HILLSDALE, Mich. -- Chrysler Group dealer Tom Vann embraced the Internet as a sales tool nearly 15 years ago, when the technology was still a novelty.
He's sure glad he did.
Because nearly 70 percent of his car sales today come through the Internet, it doesn't matter that Vann's Team Hillsdale Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep is tucked into this small, predominantly farming hamlet deep in south central Michigan.
"We saw a long time ago that we couldn't just focus on our Main Street business," says Vann, 45, whose father, Bill Vann Sr., was a longtime dealer in nearby Albion, Mich.
The surrounding county has been losing automotive and tool-and-die jobs for the past decade. Unemployment in Hillsdale County, population 46,500, was 17 percent in September, according to the state of Michigan.
But Team Hillsdale has been largely immune to the slide. Vann's average online buyer comes from 120 miles away. His biggest market is the heavily dealered Detroit area, 100 miles away.
Vann's sales territory ranges approximately from the border with Ohio and Indiana to the south, Lansing to the north, Kalamazoo to the west and Ann Arbor-Detroit to the east.
Until the fourth quarter, Team Hillsdale had been selling about 60 new and used vehicles a month. About two-thirds were new and two-thirds were bought online.
But sales eroded in the fourth quarter to about 30 a month. Vann says customers have lost some interest in Chrysler vehicles since the company failed to provide dealers enough cars during the cash-for-clunkers program this past summer.
"It was a moment in time that the company couldn't take advantage of," Vann says.
Tom Vann has co-owned Team Hillsdale Chrysler since 1986 with his brother Fred. A third brother, Bill Jr., owns a Ford dealership in Albion.
For years, Tom stayed away from the business because he objected to the high-pressure sales techniques that he saw at his dad's stores while working there during college summer vacations.
"One of my first days on the job, I spent an hour helping a guy, walking around with him and answering all his questions," Vann recalls.
"A senior sales guy pulled me aside and chewed me out with a stream of expletives, telling me how that customer would never buy a car that day and he was wasting not only my time but the store's as well.
"I didn't even last the summer. I realized that day that I couldn't play that sales game."
In 1995, Vann returned to Hillsdale. By then he had spent nine years in the restaurant business in the San Diego area, first learning about and then training employees how to please customers at the high-end restaurants he managed.
Vann discovered a new, entrepreneurial company -- Autobytel Inc. -- that could provide solid sales leads to dealers in the hinterlands because of information it got from the Internet car-buying searches of prospective customers.