Over the past few months, I’ve written exclusive online pieces for CBT celebrating creative ways cities have revitalized areas, added public gathering spaces, and...
Columbia Honda General Manager Danny Hammack, 32, has sold nearly every make of car out there. Ford, Honda, Dodge, Chrysler. You name it, he’s sold it.
“It’s good to be at Honda,” Hammack says.
A Columbia native, Hammack has also worked for many Columbia auto institutions: Frank Fletcher, the Drewings’ Joe Machens, and the Joe Machens Dealerships under the McLarty Automotive Group umbrella. McLarty, out of Little Rock, purchased Columbia Honda, formerly Fletcher Honda, in early 2015 and the Machens automotive group, with the exception of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, in late 2015.
Like many on the Machens leadership team, Hammack is a local guy running a local dealership.
“I think that there’s a common misconception that it’s aloof owners from a different state, and it couldn’t be further from the truth,” Hammack says. “The operators of the stores are local people who live in the market. The players are still the same inside each of the stores.”
The caliber of the local Joe Machens team made the transition an easy one, says McLarty CEO Charles Oglesby.
“The reputation of the Machens group and the Drewings — taking care of customers, taking care of employees — it’s a wonderful foundation for us,” Oglesby says. “We know that what we first analyzed and thought and saw here was the truth. Great company, great people, and great brands, great facilities, just a great foundation.”
With any change of ownership, it’s natural for employees (and, in the case of such a large employer in Columbia, the entire community) to have concerns when looking forward. Many Machens employees viewed the Drewings as family.
“I think that this year they have gotten to know who this organization is, and what we believe is that we’ve created that feeling of safety,” Oglesby says. “That it’s okay.”
Steve Nagel, executive manager for McLarty Automotive Group’s Joe Machens Ford Lincoln in Columbia and Jefferson City, says that, after a year of transition, the local Machens team now feels comfortable under the McLarty umbrella.
“Words are cheap,” Nagel says. “You gotta prove it. We showed it to them, more than anything else.”
McLarty’s director of human resources Krista Swenson is creating new programs to help enhance the experience of the approximately 1,100 McLarty employees in Jefferson City and Columbia. They’re implementing a new HR system with self-service options like printing off pay stubs and managing insurance. They’re offering new internship and training programs in technical and managerial fields. They’re recruiting strategically with local tech schools and colleges (Columbia College, MACC, and Lin State Technical College, to name a few) to attract the best and brightest.
Swenson says they’ll offer a rotational program for management opportunities – a program to learn every facet of the industry, from sales to finance to accounting.
“We have a great story to tell, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that the career paths that are available to them within these organizations are vast,” Swenson says. “Depending on what you’re interested in doing, we likely have something that you could do here and grow, stay in your community, and have a great career here.”
Machens hosted a job fair November 17 and interviewed about 60 people — Swenson estimates they’ll hire 20 to 25 of them.
Whatever the Marketplace Holds
Hammack says the leadership team’s focus is continuing to be a market leader and focusing on customer service. “We continue to be an aggressive operator that wants to provide the best deal in the state of Missouri and beyond,” he says. “We’ve continued to grow this company in a challenging automotive environment.”
In 2015, Automotive News named Joe Machens Dealerships No. 82 of the 150 dealership groups in the U.S., with 38,669 units sold and a group revenue topping $881 million. Their 2013 ranking was 83.
“It’s our goal to increase our market share,” says Bob Jacaway, executive manager over five of the Machens stores. But there isn’t much that can be done when the market wanes, except to make sure your market share doesn’t decline as much as that of your competitors.”
When the market slows, Jacaway says, it’s important to remember that car sales are just a part of the dealership, which also includes services like body shops. In 2017, a new quick-lane service department will open up at the Machens Ford campus that will service all makes and models.
Ultimately, Oglesby says, the current market is what it is – all you can do is recognize it and attempt to gain more of the market share.
“The market is big enough that, whoever our competitors are, we want to do the best we can do, but we want them to do the best they can do,” Oglesby says. “The market is big enough. The better they do, the better we’re going to do. It’s a positive opportunity for everybody.”
Since the inevitable initial anxiety of ownership changes, Hammack says there’s been a calm under McLarty ownership. McLarty allows him autonomy as a store operator, backing him with support and data.
