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Monday, June 29, 2015

Worthington/Quantum High Schools Commencement Address

 
My column this week is the commencement address that I delivered last Thursday, June 18 at the Worthington and Quantum High School of West Palm Beach graduation ceremony.  

I’m deeply honored to be asked to speak to you this afternoon. I do a lot of public speaking at civic clubs, churches and synagogues, libraries, and chambers of commerce. I do a live radio show every week with my wife, Nancy. Normally I speak extemporaneously. I’ve never written out a speech, and I rarely even use notes. But I have to confess, addressing a group of young women and men who will graduate from high school in a few minutes “scares me to death”. And, as you can tell, I’ve written out my words and I will read them to you. I want to be sure that I say the right things and give you the best advice I possibly can because you're beginning one of the most important phases of your lives.

When I was asked to speak to you, I was naturally very flattered, but I was also surprised. I wondered why I was chosen out of all the very qualified people that would be just as honored as I to speak to you. Then it came to me that I’m a successful businessman, a car dealer that is very different from most other car dealers. Not only am I different, but I’m far more successful than most other car dealers. But the reason I'm more successful is not that I’m smarter, or that I work harder or even that I sell a better product. I do sell a good product…Toyotas, but I also outsell all of the Toyota dealers in my market.

I haven’t always been different from all other car dealers; In fact for most of my career I was just like them. I started in the automobile business in 1968, long before any of you were born, and probably before most of your parents were born. I was successful for many years doing business just like all the other car dealers. The conventional, simple formula for success of car dealers was then, and still is today: (1) Advertise whatever it takes to lure prospective customers into your dealership. (2) When they arrive, do whatever it takes to sell them a car at the highest possible profit.

Back in the day when I was just like every other car dealer, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. There’s a sociological phenomenon that makes many of us think we’re doing the right thing because everybody else is doing the same thing. Two extreme examples of this are Nazi Germany in the thirties and forties and the Southern USA during the slavery era.

When we were kids, almost all of us used this excuse to our parents when we were caught doing something stupid like smoking or drag racing. “But, Mom…EVERYBODY IS DOING IT!” Then your Mom would say, “If everybody jumped off a cliff would you do the same thing?”

 I’m not really sure when I began to “see the light” and realize what I was doing was very wrong. It wasn’t an overnight revelation; it was more of an evolution. Twenty years ago, only one of my three sons had any interest in my business. The other two didn’t want to do what I did for a living. About that time I came very close to selling my business and retiring. Thirteen years ago my first (of five) grandchildren were born. About that same time, I married Nancy, the second marriage for us both. She loved the business and has taken an active role in it. A little over 10 years ago, I contracted colon cancer and thought I might die. These are “life changing events” in a person. My evolution from a “run of the mill” car dealer began back then. I began to “clean up my act”. I stopped my bait and switch advertising and I reformed from deceptive sales practices. My youngest son, Josh, and oldest son, Stu, joined me in the business. I remember one day my oldest son, Stu, told me that his children, my grandchildren, told him that they were proud of what he did for a living and that they would like to be car dealers one day. This had a very powerful impact on me and when I think about it today, it still brings tears to my eyes.

A funny thing happened as I began to treat my customer with more respect and integrity. My business began to improve. The customers that I sold for the first time began to come back again and again. They even told their friends and families. I was becoming more successful than I had ever been before. Suddenly it dawned on me! Being honest and respectful of others is GOOD FOR BUSINESS. Not only was I able to have my family with me, sleep better at night with a clear conscience, but I was making a lot of money.

I discussed this with my family and we decided to do what we were doing even better. Our company motto is “Kaizen” the Japanese word for “continuous improvement”. The next major step we took was to eliminate the “Dealer Fee”. The dealer fee also known by many other names like doc fee and dealer prep fee, is car dealers’ dirty little secret. It’s extra profit added to the price of a car making the customer believe it's an official state or federal fee. It’s the single most profitable component of most car dealers’ income. In my case, it amounted to about a $150,000 monthly. I was taking a huge chance by eliminating a source of profit that could literally bankrupt us. But, we agreed that if our goal was to be totally honest with our customers, the dealer fee had to go. Our profit per car did drop but the number of cars we sold increased so much as to offset the loss. Almost every car dealer in Florida and the USA, still charges a dealer fee.

