TORRINGTON, Conn. -- Phil Porter, the only Subaru dealer with stores in both northern and southern states, is showing how this Snow Belt brand can be hot stuff in the Sun Belt, too.
Porter has run Center Subaru here since 1994 and also has two dealerships in Jacksonville, Fla. He opened his second Florida store in January.
The 55-year-old dealer does well in snow country, where the all-wheel-drive brand has a built-in advantage. But Porter takes a different approach at his Florida stores, Subaru of Jacksonville and Subaru of Orange Park.
He says succeeding in the South requires lots of event, grass-roots and Internet marketing -- stuff he doesn't have to worry about too much in Connecticut.
"In Florida, you have to take the car to the customer -- or at least get it in front of them," he says. "We're still an unknown, and it takes a lot of elbow grease to sell a Subaru down here."
Subaru executives say that if anyone can do it, Porter can.
"Phil is showing the other retailers all over Florida and in other Sun Belt markets that it can be done," says Subaru of America COO Tom Doll. "He now has the whole Jacksonville market to himself."
Doll says Porter is one of Subaru's most important dealers because Florida, Texas and Southern California are potentially the biggest growth markets for the brand. Subaru has 610 dealerships in the United States, and only 26 are in Florida.
Porter, who does not have other franchises, sold 882 new vehicles at his three stores in 2009. This year he hopes to sell about 1,200 -- 640 in Connecticut and 575 at the two Jacksonville stores combined. Subaru says Porter is one of its top 25 dealers.
Selling Subaru in the North doesn't guarantee success in the South, Porter says.
"The brand isn't on the top of shoppers' lists like it is in more mature parts of the country, specifically the Northeast, mountain areas, Oregon and Washington," he says.
But Porter is a Florida native. His first job in the business was as an F&I manager in 1982 in Hollywood, Fla. He later became general manager of Toyota of Leesburg in Florida and finance director at Atlanta Toyota before moving to Connecticut in 1986 as general manager at a Toyota store in Avon.
In 1994, Porter became sole owner of Center Subaru, housed in an old Sears automotive store in a nondescript strip mall.
He was an early adopter of the Internet to sell cars. Porter became the first dealer in Connecticut to sign with Autobytel.com in 1996 and bought the entire state as his territory. The exclusive deal lasted only a year and a half, but Porter sold enough cars to become one of Subaru's top 20 U.S. dealers from 1996 to 1998. Sales peaked at 760 cars in 1998.
"Dealers were cynical about the Internet, but it worked famously for us and really helped us grow," says Porter.
In 2000, Porter asked for another Subaru point, in a metropolitan area. Two months later he was offered Jacksonville, a key market in Subaru's effort to expand in Florida.
While a $5.1 million store was being built, Porter ran Subaru of Jacksonville from its original dilapidated building next to a strip club. Monthly sales were "in the single digits," says Porter.
This year, Subaru says, Florida sales rose 33 percent in the first quarter. It declined to disclose the number of vehicles.
"You have to lead buyers to do some investigating to find out about the quality of Subaru because it's not at the top of their consideration list," Porter says. "Toyota, Honda and Nissan are."
Porter uses the Internet extensively, including the top social networking sites. He says his stores have more than 1,100 friends on Facebook, and "that represents more than any other new-car dealer in Florida."
To get noticed in Jacksonville, Porter says, he participates in five times more sponsorships and events in Florida than in Connecticut.
"We take the cars out and drive for Habitat for Humanity, road races, events on the beach and home and patio shows," he says. "We have to be more creative to get eyes on the cars."
Porter also is getting the word out through a newly launched branding campaign called "Experience the Stars." Two Subaru Outback wagons wrapped in transparent film painted with the Jacksonville skyline are driven daily around the city. Porter has paid for radio and TV commercials that urge anyone who sees the Outbacks to text, e-mail or send pictures of them to the stores to be entered in a contest.
The winner gets a three-year lease on an Outback, and Porter gets every entrant's e-mail address and phone number.
"We are optimistic we will get 10,000 entries," says Porter, "and those are all new buyer leads."