acknowledged packing payments (secretly hiking monthly terms beyond the price of the vehicle, then using the extra money to fund F&I products). But she told Robertson, “We only do it when we have to.”
When F&I reformers such as Robertson want to show how it can blow up, they point to the poster dealership of F&I wrongdoing: Gunderson Chevrolet in El Monte, CA.
Acting on consumer complaints, authorities raided the store and carted away 25 file cabinets of records that showed forgery, odometer fraud and cute little tricks such as charging thousands of dollars for antitheft windshield etchings without customers knowing about it.
The dealership had to pay $1.6 million in restitutions to 1,263 customers and $1.1 million in court-ordered penalties.
Its general manager, sales manager, finance director, used-car manager and three F&I managers were criminally charged. Some of them did time.
“Prison broke up the momentum of some great sales months,” Robertson quips.
Sometimes F&I hanky panky goes on with the dealer principal completely unaware of it.
Dealers should know the ramifications and then take the appropriate action to make sure it isn't happening under their noses. After all, it's their store.
“Dealers need to understand the differences between a pitch and how it works,” Robertson says. “How many didn't know the difference until an attorney or a newspaper reporter explained it to them?”
He says that at the end of his career, whether every dealer “gets it” or not, he wants to be able to say he did everything he could to make sure they had a chance to. “That's the ultimate test.”