Our next major step was to stop making high profits on those who could least afford to pay them, the less educated and sophisticated members of our society, and making low profits on those who are highly educated, shrewd negotiators. This is the hassle and haggle way of selling cars which is still prevalent today. For the past 3 or 4 years we have posted our lowest price on every car we sell. We encourage our customers to shop and compare our price with other dealers. Everybody pays the same price when they buy a particular car from us.

Another change we made was to offer unconditional money back guarantees on every car we sell. If a customer changes his mind for any reason, maybe they found a lower price or don’t like the color, we refund 100% of their money. No other car dealer I know of offers unconditional money back guarantees. On the contrary, most car dealers do everything they can to persuade you to take the car home the same day that you visit the dealership. “Taking delivery” is a vital component to making the car purchasing contract legally binding. It’s called a “spot delivery” by car dealers and most sell virtually all of their cars this way. You are rarely ever allowed to return the car and get your money back.

Our next change, in the spirit of Kaizen, will be to become the Amazon.com of car dealers. Very soon we will make it as easy to buy a car as it is now to buy flowers or a box of candy online. We will offer our customers the ability to choose their car, trade in their old car, and finance or pay for their car on their computer or smart phone. We will accept credit cards for a down payment or full payment and approve credit online for financing. We will send our appraisers to the customers’ homes to establish the trade-in value and we will also deliver their purchased car to their home. Our unconditional money back guarantee will take all of the risk and fear out of buying a car, even online.

I mentioned earlier that I do a lot of public speaking, just like I’m doing now. In recent years my role has changed from that of a car dealer to more of a consumer advocate. Because we’ve built the Earl Stewart brand so solidly to represent integrity to the car buyers of South Florida, I’ve moved to the “next level of trust” from a seller of Toyotas to an educator to buyers of all makes. In any business this is the highest level of trust attainable. I’m betting that you have a great amount of trust in your teachers that worked with you over the past twelve years to bring you to this great moment in your lives. Your parents also had a great deal of trust in your teachers in choosing this high school that you attended.

In addition to my weekly radio show and my regular speaking engagements, I write a weekly blog and newspaper column. I am looked upon by the local and national media as a source of candid, truthful information about the retail auto industry. I’ve been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CNN, Fox News, US News and World Report, Fortune Magazine, Forbes and many local medium. I’ve written a book, Confessions of a Recovering Car Dealer, that I sell on Amazon and I donate 100% of the proceeds to charity. In fact, tonight, as a graduation present to each of you, I will give you a copy of my book. Just email your address to earl@earloncars.com and I will mail you a copy of Confessions of a Recovering Car Dealer.

So, you might ask, what has all of this got to do with me? What it has to do with you is that I’ve shared a “secret” with you…a secret that is “hidden in plain sight”. You’re mother always told you to be a good person, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", "never say anything about anybody else unless you have something nice to say", "honesty is the best policy", don’t be a bully, and so on. We see and hear this advice often and from an early age, but what we don’t see is the majority of people around us, friends, family, and most others, following all of this advice themselves. You can compare this to the speed limit signs on I-95. Everybody sees and understands their meaning all the time they are driving, but very few pay any attention including the Florida Highway Patrol. J

 The reason that you don’t obey the speed limit is that you want to get where you’re going faster and you know that if you exceed the speed limit by just 5 or 10mph, you won’t be issued a ticket. You also notice that everybody else is exceeding the speed limit and they aren’t being ticketed either. In fact, your trip is actually smoother if you stay in the flow of traffic. If you slow down, other drivers continuously pass you and some might tailgate or even blow their horns.

But what if, counter intuitively, you discovered that, for whatever reason, you actually made better time by rigidly obeying the speed limit? Do you see where I’m going with this? I discovered, almost by accident, that all other car dealers were doing it wrong! And remember, this phenomenon isn’t confined to only car dealers. This applies to all businesses everywhere.

