Finance managers found on showroom floor

Training program moves up salespeople, pays off for retailer

Atlantic Auto Group's Russell Williamson was ready for more responsibility.

Published in Automotive News Dec. 8, 2014

After working as a sales representative for almost two years at Atlantic Hyundai in West Islip, N.Y., Russell Williamson was ready for more responsibility and the chance to earn more money.

Enter Atlantic Auto Group's new bullpen training program to develop finance managers. Williamson told his sales manager in the spring that he was interested in moving to the finance and insurance department. In June and July, he went through Atlantic's F&I bullpen training classes. By late August, he was shadowing a finance manager at his dealership, and Williamson now is a full-time finance manager himself.

"In a finance manager role, the opportunity is there to make more money," said Williamson, 43, who turned to auto retail in 2012 after working in the construction business. "It's just sharpening my skills. Talking to people at other groups, they don't really have an opportunity to get this kind of training."

Atlantic launched the bullpen program early this year to develop a pool of backups ready to go when any of the 87 finance manager positions at its 22 stores open up. Tapping the showroom floor provides employees who are more loyal, more easily trained and already familiar with the company's compliance policies, Atlantic's top finance executive says.

Having replacements at the ready also motivates existing finance managers to stay at the top of their game, said Frank Pugliese, vice president of finance operations for Atlantic. The Long Island group is part of Staluppi Auto Group, No. 9 on the Automotive News list of the top 125 dealership groups based in the U.S. with retail sales of 60,902 new vehicles in 2013.

"Finding talent was very, very difficult," Pugliese said.

So he asked store general managers to recommend for finance training candidates who have been with Atlantic for a couple of years. Most are from the sales floor, but a business development center employee also has graduated from the program. Classes are held twice a month, and a lot of the training involves role-playing situations that finance managers go through.

No bad habits

Since the bullpen training classes started in February with 32 students, Atlantic has moved 10 trainees into full-time finance manager positions. Another 15 are ready to go, Pugliese said, while the rest continue to undergo training. Six new trainees also have been added.

"The return on investment has been there," he said. "They feel loyal, they feel a sense of obligation, and there's a sense of reciprocity. They really haven't developed any bad habits."

Pugliese prefers to place trainees into open spots in their stores. If there's no opening, he'll shift a ready candidate to another store that needs the help. Even with store transfers, he tries to keep the trainee with the same brand.

And the performance by the graduates has been good. Their customer satisfaction scores are higher than industry averages, Pugliese said, and their profits per vehicle retailed are near the group's top performers. Even though they're so new in their finance manager roles, they are producing per-vehicle profits that are just 10 to 20 percent off the top levels.

"They just take it a little bit more seriously," Pugliese said. "They have to meet higher standards. They're newer. They need to prove themselves."

The program also keeps longtime finance managers on their toes. Atlantic has had an increase in production from existing finance managers, some of whom were "getting a little paranoid" about the intent of the training program, Pugliese said.

"When you're training your replacement, your attitude changes a bit," he said.

The program has improved morale on the showroom floor, Pugliese said, as salespeople see a clearer path to moving up in the dealership. And cooperation between sales and finance has improved, he said. Trainees understand finance better and share that understanding with other salespeople. And when they move up to permanent finance jobs, they promote the importance of maintaining good relationships with their sales colleagues.

“In a finance manager role, the opportunity is there to make more money. It's just sharpening my skills. Talking to people at other groups, they don't really have an opportunity to get this kind of training.”
Russell Williamson
Atlantic Hyundai

More profit

For Atlantic, the trainees also cost less. The group might pay a 20-year F&I veteran up to 19 percent of the gross profit on a deal, but a trainee might be more than happy with a rate of 12 to 14 percent, Pugliese said. That means the retailer keeps more of the profit rather than paying it in compensation.

But despite the lower pay rate, the trainees have high income potential. Atlantic's finance managers make about $150,000 annually on average, Pugliese said. Rookies coming out of the training program can make $10,000 a month, or $120,000 annually, he said, and some approach $150,000.

In 2012, the national average pay for a lead F&I manager was $128,434, according to the 2013 National Automobile Dealers Association Dealership Workforce Study Industry Report.

Williamson said $150,000 to $200,000 isn't out of the question for him in the next year or so. That's an improvement from when he operated his own plumbing and construction business.

His annual income in that prior career averaged more than $100,000 a year, but he made the switch because his income could swing widely as the economy fluctuated. He targeted car sales because he felt he'd be able to make a similar, but steadier, income right away.

After his first few months at Atlantic Hyundai, traditionally one of the highest-volume Hyundai dealerships in the country, Williamson typically sold 20 to 25 vehicles a month.

He sold 35 in one of his last months on the sales floor. With just a few months under his belt in finance, Williamson said his profit per vehicle retailed is averaging $1,300, about the same as the store average.

Long term, Williamson has his sights set on further increasing his income by adding responsibility and moving up the management ladder. He'd ultimately like to be a general manager.

"The better you get at your craft and your skills, there's more opportunity to make more money on each deal," he said.

"That's why I like this business so much. You can give yourself a raise just by improving your skills and changing something you do."

You can reach Amy Wilson at awilson@crain.com -- Follow Amy on Twitter: @theamywilson

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