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Friday, November 20, 2009

Earl Stewart: Consumerist or Capitalist?

“I’ve chosen to run the article below as my column this week. My dealership was honored to have
this article published in Toyota Today, which is the nationally circulated magazine for all Toyota employees and Toyota dealers in the USA.”

Outspoken Owner is ‘Complex’ Mix of Both

By Dan Miller /toyota today november/december2009

In the South Florida realm where he presides over the Toyota dealership that bears his name, Earl Stewart is a full-blown consumer advocate celebrity. He stars in the store’s television advertising. He posts a blog. He writes a newspaper column. He works the local speakers’ circuit. He even hosts a radio show, greeting his listeners with, “Good morning, my name is Earl and I’m a recovering car dealer.” “I’ve become a symbol,” he says of Earl Stewart Toyota of North Palm Beach. “Everyone wants to meet me. I don’t get any work done.”

Actually, if pressed, Stewart will admit that portraying the straight-talking grandfatherly car salesman who helps customers “get a fair shake” is his work. His three sons, Stu and Jason as co-general managers and Josh as Internet manager, mind the day-to-day store operations. That frees up Stewart, with the support of his wife Nancy, vice president of special projects, to spread his gospel of goodness, even if he ain’t no saint.

“It’s a complex thing,” says Stewart of his customer-centered philosophy. “If I did all of this and it hurt my business, I’d stop doing it. I’m no masochist. I want everyone involved to feel better about buying and selling cars. But it has to work. I have to be honest about that.”

Stewart’s career in car sales has almost always worked. His father, the original Earl Stewart, founded a Pontiac dealership in West Palm Beach in 1937. Stewart joined the family business in 1968 and the Toyota franchise came on stream in 1975. Back then, Stewart enjoyed success by selling cars the old-fashioned way, with high-pressure haggling. He raised his three sons, lived in a nice house, fished from the deck of a 60-foot sport boat and invested in other businesses.

But over the last decade, Stewart has systematically reengineered his approach. The book, “Customers for Life,” by Lexus dealer Carl Sewell was a primary influence. So was the University of Toyota’s Total Quality Executive Management course. But the real wake-up call came four years ago when Stewart was diagnosed with colon cancer.

“I thought I was going to die,” he says. “I now see things in a different light. I realized I wanted to pass along a business to my sons they can be proud of. And perhaps one day they can pass it along to their children.”

As such, unorthodoxy abounds. Advertising that once pushed price now promises fairness, courtesy and integrity. Red hotline handsets programmed to ring Stewart’s cell phone are strategically placed throughout the store, inviting customers to call if they’re not completely satisfied. Stewart’s business card divulges his cell and home phone numbers. Dealer fees, boosting the customers’ cost with little or no increase in value, have been eliminated.

The results? Among Toyota dealers, Earl Stewart Toyota ranks No.1 in volume in Palm Beach County, No. 5 in Southeast Toyota and No. 38 nationally— though located in a town of just 8,000. Monthly sales jumped from about 100 units 10 years ago to more than 350 in 2007, pulling back to the 200-plus level amid the current economic downturn.

“Did I change to sell more cars and make more money? Yeah, that’s part of it,” says Stewart. “But I also feel good about myself and sleep better at night. And my sons definitely feel better about the business, too.”

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