 This is because the world is changing at warp speed. At the end of WWII, human knowledge was expanding at the rate of doubling every 25 years. Remember that in 1945 we had no computers, no Internet, and there wasn’t even any television. Today the sum total of human knowledge is doubling every 12 hours and that rate is accelerating as I speak! Today, the smart phone you hold in your hand has more computing power than was available to the President of the United States twenty years ago!
\Some of you will be going on to college next and some won't, but all of you will be looking for a job at some point. You might be tempted to take job with the company that offers or promises you the most money. You must overcome that temptation because, in the long run, very few 21st Century companies will prosper without transparency and integrity. This is because of the "knowledge explosion" I've told you about. Today's consumer is far smarter, more sophisticated, and more demanding than the consumer of just a few years ago.

My advice to you is to look for a company to work for that believes, understands, and applies the "secret" that I've shared with you this afternoon. Good companies always try to hire good people. That’s what makes them good companies. In your job interviews let them know that you strongly believe in total transparency and honesty and that you chose their company because they have that reputation. It goes without saying that a strong work ethic, high energy, and a good education are prerequisites for most jobs. But, what will make you stand out from the crowd at a good company is your ability to fit well into their culture of transparency and integrity. 

Thank you for honoring me by asking me to speak to you today. Good luck and God bless.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Don't Get "Flipped" to a Lease

One of the most popular weapons in car dealers’ arsenals is the infamous “lease flip”. This is car dealer jargon for switching a customer who originally intended to buy a car to leasing the car. 

Of course the motivation to do this is more profit for the dealer and a bigger commission to the salesman. That’s not to say that leasing a car is always more costly than buying one, but it can be if you’re not careful. And not being careful is exactly what happens when a purchase intender becomes a lessee. 

Here’s how it happens. You come into the dealership to buy a car. You may have seen the dealer’s advertisement in the newspaper or TV for a particular model. More than likely you are prepared to make a down payment and/or trade in your old vehicle. You have a monthly payment in mind because almost everybody has a budget and we usually translate most purchases into whether or not we can fit them into our monthly budgets. You negotiate the best price you can to buy the car, or maybe the sale price is good enough. 

Now the salesman or more often the F&I manager/business manager tells you what your monthly payment will be. Let’s say that you have a trade-in worth $15,000 and aren’t going to put any cash down. The F&I [Finance and Insurance] manager tells you your monthly payment will be $427 per month. But that’s way more than you can afford and you tell him you can’t buy the car because you can’t afford that big a payment. He asks you how much you can afford and you tell him it must be under $350 per month. Now he has you set up perfectly for the “lease flip”. 

“Mrs. Smith, I think I have just the right thing for you. What would you say if I told you that you can drive that new car home today for just $349 per month?” You say, “With glee, you say we have a deal!” Guess what? You’ve just been flipped. If you had bought the car at the advertised price or negotiated a very good price, the dealer probably would have made about $1,000 profit. and the salesman would have made about a $200 commission. Not that you’ve let yourself be flipped to lease, the dealer could be making $15,000 and the salesman could be making a $3,000 commission!

I’m not exaggerating. I get calls weekly from victims of lease flips. Many of the callers are elderly and many of them are widows who never bought a car before, but had relied on their husbands. There’s no law that limits the profit that a dealer can make when he sells or leases a car. $10,000, $15,000, and even $20,000 profits are made and usually on leases. The dealers can do this by using the trade-in as a capital cost reduction on the lease but allowing less for the trade than it is actually worth. In the example above, your trade-in may be worth $15,000 but you were allowed only $5,000 to reduce the capitalized costs of the lease. Also, the dealer could have raised the price of the car you negotiated or the sale price to MSRP or even 110% of MSRP which is allowable by the leasing companies. 

By manipulating the number of months of the lease and the down payment [capitalized cost reduction], a dealer can give you as low a payment as you ask for and still make an exorbitant profit. Most buyers are so focused on monthly payments that they don’t carefully analyze what they are agreeing to and signing. The shorter the number of months of a lease, the greater impact the down payment has on the monthly payment. A $5,000 down payment reduces the monthly payment on a 36 month lease by $139 per month, $208 on a 24 month lease, and $417 on 12 month lease. 

