Canton, Ohio, dealer Doug Waikem was on the golf course one day in 1994 when he took a call on his cumbersome, 5-pound cellular telephone.
It was an executive who had just transferred from California to Cleveland. The man told Waikem that he had shopped for a car on the Internet via Autobytel, one of the first companies to sell new-car leads to dealers. But he had moved before taking delivery of the vehicle and now he wanted to buy from Waikem.
It was a life-altering moment for Waikem, who had never heard of the Internet but was pretty sure it meant that auto retailing had changed for good. He recalls rushing out to buy technology magazines in hopes of learning what he could about the World Wide Web.
Waikem learned quickly and soon was a pioneer among dealers selling cars online.
Today, the Waikem Auto Family, run by Doug, 58, and brothers Chip, 62, and David, 56, owns Nissan, Ford, Subaru, Hyundai, Honda, Kia and Mitsubishi dealerships in Canton and Massillon, Ohio.
The group dominates sales in the area.
"One out of every three new cars sold in our area comes from one of our seven stores," Doug Waikem says.
Last year, the group sold about 7,200 vehicles -- 4,200 new and 3,000 used -- and amassed total revenue of $250 million.
Waikem says the Internet has been instrumental to the 55-year-old group's success. The stores buy about 1,000 third-party leads per month from Autobytel and other lead providers such as Dealix and Cars.com, at a cost of $18 to $22 each. And those are exclusive leads his competitors can't buy, he says.
"I have been in the Internet business so long that I bought all the territories that I could," he said. "I have the market locked up."
He even bought territories in five surrounding states.
He says his store Web sites generate an additional 600 leads a month and that about 17 percent of all leads turn into sales within 60 days.
"That is very good," Waikem says. "Nationwide, the conversion rate is 7 percent."
Waikem should know because he is chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association's first eCommerce 20 Group, set up last year after "years of begging NADA," he said.
About 40 percent of the company's annual marketing budget is spent on digital advertising, compared with about 25 percent at the typical dealership, according to NADA.