When John Mecham took over Hayes Brothers Buick-Jeep in 1996, he faced an identity crisis.
The Salt Lake City dealership, opened in 1953 by brothers Norm and Jerry Hayes, was known for good value, folksy radio spots featuring Paul Harvey, and the massive U.S. flag that waved high above the lot. But that foundation was marred by the public's identification of Hayes Brothers with Buick, a brand that was fading fast in popularity in the area.
Still, Mecham felt he couldn't buy a better business.
'The reality is there's no place like home,' he says. 'If you want the grass to be greener, you start where you're standing.'
Mecham became a Hayes Brothers salesman in 1983. In 1994, after managing another dealership, he and Eric Hayes, Norm Hayes' son, bought the business. Mecham bought out Eric Hayes in 1996 to become sole owner.
But Mecham was not ready to attach his name to the business. First, he took a hard look at what he was selling.
FLAGSHIP, OR NOT
Buick, he says, wanted him to develop the dealership into a flagship store, which would have meant serious investment and dropping Jeep.
'I saw where the market was going, and it wasn't Buick,' Mecham recalls. 'We were the biggest Buick dealer in the state, and we were selling only 20 a month. I'd open up the obituaries, and there was my market share. I couldn't see spending $5 million on a brand that was failing.'
Mecham dropped Buick, focused on Jeep and picked up Chrysler and Plymouth in 1996. But by May 1998, as he prepared to change the dealership's name again, he was dogged by lingering perceptions that 'Hayes Brothers' meant Buick, Buick and nothing but Buick, even though 'Buick' wasn't part of the name anymore.
'We did market surveys (in 1998),' Mecham says. 'They found that 57 percent of the respondents knew we had Buick; 15 percent knew we had Jeep; 3 percent knew we had Chrysler-Plymouth. But 6 percent thought we had Ford; 10 percent thought we had Oldsmobile; 5 percent thought we had Chevrolet.
'So, in essence, we weren't spending our money properly. People didn't know who we were.'
Mecham sat down with an ad agency. 'I said, `We have to remake ourselves, rebrand ourselves,'' he says. 'I wanted to take advantage of the old name, the solid reputation, but also to say we're different.'
The results are TV spots that combine the history of Hayes Brothers with Mecham's freewheeling personality.
'In the first of my commercials, I had Hayes Brothers and John Mecham together,' he says. 'We said Hayes has been around since 1953; built a reputation for straight talk, fair deals, all that.'
Then, a Buick pulled up, followed by Mecham himself, sporting sunglasses and driving in front of the Buick in a plum-colored Plymouth Prowler.
'It said John Mecham is a new dealer, and he's going to continue the traditions, but he's taking it to a new level,' Mecham says.
Then the Hayes Brothers logo morphed into the John Mecham logo.
Other commercials showcase longtime Hayes Brothers employees who still work for the dealership; two young women discovering John Mecham on the Internet; and cheesy, high-pressure car commercials - from which, of course, John Mecham is different.
Mecham reports low staff turnover and says employees who left the dealership for other jobs have returned. And although sales to repeat customers are strong, he says more than half of his new-vehicle sales are to new customers.
Mecham and his staff also hold customer appreciation nights and send newsletters to buyers. The company has a Web site, and the main duties of two staff members are following up on Internet leads.
'If you're looking for a Jeep, there's plenty of places to buy them,' Mecham says. 'What you're going to buy from is a brand, a place where you feel comfortable.'
EFFORTS PAY OFF
Mecham's efforts appear to be paying off. The first month after changing his dealership's name and starting the ad campaign, sales jumped 20 percent over the previous year, he says. By the end of 1998, they were up 40 percent, and in 1999, they were up another 40 percent.
People also seem to realize John Mecham Chrysler-Plymouth Jeep isn't Hayes Brothers Buick-Jeep. Mecham says market studies from the third quarter of 1999 show that, while 35 percent of area residents still think the dealership sells Buicks, 60 percent know Mecham sells Jeeps, and 50 percent know about Chrysler-Plymouth.
'We've been marching up awareness ever since (1998),' Mecham says. 'We've managed to do what I wanted to do: have people feel comfortable with our roots while letting them know we have something new to offer.'