Incredibly many victims of the lease flip, never thought about the fact that after the 12, 24, or 36 month term of the lease, they own nothing. After 36 months, a car with a good resale value should be worth about half of what you paid for it. Many people who have never leased before think they can bring their lease car back early if they want. Leasing is not renting and you can bring your car back early only if you make all of the remaining lease payments. If you had bought the car for $30,000 and financed it for 36 months, you would have about $15,000 in equity at the end of 36 months and no monthly payments. You were building equity with every monthly payment in the purchase but you were building zero equity with your 36 lease payments. 

As I said before, don’t let this frighten you from ever leasing a car. Leasing can be a good choice and sometimes the best choice. You can find six articles I’ve written for Hometown News: “Lease a New Car before You Buy It”, “Car Leasing Booby Traps”, “Be Very Careful When Leasing a Car”, “The Lease Acquisition Fee…the Bank’s Gotcha”, “Buy or Lease Your Car at the Right Time of Year”, and “Should I Buy or Lease My Next Car?” 

Monday, June 15, 2015

TrueCar and Tesla: Car Dealers' Worst Nightmares




If you want to know who car dealers dream about at night and wake up screaming about, their names are Scott Painter and Elon Musk. Scott Painter is the founder and CEO of TrueCar and Elon Musk is the CEO of Tesla.

What these two men have in common is an understanding of why most Americans distrust car dealers and why they consider today’s car buying experience unpleasant and even fearsome. Scott Painter and Elon Musk also have a vision for how this can be changed and both of their companies are moving rapidly to do so. They also have something else in common; they are two of the smartest, most honest people I know.

These men and their companies both have the same goal which is to bring total honesty and transparency to the car-buying experience, but they have chosen different paths to accomplish their goals.

Elon Musk and Tesla are lobbying state legislatures and federal agencies to allow Tesla, an auto manufacturer, to sell cars directly to the consumer and by-pass franchised car dealers. Some states have already complied and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, FTC, has sided with Tesla, and is “strongly recommending” that all state legislatures pass legislation allowing direct sale of automobiles by all manufacturers. 


During the early part of the twentieth century privately owned franchised car dealerships were a rarity. Gradually car dealers were able to lobby all state legislatures to pass law making it illegal for a manufacturer to sell cars in their states and requiring that all cars be sold through private dealerships that were franchised by the auto manufacturers. The dealer franchise laws also prevent manufacturers from adding “too many” car dealerships in a given market. These same laws make it very difficult for a manufacturer to cancel a dealer’s franchise. Unless a car dealer commits some very egregious act, like committing a felony, manufacturers have a very difficult time doing anything to replace him. Car dealers make a lot of money and they form associations that are essentially lobbying organizations to maintain the status quo.

Elon Musk’s task is not an easy one. The car dealers and most politicians are and will continue to vigorously oppose him. But he does have a strong trump card which is the “American car buyer”. The Gallup Company has been conducting an annual poll on “Honesty and Ethics in Professions” for 37 years. Car dealers have ranked either dead last or in the bottom three since the poll began. They have shown no improvement. They are frozen in the 1950’s ways of bait and switch advertising and deceptive sales practices. There is no question that, if there were a national referendum vote on whether car buyers should be allowed to buy their cars from other than a franchised dealer, it would pass overwhelmingly.

As you probably know, I am a car dealer and I have been one since 1968. My father started in the retail car business in 1937 and I joined him at his Pontiac dealership in West Palm Beach. My wife and I are still involved in our Toyota dealership and my three sons will continue to operate it, hopefully, for many years to come. I would like to obtain another one or two car dealerships for my sons. Clearly, I do not look forward to the demise of the auto franchise system, but I clearly do understand why this could happen.

Scott Painter offers an alternative to Elon Musk’s goal to eliminate franchised car dealers. His company, www.TrueCar.com, offers a far superior, safer, totally transparent and less expensive way than buying a car directly from a car dealer. TrueCar has established firm rules for car dealers to abide by, if they want to become a Certified TrueCar Dealer. These rules include posting a firm out-the-door price without “surprises” like dealer fees, doc fees, and dealer installed accessories. This affords the TrueCar buyer the ability to compare out-the-door prices with at least 3 certified TrueCar dealers. TrueCar also offers unique and invaluable data to their buyers on what the real transaction prices are for the exact car they wish to purchase in their market. This data is obtained directly from the computers of over 10,000 TrueCar dealers. A potential buyer of a Ford F150 can see the lowest price, highest price, and average price that this vehicle has sold for recently in his market. The buyer can compare these with the prices quoted by the TrueCar dealers as well as MSRP and invoice….TOTAL TRANSPARENCY.

