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Taking a Shot at Retail

Retired top-level DaimlerChrysler executives Tom McAlear and Tom Marinelli are in a new line of work, prompting a lot of interest and some envy from their former ranks. McAlear and Marinelli now are auto dealers. They are partners in Bossier Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in College Station, TX, 100 miles north of Houston. Since we bought the dealership, I've had a lot of inquiries from factory people and not

Retired top-level DaimlerChrysler executives Tom McAlear and Tom Marinelli are in a new line of work, prompting a lot of interest and some envy from their former ranks.

McAlear and Marinelli now are auto dealers. They are partners in Bossier Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in College Station, TX, 100 miles north of Houston.

“Since we bought the dealership, I've had a lot of inquiries from factory people — and not just DaimlerChrysler people — saying, ‘I've always thought about doing that,’” says McAlear. “In some cases, there's a lot of envy.”

Says Marinelli, “We put our money where our mouth was as corporate guys. We felt the future looked bright and upcoming product looked solid for Chrysler (Group).”

McAlear, 53, was president of DaimlerChrysler Insurance and chief operating officer of DaimlerChrysler Services when he retired in 2002 after 27 years with Chrysler.

Marinelli, 52, a 28-year Chrysler veteran, was marketing vice president for Chrysler and Jeep and served as president of Chrysler-Europe. His career began as a zone representative calling on dealers, including those in eastern Texas, where he is now a dealer.

McAlear and Marinelli say that, as auto executives, they have always been close to dealers. For years they had been considering a dealership opportunity.

One came about when Larry Bossier offered to sell his stake in his namesake dealership in College Station, a city of 67,000 residents in a metropolitan area of 152,000 residents near Texas A&M.

Bossier bought the store in 1982 from a third-generation owner whose grandfather started it in the 1920. Annual sales of $61 million make it one of the nation's top Chrysler dealerships.

In the new ownership are Bossier's son, Scott, and Randy Pretzer who also own Bossier Country Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge and Chevrolet in Fairfield, TX, 90 miles away.

“Of all the people I worked with through my 30 years as a Chrysler dealer, there aren't two guys I'd rather do business with than Tom McAlear and Tom Marinelli,” says Larry Bossier. “They'll be great partners for my son and Randy.”

So far, it's worked out well. “We haven't had one disagreement,” says McAlear. “We defer to each other's strengths. He adds: “We're having a ball.”

Scott Bossier and Pretzer are responsible for the dealership's day-to-day operations. McAlear and Marinelli dub themselves as active investors.

They think they and Scott Bossier and Pretzer can learn from each other.

Marinelli says, “Dealers are very entrepreneurial, and with years of corporate backgrounds behind us, that's something we want to develop more of. Dealers are incredible survivors who know how to achieve success.

“On the other hand, sometimes, not all the time, of course, but sometimes they lack some of the discipline and process approach to the business that we've gained on the corporate side. That's what we hope to bring to the party in terms of running a very organized and process-driven business.”

Adds McAlear: “We've seen a lot of dealers over our careers. A lot of them change the business structure every day to fit the people who show up for work. Our approach is to put the processes in place and then find the right people.”

That approach applies to all areas of the dealership, from sales to service. It stems from the Chrysler Five Star dealership quality control program that McAlear and Marinelli helped put together as auto executives.

They recently spent a day observing the workload and throughput of the store's service operations. Those operations are in four different buildings, making it difficult to monitor technicians and deliver parts efficiently, they say.

They are working with an architectural firm to see how to create a better layout in terms of people flow, vehicle flow and work flow.

The dealership consists of six buildings on 13 acres. About a decade ago, the corporate dictate of the day was to maintain separate buildings and addresses for the different franchises. That led to a showroom for Chrysler and Jeep and another for Dodge 120 ft. away.

Now Chrysler wants a more cohesive look. The architects are working on that, too.

“Our architectural firm came up with an idea for a huge façade that pulls it all together with an appearance that Chrysler is looking for,” says Marinelli. “Now we're trying to find a way to pay for it.”

He says McAlear's finance background will help there, as well as in bringing fiscal discipline to the overall operation. It also will come in handy for future dealership acquisitions. The former auto executives ultimately want to own a dealership group.

Right now, though, they are looking to divest themselves of two franchises, Suzuki and Mitsubishi, that came with the Bossier deal.

Nothing against Suzuki and Mitsubishi, it's just that “we we're not ready to establish separate facilities and sales staffs for them, and we don't want to intermingle them with Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep,” says McAlear.

Adds Marinelli: “As corporate guys we had said competitive dualing was not good for the brands or the dealerships because you're focusing on too many things. We feel the same as dealership investors.”

The dealership sells Texans a lot of pickups, SUVs and minivans, but not so many cars.

McAlear and Marinelli say that is changing with the success of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum.

“We have customers coming in looking to buy cars from us, which hasn't happened in a while,” says McAlear.

Marinelli is excited about the prospects of upcoming all-new vehicles including replacements for the Dodge Neon and Chrysler Sebring and Stratus.

From his Chrysler vice presidential days, he has some inside knowledge of those impending products.

“We get motivated thinking we can add almost a whole new franchise with the car side of the business to add to our strong pickup truck, SUV and minivan sales,” he says.

Their dealership sells about 1,700 new and 1,000 used vehicles a year. “The two Toms,” as they're called, aim to deliver 2,000 new and 1,500 used vehicles a year within two years.

What has been the reaction of the locals to two “factory” guys from Detroit going down to Texas to sell vehicles?

Says Marinelli: “They gave me a round of applause at a general dealership meeting in Houston. Of course, we're competitors to some degree. But so far the reception has been incredibly warm and friendly.

“The only uncomfortable moment was when Gary Dilts (Chrysler Group's senior vice president for sales and marketing) was taking questions, and the issue came up that dealers weren't getting enough Chrysler 300s. Gary said, ‘Well, the guy responsible for launching that car and for its dealer allocation formula is right here in the room.’”

Other Auto Executives in the Dealership World

Other auto executives besides Tom McAlear and Tom Marinelli have entered the world of automotive retailing.

Robert Lund, a General Motors Corp. vice president and general manager of the Chevrolet Div. from 1974-82, is a successful GM dealer in Phoenix.

He runs Lund Cadillac with his son John. It is one of the top Cadillac dealerships in the country.

Jim Perkins, another GM vice president and Chevrolet general manager during the 1990s, runs the Hendrick Automotive Group in Charlotte, NC.

Perkins oversees 65 franchises and 49 dealerships with nearly $3 billion in annual revenues. Hendrick ranks seventh on the Ward's MegaDealer 100.

Ford Motor Co. Vice Chairman Allan Gilmour owns Gilmour Ford-Lincoln-Mercury-Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge in St. Johnsbury, VT.

Gilmour rejoined Ford, at the request of Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr, in 2002. He had retired as vice chairman in 1995. His nephew John runs the dealership, touted as “progressive” and “one of the most outstanding in the Northeast.”
By Steve Finlay

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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