Completing the College of Automotive Management's online F&I program in 2011 changed Derek Spady's life.
By 2012, his sales of new Cadillacs at Legends Cadillac in Scottsdale, Ariz., had doubled, to 14 a month. In March 2013, about four months after the dealership was acquired by Earnhardt Auto Centers, he was promoted to F&I manager. A few months later he was Earnhardt's top grossing finance manager for its East division of about 10 dealerships. And by the end of 2013 his earnings had tripled from what they were in 2011.
He says the program taught him how to connect with his customers.
"You look at people with a big smile, you shake their hand and you thank them for their business," says 26-year-old Spady, who briefly sold cars at his father's dealership, Jerry Spady Chevrolet-GMC-Cadillac, in Hastings, Neb., when he was 18.
The online course is designed to be completed in one year, but Spady finished it in 10 weeks.
"I'm learning so much about the business," he says. "It's a life changer."
There is a wide variety of schools and schools of thought when it comes to F&I training. Course length, methodology and tuition vary widely. Each school teaches what it considers the basics, although many are run by former F&I professionals who agree that good F&I managers are honest, trustworthy, ethical and empathetic to others.
Matt Woods is director of training solutions at Service Group, a company in Austin, Texas, that sells F&I products and conducts 31/2-day F&I training sessions. He says his school teaches students how to present products and services and explain their value to customers.
"Most finance managers keep focusing on their own money and pay plan," says Woods, who has 18 years of experience in F&I, including eight as a dealership F&I manager and sales manager.
"When a customer says no, [finance managers] get mad and say this customer is taking money out of my pocket. It is the customer who is spending money and needs to see value before they buy. The customer is just telling you 'I don't have enough information to tell you yes.'"
F&I school students typically are dealership salespersons that either aspire to move into finance and insurance or have been tapped for advancement by dealership management.
Among their ranks are recent college graduates; people with experience from retail stores, such as Nordstrom and Home Depot; and former banking and financial institution employees who got into retail automotive and liked it. Some have no dealership experience at all.
Like the schools themselves, tuition varies.
For example, Service Group charges $849 for F&I management training, and the College of Automotive Management in Santa Ana, Calif., charges $2,495. Both cost considerably less than the $12,000, excluding room and board, charged by Automotive Dealership Institute in Scottsdale, Ariz., for its in-classroom boot camp.
Students who attend Automotive Dealership Institute immerse themselves in all things F&I for nine hours a day -- not including up to three hours of daily homework -- for four consecutive weeks.
Despite the F&I schools' differences, they share a goal to prepare their students for careers in F&I and, perhaps, dealership management.
Curricula cover seemingly simple skills, such as greeting the customer, and more complicated tasks, such as mastering finance software, loan structuring and leasing. Instruction also covers insurance products such as extended service contracts and guaranteed asset protection, or GAP.
Students also learn about rules, regulations and laws that govern things such as privacy, truth in lending, disclosures and IRS cash reporting. They develop skills by role-playing exercises in scenarios such as verifying customers' personal and credit information and presenting F&I products.
Alan Algan, CEO of Automotive Dealership Institute, says "the biggest nightmare for an F&I manager" is to authorize delivery of a vehicle to a customer at night or on the weekend -- also known as spot delivery -- only to have the lender require an additional down payment or information or say it can't finance the customer at all.
To prevent that from happening to its students, Automotive Dealership Institute teaches them step by step how to follow the underwriting guidelines widely provided by lenders to dealership F&I departments.
"There are no gray areas; it's all black and white," says Algan, who has 14 years of experience as an F&I director for dealerships in Canada. "As long as you follow the formula from those guidelines, it's impossible to come to a different conclusion than the bank."
The College of Automotive Management was started in 1992 and went from classroom training to online training near the end of 2011, says its president, Eric Andersen.
He says students log more than 100 hours to complete the school's F&I program and earn a diploma with certification in areas such as F&I administration, special finance, leasing and loan underwriting.
Because the College of Automotive Management's online curriculum allows students to work at their own pace and repeat material as needed, students are required to attend every session, complete every assignment and score 100 percent on every test.
"We allow our students to have access to content for a year and all of the free updates that we make during that year," says Andersen, who was an F&I director for seven years.
Students are also assigned a personal career coach to help them set and reach their goals.
They also can request one-on-one assistance from a personal instructor through a conference call or an online meeting during business hours.
Spady is the first student to complete the College of Automotive Management's online curriculum. He is from a long line of dealers -- his father, grandfather and five uncles and great-uncles -- and aspires to become a dealership general manager and owner. He credits the Earnhardts and the general manager of the Cadillac dealership, now called Earnhardt Cadillac, for having faith in him.
He adds: "I'm getting better, I'm more comfortable, I know my products better."