JM Lexus gets jiggy with Custom Creations
High-line store has some fun in a colorful marketplace
Jim Dunn obviously knows Lexus. As vice president of JM Lexus in Margate, Fla., Dunn is responsible for the largest-volume Lexus dealership in America. ("In the world," he corrects -- 2011 sales totaled 3,940 new and 4,200 used vehicles.)
Now Dunn, a 62-year-old former Chicagoan with a life history of owning muscle cars and dabbling in the world of vintage Barracudas and GTOs and Z28s, wants to take JM someplace new and different.
He is going into the South Florida vehicle-customization market.
"JM Lexus is known for nice, high-line vehicles," he says. "But we don't want to just stop there.
"This is a way to open ourselves up and let other people come in and look at us. We're not a stuffy old luxury car dealership. We want to reach out to new consumers."
Dunn's vision for the retail subsidiary of Florida's automotive giant JM Family Enterprises Inc. is twofold. First, there is an untapped market for affluent, mostly young consumers who want what captures their fancy, regardless of brand, Dunn says. And, second, there is an opportunity to stand out in the colorful South Florida marketplace with daring vehicle appearances, luxury features and fearless personalization. That activity would draw attention to JM Lexus' high-volume pre-owned and certified pre-owned business.
There is also a third motivation: Dunn just wants to have some fun.
"We feel passionately that we can do more here than just sell cars," he says. "We want to have some fun doing it."
Dunn says he sees strong demand from consumers who "want to create something with their identity in it."
Hence the new venture's name: JM Custom Creations. The staff of 18 is peopled by Gen X- and Gen Y-aged associates who provide a live connection between the Lexus dealership and the more boisterous trends of the Miami-area streets. The operation includes a window-tinting technician and a recently hired graphics designer who will apply artwork to vehicle bodies. Dunn also recently acquired a wrap machine to let technicians cover vehicle bodies in graphics as customers choose.
The custom shop works with leather suppliers to do custom seat designs. Cars get TVs and electronic games, oversized audio systems and speakers, special trunk lighting and new color schemes. JM Lexus stands behind the warranty on all changed features, including the electronics.
"I have to tell you that the first time we did one of these, it was a little unnerving," Dunn admits. "It's scary sometimes to stick your head out of the paradigm."
Call it a wild hunch, but Dunn initiated the business about two years ago by calling together a small group of the dealership's 330 associates and empowering them to do what they wanted with a Lexus IS 350 he pulled out of inventory. The car had a sticker price of about $45,000.
"I told them they had $35,000 to play around with on it," Dunn remembers. "'But I told them to let their imagination run and create something very special."
The resulting $80,000 model contained new seating, new interior touches, lighting, wheels and electronics features. To show off its indulgence, the dealership took the car to a vehicle accessory trade show to display. As it sat there, a young showgoer walked up and arranged to buy it for $100,000.
Dunn quickly authorized a second project: a white LS 460L with an $80,000 sticker in the window. This time, he approved a custom budget of $40,000. Another buyer snapped it up for $150,000.
"We're going to get real active in this business," Dunn told his staff. "There are people out there who are not our typical Lexus buyers, and we want to reach out to them."
The operation has been turning out and selling creations at the pace of one a month since then. Dunn believes the added staff and stepped-up marketing effort will bring the volume up to four or five a month.
"We've done some pretty wild things, and we've sold every one of them," he says. "I personally always felt there was a good potential market in Florida for customized high-end vehicles. But I do have to consider the well-being of 330 associates here at the dealership. This business is not for the faint of heart."
Roots on 'Trans-Am Alley'
Dunn traces his interest in the business to the early 1980s, when he was the used-car manager of a Pontiac store in Indianapolis. The dealership created a high-profile section of the used-car lot called "Trans-Am Alley." Dunn would buy good-condition late-1960s muscle and sports cars when he found them, including Dodge Charger R/Ts, Plymouth Road Runners and Barracudas, Pontiac GTOs and Chevrolet Corvettes. The used-car department would restore the cars to a new sheen and display the showy inventory to draw floor traffic.
Three decades later, the lesson isn't lost. Part of the effort behind JM Custom Creations will be to bring more recognition to the Lexus dealership's Certified Pre-owned Superstore, across the street from Dunn's three-story Lexus showroom. Dunn has overseen a steep rise in JM Lexus' used-car volume. Since the superstore opened in 2007, sales have increased from 80 to 100 vehicles a month to more than 250 a month today.
As part of the new customization business, Dunn has inaugurated a weekly event called "3rd Thursday" to attract all makes and models of car clubs to the superstore. The gathering is a monthly car enthusiast party, with customized vehicles on display, a live DJ providing music and a grillmeister serving up hamburgers and hot dogs. JM picks a notable car from the participants each month and features it on the JM Lexus Web site on a photo page dubbed "Ride of the Month." The page provides the details that went into customizing it.
On display there at the moment: a Dodge, an Infiniti and a Mercedes-Benz -- but no Lexus. In its effort to reach out to new consumers with outside-the-lines tastes, JM is clearly not confining itself to Lexus.
"I'd customize any car," Dunn proclaims. "If I could get somebody to come in here with an old '69 goat," he says, using the slang name for the 1969 Pontiac GTO, "we'd have all kinds of fun with it."
Embedded in all this activity is JM Lexus' interest in young, upcoming customers.
"A lot of the creativity in vehicle customizing comes from a perspective you get from Gen X and Gen Y consumers," Dunn says. "We want to reach that community. We have a responsibility to take a look at the next wave of consumers that we need to attract.
"And for that, we need to be accessible," he says. "We're getting out the message that, for a luxury car dealership, we're pretty accessible."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at email@example.com.