About 30% of all U.S. car dealers are Certified TrueCar dealers. Dealer who won’t comply with the rules are “fired”. Last year TrueCar fired 275 dealers. Customers who have a complaint about a TrueCar dealer can complain directly to TrueCar and they resolve all complaints. There has NEVER BEEN A LAWSUIT AGAINST TRUECAR BY A CUSTOMER since they started in business ten years ago.

There are lawsuits against TrueCar from car dealers and car dealers’ lobbying associations. There is even an effort to certify a class action suit purportedly on behalf of TrueCar stockholders. This is because the other frivolous lawsuits by the car dealers and their associations have driven down the TrueCar stock price. It’s my personal opinion that Wall Street short-sellers are behind this lawsuit. In full disclosure, I own TrueCar stock and I am buying more because I firmly believe TrueCar is the wave of the future in the way that cars will be bought in the USA. I am also a member of the TrueCar national dealer council and a certified TrueCar dealer.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Should I Buy a Car or Have a Colonoscopy?

I wrote this column 3 years ago, but in honor of my routine colonoscopy this morning, I’ve decided to re-run it ;)

If you are over 55, you should have had a colonoscopy. If you haven’t, call your doctor because this could save your life. It did mine, but that’s another story. I had another colonoscopy yesterday and I have to tell you that it’s a very unpleasant experience, mainly from the mental anguish anticipation and the discomfort of the preparation the previous day. I had a lot of time to think about my procedure and I started thinking about how this experience parallels that of buying a car. It’s something you must do and has a very good benefit, but you dread the process. 

This column, my 39th for Hometown News, has consisted mainly of suggestions and inside information that can make your new or used car buying experience less of a fearful occasion. Some of the titles/subjects are “Always Get an Out the Door Price”, “Bait and Switch Advertising”, “Beware of Deceptive Internet Car Pricing”, “Beware of Direct Mail Car Advertising”, “Buying a Car When You Have a Credit Problem”, “Eight Steps to Ensure You Are Buying the Best Car for the Best Price”, “List Price and MSRP Might Not Be the Same”, “Negotiating to Buy a Car”, “Open Letter to Florida Car Dealers” (I, II, III, and IV), “Shop Your Financing and Trade”, “Should I Buy My Car at the End of the Lease?”, “Should I Lease or Buy my Next Car?”, “Should I Pay Cash or Finance My Next Car?”, “Should I Trade in My Old Car or Sell it Myself”, “Tell Your Car Dealer to be Nice”, “The Right Used Car is a Better Buy than a New Car”, “Translating Misleading Car Ads”, “What is the True Cost of that New Car?”, “What to do if You Are Treated Badly by a Car Dealer”, “When is a Car Sale Not a Car Sale?”, and “The Internet Price is the Lowest Price for a New Car”. 

Almost every one of these articles originated from my customers’ and others’ experiences when buying cars from other car dealers. I get a lot of calls from people who have never bought a car from me. They call to tell me of their bad experience with another dealer and, when I get several calls on the same subject, I write a column on it. People often call me asking for advice or assistance after they have already bought, which is “closing the barn door after the horse is gone.” On more than one occasion I have called car dealers asking them to consider undoing a wrong they have caused one of their customers. I have to confess that I am “batting zero” on this effort. I won’t give up, however. I just made another call this afternoon on behalf of a customer whose installment sales contract, signed by her and the dealership had a higher interest rate than a second contract that the dealer sent to the lender. The customer told me she signed only one contract, the one she took home a copy of. 

