Craig Monaghan didn't expect to be leading Asbury Automotive Group Inc. today.
When a headhunter first approached him to become CFO of the public auto retailer in early 2008, Monaghan said no. But after agreeing to meet then-CEO Charles Oglesby for dinner, Monaghan, the former finance chief for AutoNation Inc., learned they shared a vision for a better way to sell cars.
It revolves around making the experience better for customers: Train employees to sell the product, not the deal; restructure compensation to reward volume and customer satisfaction; replace confrontational negotiations with upfront low prices; use technology to aid the entire transformation.
"We were completely on the same page," Monaghan, 54, said of that dinner meeting with Oglesby. "I couldn't get it out of my head when I left. Yeah, he got me."
Fast forward nearly four years, and Asbury, the nation's sixth-largest dealership group, is putting that vision to the test at three stores in Richmond, Va. Monaghan, who became CEO this year after Oglesby retired, is guiding the effort along with COO Michael Kearney.
The Richmond locations -- a BMW store, a BMW-Mini store and an Acura store -- have been operating under the new model since late February. Asbury calls the approach Asbury Preferred Selling. The long-term aim is to improve productivity at the stores, reduce costs, shrink transaction time and improve positive word-of-mouth and customer loyalty. Whether the new model is rolled out to all stores has yet to be decided.
Customers in Richmond seem to like the approach. Dealership customer-satisfaction scores are up, and reviews on DealerRater.com have increased substantially and are resoundingly positive, Asbury executives say. During the first week of the pilot, 800 people downloaded smartphone applications for the three stores.
Justine Wiseman vouches for the system. Wiseman fulfilled a nearly decade-long dream this spring when she bought a Mini Cooper to celebrate her 40th birthday. It was her sixth car purchase and her first at Richmond BMW-Mini. Six months after the purchase, Wiseman called the experience fabulous.
"It was like a party," Wiseman said. "Usually when you buy cars it's like a combat situation, and this did not feel like it at all."
The first tip that her Mini purchase would be different came when the dealership evaluated her trade-in, a 2006 Chrysler Pacifica. She was given two prices, about $500 apart. The first represented the vehicle's then-value on AutoTrader's Trade-In Marketplace evaluation service. The second was the dealership's own estimate based on local sales data.
Under the Asbury Preferred Selling method, dealership employees present two prices for the trade-in and offer to buy the vehicle for whichever is highest. The offer is good for a five-day or 500-mile window. For Wiseman's Pacifica, the top price was actually higher than her research had indicated.
After three hours at the dealership -- one spent driving cars -- Wiseman left with her gray Mini. There was no dickering. Wiseman said her research on Minis had prepared her to pay sticker price.
She was apprehensive about the trip to the finance and insurance department, but that went smoothly, too. Her sales rep had prepped her and gotten her interested in a service contract and interior protection plan.
"When I get my next car, whether it is a Mini or not, I will seek out that particular dealership because they are just that nice to deal with," Wiseman said.