Q&A WITH DAN FIELDS | PRESIDENT, FIELDS AUTO GROUP

Dealership group invests for 'nice, exciting, fun' stores

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Merit Earl Fields was sales manager at Cadillac before becoming a Cadillac dealer on Chicago's North Shore in 1971. After his son, John Fields, quit a career as a contract-law attorney to join the car business, the duo began adding franchises: BMW, Saab, American Motors and more.

Today, Fields Auto Group sells 18 brands at 25 locations. The suburban Chicago company operates stores in Illinois, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina and British Columbia.

It sold nearly 20,000 new and about 10,000 used vehicles last year, generating more than $1 billion in revenue.

The founder's grandson, Dan Fields, is now president and shares ownership with his father, while his brother and uncle also hold positions at some of the group's dealerships. Dan Fields, 42, spoke with Staff Reporter Nick Bunkley.

Q: What are the biggest issues on your mind?

A: The technology that we're seeing in every area: diesel, electric, hybrid technology that's coming into the luxury brands, where most of our stuff is. That's a really exciting thing to see.

BMW has got some really neat products coming out in that area, using carbon fiber and new battery technology. I'm fascinated by the technology and think a lot of that will drive sales in the future -- the environmental aspects of the new products.

You just built a Chrysler store in Glenview, Ill., and are improving some other stores. What does that do for your business?

We have a ton going on. Right now we're building a new Land Rover store, and all seven of our BMW facilities are getting everything from a light remodel to a new building. It's costly, but it's an improvement. We're already ahead of the game with our facilities.

We believe in having real nice customer lounge areas and amenities. It's our goal to make it a nice, exciting, fun place to visit, which is the polar opposite of what it traditionally has been.

You must be confident of a good return on investment.

We need to make a lot of the investments for space reasons and for growth reasons, so there is a direct return. But we also believe that you do have to refresh the look of the building, and on the BMW end it's a warmer look.

Also, beyond just the structural changes, you have to look to new processes and new ways of doing business that just make the customer experience better and faster and be in tune with the new customers, the millennials, who want an experience that's a lot different from the traditional car-buying experience.

How are you helping your stores stand out?

I mentioned the lounge areas. We have in most of our large dealerships cafes that are really full-service food operations that serve breakfast and lunch and snacks. We have technology that recognizes when a customer enters the property so we can service them. We do a free car wash for anybody who buys a car from us, so we try to interact with the people as much as we can when they come in even for the free services, because once again we just want to get them comfortable with being at the dealership and make it a positive experience.

Everything we're doing in trying to build the new facilities tries to get that -- make it a comfortable, easy experience even when they're just there for something as simple as a free car wash.

Dan Fields
President, Fields Auto Group
“The technology that we're seeing in every area: diesel, electric, hybrid technology that's coming into the luxury brands, where most of our stuff is. That's a really exciting thing to see.”

What is the technology that recognizes customers?

It's a chip that only is active on the property, so there's no privacy issues or anything. But when the customer enters our property, it identifies the customer, puts their name on a welcoming board and sends a text to our salesperson and our service adviser to let them know that they're there. Whether or not they have an appointment, we're prepared for them. And then a salesperson can come and visit and say hello to a service customer. It's an example of a way you can use technology to make the experience better and improve the business.

The same stuff applies to sales. We try to set up very personalized appointments for our Internet customer and be prepared for them so they don't have to go through the whole same process again when they get to the dealership that they already have done online.

I think the current challenge facing dealerships as a whole is trying to get people through the paperwork and delivery process faster and still offer and sell the products that are good for the customer and good for the dealership without taking too much of their time and adding so much paperwork to what we already have with the regulatory environment we're in.

How is the market?

Really good. We have Land Rover, Jaguar, BMW, Mini, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, Bentley, Infiniti, Volvo, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram, Fiat, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. The top end is right now probably the best part of the market, and BMW is doing really well. They've got a really good product plan for the short and long term coming up, and that's what a lot of it is -- who has new product. Land Rover just can't get enough product. It's sold out.

And Chrysler's been a real pleasant surprise. Our two Chrysler stores are constantly setting sales records. So it's been a good emergence from what was a tough time for a while there.

What do you think of Fiat Chrysler's new five-year plan?

They were pretty consistent with their previous plan. They have a larger challenge with Alfa, just as far as introducing a new brand to the United States -- that's a challenge for anyone. But it's exciting, and you have to look at what they've done with Chrysler and be impressed. So I'm eager to see what they do.

Are you looking to add or subtract franchises anywhere?

We're always looking for new opportunities, mostly in the luxury end of the business and geographically strategic. There's a lot of action out there. Now the problem is there's a lot of buyers but not many sellers. I think that will change because the values are really getting higher than maybe they've ever been before, so maybe that will turn some deals.

How does your company operate differently now versus before the recession?

Business is brisk again, and I think during those times you need to invest into the customer and to make it a better experience if you're going to stay ahead of the curve. We have a unique opportunity with the technologies that are out there, because car dealerships have traditionally had pretty archaic systems and we need to improve that from every end, especially the way we manage our customer database -- the way we use that information that we have. The way that information's organized has got to be improved.

How will your dealerships handle the wave of cars that will soon be coming off lease?

I think it's a good thing. Our challenge has been getting pre-owned cars. Dealers that have stayed in the game have had to become good pre-owned dealers. That's what we survived on during lean times and right now the biggest challenge is getting vehicles.

We're going to have to manage it because you're right: There is all of a sudden a much better inventory of cars coming. But especially in the luxury end, if we can market and sell those cars certified pre-owned like we'd like to, it's a good opportunity.

Are you seeing any positive or worrisome signs with incentives?

Hopefully we'll stay on the side of leaner inventories and less incentives, but there's always going to be fluctuations in model-year changes and times when those tools are appropriate. But I think most of the brands I deal with are exerting better discipline than they have in the past, and it's been more consistent types of sales programs, which is what we've asked for, for a long time.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter


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