One thing that amazes me about these weekly columns that I have been writing for almost a year is that no car dealer has ever called me to complain or for any other reason. I have not been sued either. I think that says something about the truth of my articles. I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that you can’t successfully sue somebody for libel or slander if they write or say the truth. I know of one car dealer who threatened to cancel her advertising in the PB Post because she thought it owned the Hometown News. I am puzzled why not one single dealer would call me just out of curiosity. I don’t have a secretary and I don’t screen any of my calls…nor do any of my employees. They do know how successful my dealership is and how fast my sales are growing. They know that I am selling a lot of their former customers. Many of these new customers tell me how they told the other dealers why they chose to take their business elsewhere. I believe that before too much longer we will see some changes in the way other car dealers do business even if they refuse to call me, as I have repeatedly invited them to do. Sooner or later they will understand that treating your customers with courtesy and integrity is just plain good business.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Cadillac Service at Chevy Prices

This post is directed at luxury car owners. If you drive an Acura, Cadillac, Lexus, Lincoln, or Infiniti and you’re taking your car to the dealer of that same make you drive, you’re paying as much as twice as much as you have to for maintenance and repairs.

Most people know that General Motors manufacturers Cadillac as well as Buick, Chevrolet, and GMC trucks. Most of the models of each of these makes share in the engineering and design. This also holds true for Acura and Honda, Lexus and Toyota, Lincoln and Ford, and Infiniti and Nissan. Some models are almost totally identical “under the skin”. The manufacturers make their luxury version look fancier and add luxury options and accessories, but the underneath it all, they are mostly the same vehicles.

The reason that many people don’t know that their Infiniti is built by Nissan and Lexus is built by Toyota is “marketing”. The manufacturers don’t want you to know that that the Lexus ES you’re driving is really a Toyota Camry, “all dolled up” or that the Acura ILX is really a fancy Honda Civic. Volkswagen, Mazda and Hyundai all made big marketing mistakes when they introduced their luxury models, Phaeton, Amati, and Equus. The VW Phaeton which cost over $100,000 bombed badly and is no longer sold in the USA. The Mazda Amati was announced in the early 90’s but Mazda canceled their plans when they suddenly “saw the light”. The Hyundai Equus, over $60,000, is not selling well either and I predict it won’t be able to compete in the USA luxury car market either. 

The reason these three models failed is that Volkswagen, Mazda and Hyundai made the fatal marketing mistake in expecting a luxury car buyer to spend $100,000+ for a car sold in a Volkswagen dealership or $60,000+ for one sold in a Hyundai dealership. To compete with established luxury brands like Mercedes and BMW, manufacturers must offer buyers a car that they feel confident is not only a luxury car, but perceived by their friends, neighbors, relatives, and business associates to be a luxury car. When a luxury owner is leaving a fancy restaurant or his country club and gives his ticket to the valet, he doesn’t want to be asking for a Volkswagen or Hyundai, albeit the most expensive one. When he brings his car in for service, he wants to mingle with other luxury car owners with all of the luxury amenities offered…it’s like first class vs. coach. I know Lexus dealers who offer massages and manicures to their service customers. JM Lexus, the world’s largest Lexus dealer, has a putting green on their roof for their waiting service customers.

Luxury owners expect to pay more for service and luxury car dealers are happy to accommodate them. If you’re willing to pay twice as much for an oil change because you can play golf while you wait or have a manicure, that’s up to you. But you can save a whole lot of money and have technicians that are totally qualified to maintain your luxury car by bringing it to the same manufacturer’s dealer for the lower price make…Acura to Honda, Cadillac to Chevrolet, Lexus to Toyota, Lincoln to Ford, and Infiniti to Nissan. 

There is one caveat and that is the manufacturers require that you have your factory warranty repairs done by the luxury car dealer. You may also experience some problem with parts availability. Although most parts are the same, there are some parts like a cabin air filter which the dealer may have to buy from the luxury car dealer. My suggestion would be to make an appointment for your service in advance and tell the Honda dealer what you would like done. He then can be sure to already have all the necessary parts on hand when you arrive. You will be shocked at how much money you can save and, measured over the total time you own your car, this can amount to thousands of dollars.

I know that a lot of luxury car owners will read this and continue to bring their luxury car to the luxury car dealer just like there are diamond jewelry buyers who will pay Tiffany’stwice as much for the exact same caret, color, and clarity diamond as Costco sells, when the only tangible difference is the “little blue box”. Brand image is a powerful marketing tool.