DETROIT -- In 1988 Bryan DeBoer was fresh out of college with a degree in computer science and no plans to work in the auto industry.
But his dad, Lithia Motors Inc. founder Sid DeBoer, needed someone who could work with spreadsheets to organize data at Lithia.
"I always enjoyed working here over the summers" during college, Bryan said in an interview today. "So when he came to me, it was real easy. This was a great opportunity for me."
And 26 years later, that opportunity is expanding.
Effective May 1, Bryan, 44, will succeed Sid, 68, as Lithia's CEO. Sid will become executive chairman and remain chairman of the Medford, Ore., dealership group's board.
Bryan, president and COO since 2007, has lofty goals for Lithia this year.
At the store level, he wants to improve sales and customer service. He also wants to buy more dealerships in key markets and significantly boost used-car sales -- a segment where he said about half of Lithia's 86 stores are underperforming.
"Our real opportunity comes in used vehicles," Bryan said.
He said Lithia retails about 39 used vehicles per location per month. In 1996, the monthly total was closer to 75 per location. He believes there is potential now in the market to retail 60 units per month per site.
"We have to get enough managers on site and train the employees to get to that cadence," Bryan said.
Lithia has been increasing Bryan's responsibilities over the past couple of years in preparation for Sid's retirement, spokesman John North said.
The company said Sid will continue to be involved in Lithia's strategic oversight, manufacturer relations, governmental relations and business development.
Lithia ranks No. 9 on the Automotive News list of the top 125 dealership groups in the United States with retail sales of 33,790 new vehicles in 2010.
Bringing up Bryan
Bryan grew up listening to his father forbid him and his two brothers from entering the car business.
"That's just how he brought us up," Bryan said. "I had planned to get into marketing or sales in a different way."
But after spending three months in 1988 putting Lithia's financial statements in spreadsheets, Bryan started selling cars at Lithia Honda in Medford.
He did that for two years. Then he became the used-car manager and sales manager at the Honda store for a year before taking over as general manager at the store. He ran the store for five years.
In 1996, Sid took Lithia public and made Bryan head of operations with the main task to grow the company. Lithia owned five stores then.
"My role was to go find stores and integrate those stores operationally," Bryan said. "I got to know the people, brought them into our organization and made the transitions."
And Lithia grew quickly from 1996 to about 2006 with Bryan and Sid doing 12 to 15 acquisitions a year, Bryan said.
Living and dying by the trade-in
As CEO, Bryan plans to continue the company's strategy of snapping up franchises in small to mid-sized markets where Lithia can be the exclusive operator or acquire luxury franchises in larger markets where there are few other dealers.
Bryan also plans to continue centralizing all noncustomer facing operations, such as payroll, marketing and receivables, in Medford, so that individual stores can focus on improving customer service and boosting sales.
But his top priority this year is to improve used car sales.
"My old store, the Honda store, we used to sell 1,500 used cars a year or about 125 a month," Bryan said. "That store is selling less than 40 a month. It's a combination of mind-set, getting enough inventory, but probably, most of all, it's the mistake of living and dying by the trade-in."
He said many dealers believe that a late-model used vehicle from a competing brand taken as a trade-in is going to sell. But often the customers who want such a vehicle buy it certified from a franchised competitor.
"It freezes your dollars," Bryan said.
He wants his managers to go to auction and trade those late-model vehicles for older ones that customers wouldn't find certified on another franchised dealer's lot.
"That's one of my main focuses -- to train managers to better manage the inflow and outflow," he said.
Lithia expects U.S. industry sales of 13.5-14.0 million units this year, lower than some industry projections as high as 14.5 million. But Bryan has no plans to increase Lithia's staff even if sales increase.
Said Bryan: "Our intent is to empower the people we have."