Dealer has a fairy-tale career in the shadows of Disney
Alan Starling: "It's hard to be in Cinderella's shadow and not know how important facility images are. I watch the businesses in my area follow the Disney business model. We've all had to do it, too."
Dealer Alan Starling, 64, thanks Walt Disney for some of his success.
His three Florida stores are in the shadow of Disney World. That has created pressure to keep up showroom appearances and customer service.
"It's hard to be in Cinderella's shadow and not know how important facility images are," says Starling, owner of Starling Chevrolet-Cadillac in Deland, Fla., Starling Chevrolet-Buick-GMC in St. Cloud, and Starling Chevrolet in Kissimmee, Fla.
Starling's father, who ran a small Chevrolet dealership, was also a Kissimmee city commissioner in the 1960s. As a member of the commission, he supported the Disney project. He saw its potential to make the area grow. In 1971 Disney opened, and Orlando transformed from an agricultural community to a tourist hot spot.
Starling's three dealerships have total annual sales of about 2,800 new and used vehicles. He spoke with Staff Reporter Jamie LaReau about his career and his view of the industry.
Q: How did you become a dealer?
A: My father was in the business. He owned a small store, maybe the smallest in the state of Florida. He was a city commissioner, too. One day he got a call to come to a meeting. There was a guy who wanted to invest in the community. That guy was Walt Disney. He was going to build Disney World.
I was in college and I came home that weekend. My mother and dad told me what was going to happen.
My dad looked up one day and said this is going to get really crazy. And I got drafted, really. I got pulled in to help.
Then, my father died in 1975 unexpectedly. I became the dealer then.
What lessons did your dad teach you?
My dad was a great listener. He said a lot of people want to talk and sell cars, but it'll serve you better if you listen more.
Having Disney too was a part of the customer service equation. If tourists had a problem with their vehicle, they still wanted to go to Disney World. So we had to fix their car and find a way to get them to Disney.
Did you begin to hone your own business acumen then?
As time went on, I found the dealer councils interesting. In the late 1990s, I got involved with NADA.
They said: "Why don't you be the guy who works with GM," since I had a couple of GM dealerships. That brought me to the next challenge, which was the closing of Oldsmobile.
General Motors shuttered Oldsmobile in 2000. How did that affect you?
It was probably my biggest challenge as a representative of dealers.
That date is burned in my mind: Dec. 12, 2000. It was earth-shattering in a lot of ways for a lot of people.
I had one dealership that had Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. I don't want to be too critical, but I still don't think that was the right decision.
There were a lot of good customers who did not follow the GM brands after that. I think GM learned that lesson because it was probably better for them when they shut Saturn, Hummer and Pontiac.
You were NADA chairman in 2003. Tell me about that.
When I was vice chairman in 2002, if the state auto association heads met at Disney World, I lived 10 minutes from Disney. So NADA would ask me to go meet with them.
At every meeting the top discussion point was the customer satisfaction index. There's so much emphasis on it and our staff is getting a lot of stress from it, I'd hear.
When I became chairman, I said we need to talk to the manufacturers about dialing CSI back, don't worry so much about the score. Let's figure out how we can better satisfy customers.
I got the staff at NADA to sign off on it, and we convened a big meeting in Washington, D.C. We put together a white paper on CSI and scheduled meetings with the heads of most manufacturers.
It was kind of bottom up. The dealers talked, and we listened. Then we went to the manufacturers and said, "Let's not worry about the high scores of CSI, but get feedback that we can take action on."
Our focus was on accurate scores, not necessarily high scores that may have been inaccurate. Unfortunately, some manufacturers still felt they had to have a high score.
My regret is that I don't think the spirit of my action has carried on today.
What's your assessment of how NADA is doing today?
I get the feeling today that it seems more like it is top-down. For example, the recent deal about CAFE for the 2026 model year.
I'm not sure if you went to a meeting you would get a lot of dealers standing up and saying, "Hey, I'm really worried about this CAFE standard."
I'd rather return to the days when we can say what's on our mind and fix it.
What are the big challenges facing NADA and dealers that you see?
The challenge that faces people like me, who are family-business-centric, is working closely with the manufacturer and making sure you get adequate inventory and support. We are concerned about industry relations issues not government issues like CAFE regulations.
I think the association needs to focus on the important issues to the entrepreneur. A middleman isn't healthy. We're serving the customer and giving them competitive prices every day, we don't need a middle man in the system like a TrueCar.
NADA does a lot of good things. I don't want to say they're asleep at the switch, but there is some kind of a disconnect between what our challenges are.
You owned a couple of Saturn stores in the late 2000s. What drew you to the Saturn business model, and do you practice those principles in your GM stores today?
The customer is a guest. The customer is king or queen. When they call asking for directions, you give them great directions. If they look hot or thirsty, you find them a refreshment.
At Saturn that ended up being a huge deal. The whole idea of if you don't like the car, we'll take it back was also important because it takes the fear out of the transaction.
And going back to my dad, that's what it's all about, your obligation is to listen to that customer and if they don't need a V-8 engine, you don't sell them a V-8.
We treat our employees real well because at the end of the day that's who treats the customers real well.
Many manufacturers are asking dealers to do facility renovations. Have you made a lot of renovations to your stores throughout the years?
It's hard to be in Cinderella's shadow and not know how important facility images are. I watch the businesses in my area follow the Disney business model. We've all had to do it, too.
In 2007 I bought the Chevrolet-Cadillac store in Deland. We tore it down -- it was in the middle of the deepest darkest days of the recession, and here I'm trying to get a construction project completed.
I was really fortunate because after we finished it, we were able to attract some top-notch sales associates. And we had some momentum in the marketplace, so we were poised to do better when things improved in 2010.
GM started the Essential Brand Elements program in 2009. Are you involved in that?
Yes. I am basically in favor of upgrading facilities. But the dealers are good businesspeople. I would have handled it a bit differently and gone to the people who weren't renovating and said: "Don't you think this would be a good idea?" Rather than make it a blanket demand.
To spend $1 million is not easy for many of us.
Do you have a succession plan?
It's a good profession, and my kids have decided they want to be in it. I have three dealerships and three sons. It'll be pretty straightforward.
Do you worry family-owned stores like yours might one day be gone?
I don't think so, because it's a big business opportunity.
You have to be a competitive person to be in the business. You have to look at every nook and cranny of the dealership as a competitive arena. I think a lot of the public companies do well, and a lot of times they have a hole in the road. But we really think we can compete, and that's what my kids will have to decide.
You can reach Jamie LaReau at email@example.com. -- Follow Jamie on