With eight stores and more than $1 billion in annual sales, Burt Automotive Network finds dealership brand image essential to continued success in the Denver area.
'Brand identification is becoming more and more important,' says Executive Vice President L.G. Chavez Jr., 'especially with the advent of the public company that has tremendous amounts of money to spend in auto retail.'
A few years ago, AutoNation bought 17 dealerships in the Denver area and began an extensive media campaign. 'Despite the automotive blitz in 1999, we grew 25 percent in sales and 37 percent in profit,' says Chavez, son of Burt President and CEO Lloyd Chavez Sr.
The younger Chavez says sales have doubled since the company adopted the name Burt Automotive Network. It was No. 37 on the 1999 Automotive News list of the Top 100 U.S. Dealership Groups.
'We found that while we had a strong identity as a Chevrolet dealer, when we added our Ford store in 1992, a lot of people didn't realize we had a Ford store,' he says. 'It became apparent to us that we not only needed to brand individual dealerships more strongly, but we needed to tie them all together under a super brand. That's why we unveiled Burt Automotive Network in 1995.'
The firm is named after founder Nate Burt, who opened Burt Chevrolet in 1939. The senior Chavez became majority owner in 1982 and bought the last of the family's shares in 1987.
The company now handles 13 vehicle brands. 'We promote cross-selling in our dealerships,' Chavez says. 'A salesman in the Chevy store, for example, can sell any other brand. He never has to lose a customer.'
Burt Automotive Network's brand-building effort was strengthened with the 1999 addition of Camille Winsor as director of marketing. Winsor spent 13 years with Graham Advertising in Colorado Springs and worked with Burt Chevrolet as part of the agency's General Motors Regional Advertising Group account.
'The work this past year has been to strengthen the consistency of the company's image,' she says. 'For example, I found more than 70 different looks on our business cards. Now, we've updated our logo and have a consistent format for business cards, stationery, license plates and newspaper advertising.'
The dealership group's goal, Chavez emphasizes, is to strengthen brand identification with employees as well as with customers. 'Happy and activated employees support the brand and help create happy and motivated loyal customers' he says. 'If our 1,300 employees aren't being good examples of our brand, it's difficult for customers to understand what it is.'
To build the Burt brand from the inside out, Chavez has taken what he calls 'a multifaceted approach.'
'First, we've established four general activities during the year to bring all employees together,' he says. They are a spring talent show, summer picnic, fall awards program and a winter holiday party.
'The second thing is a consistent employee orientation program for all new employees, from shop aides to management. We tell them about employee benefits and our plans for growth.' This is done at all locations and includes a 30-minute video featuring the younger Chavez.
Adds Winsor 'His presentation gives a complete overview of who we are, where we've been, and what's going to happen in the future. It's a much more intimate look than similar programs I've seen used by other operations.'
The company also has attempted to boost its brand development by hiring Steven LeMons as director of corporate development. 'He helps give each of our dealerships a consistent view of what Burt policy is and what our culture is,' Chavez says.
Chavez reports that while turnover is a challenge, 50 percent of employees have been with the company for 15 years or longer.
'That's a blessing and a curse at the same time' he says. 'If people get staid and won't change, or aren't motivated to meet new challenges, that can hurt. But we have a lot of people who are very motivated and are accepting the new technology and internal culture.'
Rewards and service
Efforts to win over customers include a loyalty program with 65 outside vendors offering discounts ranging from free appetizers to 20 percent off the list price of their products.
Customers also receive a card that gives 15 percent off any purchase at the dealership, including parts or service. They also get credit toward the purchase of their next vehicle.
Another brand builder is the Burt Auto Help Center. 'Anybody, whether a Burt customer or not, can call in and get answers,' Winsor says. 'We utilize 25 technicians for research on those questions. We don't do any selling on those calls. We don't even ask whether they're in the market for a car.'
The concept came from consumer advocate Tom Martino, who sends his Denver-area referrals to Burt.
Chavez credits the company's success thus far to his father. 'He's a very loyal person, and he is very family-oriented in our own immediate family, with our employees and with our customers,' he says.
This family emphasis has helped Burt Automotive Network continue to find success in a competitive market.