Dealer’s wizardry makes Suzuki store a success in Kansas

Mark Rechtin
Automotive News March 15, 2010 – 12:01 am ET

While Suzuki struggles this year, in franchisee Scott Pitman’s Wichita, Kan., market, it is outselling every brand except Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet. He says his sales recipe is a dollop of irreverence and a ton of transparency.

Photo credit: PARKER TATRO

With its sales plunging 52 percent this year in a market up 10 percent, Suzuki is struggling to stay upright. But the troubled brand has provided Scott Pitman his big break.

Now the 42-year-old Wichita, Kan., dealer is the largest Suzuki retailer in the country. And he did it in less than three years in business.

Of course, he’s a big fish in a small Suzuki pond. But thanks to Pitman the brand is no small fry in Wichita. In fact, in a market of 600,000 people, it outsells all brands but Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet.

Pitman became a dealer — a lifelong ambition — by joining forces with Brandon Steven, a multibrand local dealer. The duo bought an anemic Suzuki outlet and moved it.

Steven was going to acquire it himself, but the two men went way back. So Pitman persuaded his friend to go half-and-half with him. Steven is the silent partner and Pitman the managing partner.

“Suzuki was shoved off to the side in a big franchise group, with the worst building and sales team,” Pitman said. “I felt we could focus on it. Brandon had a buy-sell on it already, so we decided to move it and increase the business.”

Taking over the franchise in late 2007 from a dealer selling 30 new Suzukis a year, Pitman has transformed the brand in Wichita. In 2008 he sold 758 new cars at retail, plus 250 fleet sales. Last year, while Suzuki sales nationwide plummeted 54 percent, Pitman’s store grew to 1,215 new cars — “straight belly-to-belly retail,” he said.

Rough start

Pitman is no newcomer to car retailing. He started out selling Volkswagens and Audis in 1989. Only it wasn’t easy at first.

“I started out as a miserable failure,” said Pitman. “I wonder how I made it through my first year. But I went to my first NADA convention, and I sat with a bunch of dealers.

I thought, ‘Hey, I could be a dealer.’ I wanted to be dealer by my 40th birthday, and I made it by two months.”

He brought with him lots of ideas he picked up while a salesman. For instance, Pitman said transparency and a little irreverence in marketing go a long way in Wichita. And he thinks it was easier for him to make a mark there than in a major metro area.

“Marketing is affordable here,” he said. “You can cover pretty well with a creative marketing presence. If you start selling anything, people notice it.”

Pitman is active in social media. His e-mail and personal data, as well of those of all his salespeople, are posted on the dealership Web site. The site has a feeling of “Look, this isn’t rocket science, let’s have some fun.”

Pitman also has written material available for downloading that tells consumers how not to get ripped off when buying a car. The music his customers listen to while on hold is not corporate Muzak but songs written and performed by dealership staff.

He pays his sales staff a straight salary, plus storewide bonuses for volume and customer service scores.

He describes himself as “not a born salesman but a relationship person.”

“I never knew how to close, because I wanted to make friends with the customer,” Pitman said. “My closing ratio was high — not because I was a good closer but because people wanted to buy a car from me.”

Pitman was raised by a single mother, and he recalls as a child waiting in a dealership while his mother tried to buy a car. She left crying after a salesman told her to bring back her husband to talk money.

‘We’ll show you’

“Most car dealers wouldn’t buy a car from themselves if they went through their own process,” Pitman said. “But we’ll show you every book value on every car. We’ll talk rates openly. You will meet a decision-maker from the get-go, not someone in the process who doesn’t know your trade value or the financing rate.”

He also has a three-day, money-back, “love it or leave it” guarantee on every car he sells. The car has to come back under a certain mileage and without damage — but if the person has second thoughts, Pitman refunds every penny.

“This ensures your sales managers aren’t cramming stuff down people’s throats,” Pitman said. “A lot of times, these people were on the bubble at work. They buy the car Saturday and they get laid off on Monday. I try to apply the Golden Rule here.”

Pitman said he unwinds two or three deals a month, but the good will it entails far exceeds that cost.

Pitman, an evangelical Christian, said he applies his principles outside the dealership as well.

Last year he joined a Salvation Army effort to adopt the rural Haitian village of Balan, helping to dig wells, teach classes and even provide some small-business loans. Since the massive earthquake, Pitman’s resolve is even stronger.

Suzuki’s stair-step and customer service bonuses reward a business model like Pitman’s, which helps his bottom line.

Said Pitman: “The way I look at it is — is this the price [for a car] you’d give your sister or your mother or someone at your church?”

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