For Dallas area dealer Tom Durant, trucks and horses seem to go hand in hand. Durant's Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine, Texas, sells nearly 5,000 new pickups and SUVs annually. When he's not selling vehicles, Durant often can be found around his stables. His horses dominate racing in Texas. And he is not ashamed to say that he has sold a lot of trucks to other horse enthusiasts he has met along the way.
Durant, 60, is a member of the Chevrolet and General Motors dealer councils. He recently bought two stores previously owned by the now-liquidated Bill Heard Enterprises. Durant now owns seven stores in Texas and one in Florida.
He spoke with Staff Reporter David Barkholz.
You sell a lot of Chevrolets. What's your secret?
Starting off in a small town outside the metroplex -- that's where I had my first store -- we learned to take care of the customer the country way. I brought that to the city, and it has worked really well. All our salespeople are empowered to make deals. They're not controlled. Customers like dealing with someone who can make decisions. And I let the salesmen do that. Pricing, everything.
What's your new-vehicle split, cars vs. trucks?
We're still 80 percent trucks. It used to be closer to 90 percent, but our car business is growing. With Chevy coming out with the Camaro, the Malibu and the Cruze fixing to come, I think we'll grow it and, hopefully, get to 60-40 at some point. But Texans are in love with their trucks, and they're not going to give them up.
What's your biggest challenge today?
More opportunities than challenges. There are huge opportunities to grow your business right now. You can see it getting better week by week. The financial institutions are getting better.
Is credit loosening?
Do you have a problem with availability of vehicles? Your inventory?
That's a problem across the nation. I just don't have it here. My lot's loaded. I have 1,800 vehicles to pick from right now.
Why do you have so many and others so few?
We still maintain a real high sales pace. We were real low [in inventory] in May and June, but we were outselling everybody else, and it just came back. And production in the fourth quarter was much higher. Right now I have plenty to sell.
What happens if you really start selling cars?
We'll have to earn our allocation of cars like we have trucks. The inventory we have is mostly trucks. There are 1,500 trucks sitting around here and 300 cars.
Are you going to have a Toyota Corolla and Honda Accord in your showroom for comparison with the new Chevrolet Cruze?
I don't do that. I've driven the Cruze. Went to the proving grounds. It should be a winner straight out of the box. It's already proven itself globally.
But it's really about treating the customer right. You get them out on the road. They like their cars. They are going to tell their friends. That's how you sell cars.
That results in repeat business?
About 80 percent of our business is either repeat customers or referrals. I've had customers who have bought 20 and 40 vehicles from us. For themselves, not their businesses. We do newspaper and radio and some mailers, but the No. 1 marketing is your customer. A satisfied customer who keeps coming back and talking to his friends is the best kind of marketing you can have. So the money we spend advertising is really for that other 20 percent.
You're a racehorse owner and enthusiast. How did you get involved?
One of my customers in the early '80s had a colt that was running really well, and he told me I needed to go out and buy the mom. That's how I got started.
Now you're heavily involved.
At Lone Star Park here in Texas, I made the hall of fame after 10 years because I had the most wins of any owner.
How have you been so successful?
Keeping the horse sound. There's a lot of fast horses out there, but keeping them sound enough to run in races and last awhile is the toughest thing there is. That goes to the way they're trained and the way they're prepared.
So is there an intersection between selling cars and racing horses?
I'm trying to sell enough cars so I can run horses and not have to worry about the purses. I enjoy the horse business. I've met a lot of people at it. Sold a lot of trucks within the business. It does generate business. And most of these people are coming from all over. And you're bringing people to your store who are not from your direct market.
How are you set for growth?
GM originally asked me in 1992 to get 2.9 acres at this location, and I got 11 acres. They asked me to build a 20,000-square-foot building and showroom, and I built a 45,000-square-foot building. But now the place is on 50 acres. There are 180,000 square feet of buildings. I grew the infrastructure as the business grew. The main thing is that I kept investing in the business.
Did you have a conscious strategy to grow through store acquisitions?
It just sort of happened. I had a few people looking, but the financial downturn in 2008 really gave me the opportunity to get two big Chevrolet stores. That's why I had the Buick-GMC stores, because you couldn't buy Chevrolet stores. I'm talking about the two Heard stores. These are huge stores. They can be top-five-in-the-nation stores.
Those stores are in Houston and Florida. Are they similar to your store in Grapevine pp lots of trucks?
Yes. It's amazing that wherever I go, I'm still in the truck business.
What do you have to do to make those stores work?
They're working good right now, but they'll get a lot better with time. Building sales and getting away from the image that Bill Heard had. But the stores are in markets that can be really big.
Have you gone there to install your philosophy on customer treatment, etc.?
I have partners in my stores, and they're people who have worked for me. They know what I do, and they know how I do it. Everyone is trying to imitate what we do in Grapevine. I don't have to spend a lot of time with them. Maybe a little on the phone. But I depend on them to run their stores with the same kind of integrity as we have here.
Are you actively searching for additional acquisitions?
Not particularly. But if the right opportunity came along, I'd be interested in it. I'm not going to go out and pay a ton of blue sky for a store just because I want it.