Infiniti management is listening to dealers
Before becoming an Infiniti dealer nine years ago, Bruce Lamb called himself a "wholesale guy." He stepped in to run Infiniti of Memphis in 2002 after working on the factory side of the business for 23 years in sales and service management with Mercedes-Benz USA.
But when Mercedes asked him to move from Atlanta to Boston, the area where he was from, he took early retirement. Instead, he went to work for Cathy Ellis, whose high-end Atlanta retail organization, Atlanta Classic Cars, owns the Memphis Infiniti store.
Lamb, 60, is now expanding the operation to a second point, constructing an $8 million dealership on the northeast side of Memphis. He expects to move to the new location in midsummer, overseeing both stores for a brand he believes is on the move.
He will become chairman of Infiniti's National Dealer Advisory Board this month.
He spoke with Staff Reporter Lindsay Chappell.
Q: How did your dealership fare in 2010?
A: It was a great year for us. The Memphis market did well. Our sales were up 21 percent by revenue. In number of cars, we were up 37 percent. Parts and service were up. It was a good year for the bottom line. We have a veteran crew here. On the 26th of January, this store was 22 years old. Ours is what we call at Infiniti a "launch store." We opened with the first wave back in 1989. The same family has owned it from the beginning.
You're constructing a second Infiniti store in Memphis. How will the new dealership differ from this one?
It's a new point, a second point for us here, opening in late July or mid-August. The design is the new corporate ID for Infiniti. The architecture features the new big glass wall that will characterize how Infiniti stores look. It's all new technology, including flat-screen TV displays. It will be an $8 million investment.
I'm eager to get the new store open because Infiniti is growing. We're in a new era for Infiniti. There was the first era that ran through about 2004, when the new G came out. Now we're in what I call "Infiniti 2," where the products are excellent and the people managing the company are really in the game. Infiniti is really playing in the game now.
How are dealer-factory relations at the franchise?
I've been on the dealer board for a few years now. And I'm very impressed by the way they're doing things. I find it to be open in communications with us, and the company is very quick to respond to what dealers say. And by the way, that includes a quickness to say, "No, we don't think that will work," when they need to. You have to respect that. There's a real value in having people be honest and upfront with you. Other auto companies often just leave you hanging. Infiniti's management is very decisive. And as a result, I believe our board can act very decisively.
What kind of influence does the dealer advisory board have?
They listen very closely to what we say. But you know, a lot of our issues have to do with the things dealers usually ask about -- margin, products, advertising.
I feel like I see both sides of the issues, since I was a wholesale guy before becoming a dealer. I understand the constraints that car companies are under and I'm not going to push for things that I already know they're not going to be able to respond to.
What discussions do you expect the board to take up in 2011?
We have some new cars coming that we need to get ready for. There is a hybrid model coming in the M sedan, which will be new technology from Nissan for the first time and will sell in all 50 states. So we will all be talking about that for the first time. And we have a couple of other small niche vehicles coming.
What's the reaction to the new Infiniti Performance Line -- starting with the racier, higher-performance G coupe that Infiniti has developed?
We're waiting to see how it will do at this point. It's not intended to be a high-volume product line. I have one IPL coupe that came in around the 20th of December. It's getting a lot of ooh's and aah's, but it's still sitting here. A lady came in today to look at it. But interestingly, she was more interested in the aesthetics of the car than its performance ability. She liked the red interior.
But we're waiting to see how it will go. I myself would like to see an IPL version of the G sedan. The coupe is a good car, but it's a little impractical with a limited rear seat.
For perspective, I was at Mercedes-Benz when they introduced the AMG line. And those products didn't immediately jump off the shelf either.
On the other end of the spectrum, you now have the G25, a less expensive model with reduced engine power. How does that fit into the brand?
We're selling them. That product actually came out of the dealer board. We saw it as a way to reach some younger buyers. The transaction price and the payment price on the G35 sedan is a few dollars higher than a young couple can afford. We're now seeing the less expensive G25 bring in some older buyers, single women and some younger couples. It's a different conversation than we're having with the new M56 sedan.
Is the M adequate to serve as Infiniti's flagship?
It's a great car. It was my biggest segment last month. But I can only give you my personal opinion. I don't think it qualifies as our flagship. But I'd rather see us branch out in a couple of different directions than to see us invest in a new flagship. There are still things we could do with the M. We could do something along the lines of the BMW L car. We should stretch the chassis out and make the back seat roomier, put in some side window shades. And just to be clear, there has been no discussion of that.
The criticism of Infiniti in the past few years was that it just wasn't moving forward. Great cars, but the brand was ill-defined and just wasn't growing. Did the positive performance of 2010 silence that criticism?
From a sales point of view, having our best year and having our greatest market penetration is proof that we've grown. We're on a roll now. Do we still have some issues? Absolutely. We have an issue with SSI [customer satisfaction with the sales experience] not being where we want it, and we're addressing that on a companywide basis. I'm on a task force to try to fix it. I will point out that we're actually improving every year, but our competitors are going up faster.
How do you go about improving customer satisfaction with the sales experience across the franchise?
We're looking at all parts of the process to see how we can do a better job for people. It's the product. It's the employee. It's employee turnover. It's the quality of the cars in service, the quality of our repair work. We're putting everything under the microscope now. It will be the big focus of this year. I believe we'll see benefits this year.
A lot of it is customer perceptions, as they express them in their survey answers. So we'll be looking at the surveys, at our own best practices, at facility quality around the country.
What are the prospects for a luxury electric vehicle, which Infiniti is planning to introduce in a couple of years?
The idea of an electric Infiniti is a good one. We're already installing charging stations at the new store we're constructing across town and putting them in very prominent locations, even though the car is still a way off. I figured we'll have to tear things up to install them later -- we might as well install them while we're under construction.
The QX56 SUV is selling well. But the company is now importing it from Japan, instead of building it in Mississippi, at a time when the yen-dollar exchange is very unfavorable for Japanese imports.
I think there's a lot of discussion about that, and it will probably come up on our agenda. We are suffering a little bit from the yen-dollar exchange. The price is a little higher than we'd like, but it's still a competitively priced vehicle.
But putting the QX56 on that new platform made in Japan was an important thing for us. The most pressing issue was for us to differentiate it from the Nissan Armada, and we've accomplished that.
I sold 17 of them last month. It hauls 8,900 pounds, and that's a horse trailer. This is horse country around here. Half of those we sold were conquest, mostly from Ford and General Motors.
What will be Infiniti's big issues this year?
The big picture is to keep this momentum going.
It will mean keeping the right mix of incentives and it will mean keeping the right mix of vehicles on hand across the country. We're looking at about a 50-day supply right now. That's just a little bit short. I normally carry 80 or 90 cars and I'm down to 52 right now. So we'll bulk back up and get some in from the port.
That's what we need to do all year long -- having the right mix of product on hand with the right incentives behind them. If we do that, we'll be fine. c