“But there’s not a playbook and they’re not there to quarterback me, which is really, really refreshing,” Hammack says, “because it doesn’t stamp out my creativity.”
Nor his knowledge and experience in the market. And that’s definitely a good thing. Columbia Honda is a bright spot in a stagnant vehicle market across mid-Missouri. According to the Missouri Department of Revenue reports, as of November 4, Columbia Honda had sold 2,754 new and used vehicles, surpassing the entire 2015 sales number of 2,470 with two months left to report.
Hammack’s goal? To become the No. 1 Honda dealership in Missouri.
In 2015, five Honda dealerships sold more vehicles than Columbia Honda: three in St. Louis and two in Kansas City. As of reporting through November 4, only three have sold more vehicles in 2016: Jay Wolfe Honda, in Kansas City; Mungenast St. Louis Honda; and Bommarito Honda, in Hazelwood. Columbia Honda was the only dealership of the top four to have already surpassed its 2015 sales number by November 2016.
Hammack knows the model to make his goal a reality: he saw it first-hand as GM of the Joe Machens Ford Lincoln dealership under the management of the Drewings. That Ford dealership has been No. 1 in Missouri for 19 years running. So how does it beat out dealerships in Kansas City and St. Louis?
“The shiny floors and the pretty buildings don’t sell the cars,” Hammack says. “It’s the people inside the dealership and the relationships that they have taking care of customers. Being able to see that implemented over at Ford and then trying to bring some of that magic back is what we’re trying to do at this store.”
He’s always looking for a competitive edge — what’s going to make the customer experience better, what’s going to lead to more trust and more business?
Embracing new philosophies. Transparency. Honesty. Helping the customer make an educated decision. Calling out, as he calls it, “the gorilla in the room”: that people often don’t really enjoy the car-buying experience.
“We just know we’re on the precipice of trying to provide a different experience,” Hammack says.
It’s working at Honda. They’ve added more staff in every department at the dealership and are solving growth-related problems — the inevitable problems that arise when you double business every month. Hammack says having the McLarty leadership empowers him to run his own ship: to explore his ideas and have free rein.
“I’m confident enough in where we’re at that I’m not scared to make a mistake,” Hammack says. “I don’t want to make a mistake — I strive for excellence in everything I do — but I know that if we try something and it doesn’t work, it’s not going to be the end of my career with them.”
McLarty relies on GMs for market feedback and for input. They allow operators to make decisions.
But Hammack felt autonomy with the Drewings, too, so it was scary to go into a new situation with little information. “Who are these guys, where do they come from?” he remembers thinking. “Are they going to throw a playbook at me that is completely counter to what we know is successful in this market? But that didn’t happen.”
Oglesby says one of McLarty’s main challenges was to retain Machens’ reputation in the community — as stewards of one of Columbia’s largest employers and contributors to local causes.
“Whenever I am in the market, I’ve been able to meet with a lot of community leaders and other people as well,” Oglesby says. “They’ve been excited about us being here and have really opened up what we expected as open arms. I’m still experiencing that today, which tells me that what we’re doing is still working.”
Michele Cropp, director of marketing at Machens, says this year Machens has given more than $250,000 to charities and community events in mid-Missouri.
To mirror that dedication, Swenson says, in 2017 Machens will provide some matching dollars for employees to put towards community programs and nonprofits of their choosing.
“The goal was to take all the great things about what was here, not just operationally, but culturally, and continue with those things and make them better,” Swenson says.
Most of the leadership team has Columbia ties. Nagel is from the area and moved back in 2015 when McLarty purchased Columbia Honda. Originally from St. Louis, Jerry Patterson, general manager at Joe Machens Toyota Scion, is new to Columbia, and recently purchased a house here. “They didn’t know who we were,” Patterson says. “We had big shoes to fill, and we’re trying to do the best we can to fill them.”
Oglesby is quick to shine a light on the Columbia-based leadership team as the faces of the organization.
“If there were any misconceptions about us, it would be that we’re from the outside,” Oglesby says. “But you see that we are really local people. Even though I don’t live here, our organization does. They’re in the community, we give to the community, and we support the community. So we really are a blend of this environment.”