No straight-laced dealership would do
Stadium Nissan embraces Seattle's laid-back ways
SEATTLE -- Automakers often have detailed rules on how their dealers' stores must look and operate. There's typically no room for deviation.
That may explain why until recently the Nissan brand had not had a Seattle dealership for five years. It's a nonconformist city. Think of the late Seattle rocker Kurt Cobain. Now imagine a straight-laced car dealership that follows the factory's neat and tidy rules for store design and operation. It's a mismatch.
Enter Greg Smith, Nissan rule-breaker.
Last October, Smith opened Stadium Nissan in downtown Seattle in a renovated warehouse. On first pass-by, the storefront resembles a bicycle shop. New Nissan vehicles sit side by side on the narrow sidewalk, noses toward the street.
Inside are exposed concrete floors and walls. Mammoth steel warehouse freight-elevator doors, refinished in such colors as faded rusty red and gold, partition off the dealership's offices and finance department. The space has no air conditioning and is cooled by 16-foot-diameter ceiling fans. Stadium's salespeople and managers dress casually.
"I understand what the Seattle culture is about, and this is what Seattle wants," says Smith, 50, who traces his family's local roots to 1868. "We couldn't have done a traditional auto dealership here, and I wouldn't have wanted to do one anyway."
Across America, Nissan factory execs hold the line on Nissan's architectural standards, known as the Nissan Retail Environmental Design Initiative. The standards created a uniform look for stores from Florida to California, covering details such as storefront design, service lane positions and the sort of glass and furniture used in the buildings. The standards have helped Nissan give its retail image a more modern and sophisticated look.
But in Seattle, Nissan North America has embraced Stadium's rebellious design.
Smith came to the auto business two years ago. His primary company, a real estate development outfit called UrbanVisions, had been developing environmentally designed condominiums, apartments and office buildings downtown. He also owns a retail coffee company and a wholesale bagel business.
"I wanted to help Seattle develop an auto row, which we don't have," Smith recalls, "but my thought was, let's make it a green auto row."
When BMW opened a store two years ago not far from his block-long Sixth Avenue industrial property, Smith believed the time was right and began lobbying the mayor to push the idea. An older Mercedes-Benz store sits seven blocks away.
Lured by Leaf
City officials urged Smith to sell the notion to Nissan. The automaker was targeting Seattle to take part in the initial 2010 launch of the Leaf electric sedan. Nissan executives had met with Seattle officials to promote public charging stations and to seek municipal support for electric cars.
Smith called on Brian Carolin, Nissan North America's senior vice president for sales and marketing. Carolin came to Seattle to look at Smith's industrial property.
"I asked him, "Why don't you lease this space?'" Smith recalls of Carolin's visit. "And he said, "We don't have anybody for it. Why don't you do it?'"
Smith thought about it. He was attracted to opening a dealership specifically by his interest in the Leaf. "I knew I could sell it, especially if I could sell it in a Seattle kind of way," he says.
He traveled to Los Angeles to see the Leaf's unveiling and hear Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn's plans for the car. Smith was hooked.
He worked with a local designer to give the space its raw and artistic look and opened the store just 10 months after obtaining his official commitment letter from the factory. On Nissan's recommendation, he hired retail veteran Kevin Riordan, 50, from a San Diego Asbury Automotive Group store to become Stadium Nissan's executive manager.
Smith's radio commercials for the Leaf talk of using Washington's hydroelectric energy rather than foreign oil to drive. The spots call Stadium Nissan "Seattle's newest, coolest and greenest dealership," adding, "We broke the mold of traditional car dealerships."
"It's working here'
"I'm not sure some people would get what we're doing," Riordan, a tall Maine native, says as he walks the property. He stops at a seven-foot-tall metal sculpture of a bird, made of welded car parts, near the service desk. "I'm not sure you could pick this up and make it work on the East Coast. But it's working here."
Last month, the dealership sold 90 new and used vehicles. Riordan and Smith say the young store is profitable, but they decline to give details. Riordan markets the service department to local owners of all makes and promotes the store's fledgling commercial truck business as a fleet service shop.
On a chart that customers can view, internal Nissan performance data show that Stadium's customer satisfaction grade for service is 95 percent, ahead of the greater Seattle district grade of 86 percent. Stadium's customer satisfaction grade for sales is 95 percent vs. 88 percent for the district.
"Part of it is this space," Riordan says. "People just really like coming here. We're laid back. There's no pressure. We try to help people and not press them to buy.
"But part of it's also the team we've assembled," he adds. "We interviewed some seasoned pros for this store, and they decided it just wasn't for them. But the folks we did hire understood from day one how we wanted to operate."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at email@example.com.