Cox Automotive Chief: Car Dealers ‘Meaningful’

Cox Automotive President Stephen Rowley talks dealers and the future of auto retailing.

Steve Finlay, Senior Editor

February 22, 2024

5 Min Read
Cox (1)
Cox Automotive was a major exhibitor at this year's NADA Show.Cox Automotive

Three years into his job as president of Cox Automotive, Stephen Rowley (pictured, below left) marvels at the inner workings of the auto industry, particularly retailing. 

Before leading Cox Automotive, he spent 30 years in telecommunications. Now, he leads an array of digital brands, including Autotrader (inventory listings), Kelley Blue Book (pricing information), (website design and marketing), Dealertrack (finance and insurance), vAuto (inventory management) and Manheim (auctions). 

Stephen-M-Rowley.jpgRowley spoke with WardsAuto during the recent National Automobile Dealers Assn. Show: The conversation included his thoughts about dealers, managing a multi-brand company and where he thinks auto retailing is headed. Here’s an edited version of the interview.    

WardsAuto: Here’s a standard question, but it can elicit interesting answers: Where do you see auto retailing going in the next five to 10 years, and where specifically does Cox Automotive fit in? 

Rowley: I can see out three to five years, that’s about it. Ten years is too far out. Digital retailing is something that needs to continue to be perfected. 

What we see is that auto consumers want to experience both the online and in-store environment. And they want to control that. They want to, say, visit Autotrader to look at cars, colors, get some pricing orientation and then go to the dealership. 

That entire retail experience will continue to proliferate. We’re investing heavily in it. Dealership will still be a big, important part of the process. Our technology gives dealers the ’lens’ to see what consumers are looking at online before they come in.”      

WardsAuto: Does that happen often? A dealership knows a lot about somebody’s online journey before they enter the store?     

Rowley: “Not often today. Some dealerships do make it a point to know. But having data at your hands with our Retail360 integrated approach gives a lot of flexibility to the dealer. Elements of it are happening today. It will continue to grow. 

In our latest survey, 79% of customers had a positive experience at the dealership and valued it. So, when you add technology and personalization to the process, it enhances the experience.    

WardsAuto: It didn’t used to be 79%; it was a lot lower. Why do you suppose dealer satisfaction ratings went up as they have? Did the internet have anything to do with it, or did dealers get better at what they do?    

Rowley: It’s a great question, and we spend a lot of time on it.  

Of late, dealers have done a better job with inventory and availability of cars.  

Also, online has become pervasive, allowing people to see prices they want to see, and match up with those prices when they go to the dealer. If I know what I want, and the dealer knows, it makes for a more harmonious relationship that starts midfield.         

WardsAuto: You said a customer’s dealership visit remains an important part of the car-buying process. How so? With Amazon, you don’t go offline and head to an Amazon store to finish the transaction.   

Rowley: OK, but it’s different when you’re buying a toaster. If I’m buying a car, I’m going to pay attention. It’s not a $150 item. It’s $40,000, $50,000, $60,000. And I may be financing that car.  And I want to test drive it.  

There’s a difference in the magnitude of the purchase and what it means to my pocketbook.” 

WardsAuto: A vehicle also is a personal purchase. You occupy it. You use it often. It fills an important need: mobility. Toasters just make toast.    

Rowley: You nailed it. It’s personal, emotional. It’s also a capital expenditure you take care of. It can reflect your personality or status. It’s a meaningful purchase.   

WardsAuto: What’s it like overseeing many different brands in the Cox Automotive portfolio?  

Rowley: “When I came aboard, I asked the same thing.”   

WardsAuto: Did you get more than one answer?  

Rowley: Yes. We’ve (streamlined) to 13 power brands. Dealers have told us they want someone who can understand their business end-to-end and support all elements of it. 

We’ve created more of that quarterback approach with our sales teams so they can support the customer.    

WardsAuto: So, there’s been a consolidation?  

Rowley: Yes, but I want to be careful with the word “consolidation.” Let’s say it’s from a brand architecture that we’ve brought those 13 big brands together. 

WardsAuto: When did this happen? 

Rowley: We’re rolling it out this year. 

WardsAuto: You’ve been the president for three years. What surprised you most when you came in?   

Rowley: I can’t believe the talent level and tenure of this organization. I was most surprised at how deep-rooted our relationships are with dealer customers. They are people who often own their businesses, have their lifeblood in the business and really know it. They are not figureheads. They are meaningful to the business. 

The auto industry overall is complex. The selling of a car is not easy.  

So, data - the knowledge and the sourcing of it – is so important. I’m amazed at how much data we have here and how much of it we use to power our products.” 

WardsAuto: Do you talk to dealers? 

Rowley: Every week. 

WardsAuto: What do you talk about? 

Rowley: There’s no loss of conversation. I’m asking about their business and what we can do for them. The last three years have been very profitable for dealers. They want to keep that going.  

I love that dealers want to do better and do more. 

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