You can't escape from the family business for long.
That's what Robert Sickel, now vice president of Pine Belt Enterprises in Lakewood, N.J., learned when a series of dramatic events drew him back to his family's four-franchise business in 2012.
Sickel grew up around and worked at the family's Chevrolet, Chrysler-Jeep and Subaru dealerships for five years until he broke away in 2008 to open an athletic clothing store.
His entrepreneurial jaunt lasted until two events brought him back in 2012. Sickel's father, David, needed a kidney transplant. And when Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore that year, inventory that could have reaped $600,000 in profits for his clothing store was destroyed by water in a warehouse.
So Robert Sickel returned and got serious about the business his grandfather Leon had started in 1937. Sickel, 37, who now runs the dealerships, said that from 2014 to 2015, he increased net profit 58 percent and unit sales of new and used cars 33 percent and boosted service and parts gross profit by 33 percent.
All three stand-alone stores are in Lakewood. Pine Belt Chevrolet is the largest with 1,681 new cars sold last year, followed by the Subaru store with 1,161 and the Chrysler-Jeep store with 1,060 -- a total of 3,902 last year, up from 3,019 in 2014. Sickel forecasts a 10 percent increase in new-vehicle sales this year.
Sickel attributes the rise in sales to business practices that include tightening control of expenses, using customer relationship management tools on employee cellphones and making every employee responsible for following leads and generating business.
Sickel also set up a business development center -- something he learned about while working for an AutoNation store in Florida after graduating from the University of Miami. The company hired specialists for the center, but that didn't work well because "salespeople did nothing for follow-up. It was left to the specialized agents," Sickel said.
"Today we have everyone working together, salespeople, business development specialists and even managers are involved in making their own follow-ups and appointments."
Other focuses were service and stepping up the stores' interface with customers. The stores still use the standard call confirming a service appointment. But Pine Belt began sending videos in early 2015. Using a vehicle similar to the one booked for an appointment, "we will shoot a video and welcome Mrs. Smith to the dealership," and send it via email or a cellphone text message, he said.
"Customers love it. They aren't used to seeing it. We get very funny responses back." More people keep their appointments, he said, and service sales have increased.
Sickel also is working on a way to use video chat so a potential customer can talk face-to-face "with a dealership employee on the computer," he said. "We don't have it dialed down. We are working on it."
The company's fastest growing business is Subaru, where "customer service is paramount, and we try to take some of the cues that we do there and bring them to some of our other stores," Sickel said.
"Chevy and Chrysler have similar clientele. When you get to Subaru, it has a unique client, and they have some higher expectations -- more along the lines of a high-line store rather than a domestic store because buyers are more similar to those of premium brands than Chrysler or Chevrolet," Sickel said.
Those buyers have studied the product and the price of competitors, so the dealership has to operate with "a little more transparency," he said.
What will the future bring? Sickel said his father is working but "on a limited basis."
"He is slowly handing everything over to me. It is still his business, and he keeps an eye on things."