From the time he started his own car-cleaning and -detailing operation in Savannah, Ga., at age 20, O.C. Welch knew he was going to be a lifer in the car business. He bought and sold several dealerships around Savannah before he bought his current store in 2007: O.C. Welch Ford-Lincoln in Hardeeville, S.C., about 20 miles north of Savannah. It sells about 100 new and 100 used vehicles a month.
Welch, 57, owns more than 20 vintage Lincolns, including a 1956 Mark II. He also has been active in the Savannah area, offering reward money to help police apprehend suspects in several murder cases.
He spoke with Staff Reporter Bradford Wernle.
Q. What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the business?
A. Today it just takes so long to sell a car. There's so much paperwork. A lot of the older salespeople, they just throw in the towel.
All this Bluetooth stuff was a novelty to start with, but it's a grind on the dealership, especially if you're a high-volume store. A lot of employees for the manufacturers don't understand the stuff.
What happened to the day we bought a car because of the way it looked and drove down the road? They're worried about the wrong thing. What's more important: the way a car looks and drives or the kind of Bluetooth it has?
What else has changed?
The cars are 10 times better than they ever used to be. We just moved from powertrain problems that don't exist any more to technology challenges.
How has technology changed the way you operate?
The manufacturers assume that everybody understands this stuff, and they don't. Just count how many different kinds of computers and cellphones are on the market. It's really tough because everybody has a different level of expertise. There are five different iPhone models and there's another one coming. If they continue to come out with new phones, we can't learn all this stuff.
I'm sure GM and Chrysler and Toyota all have technology challenges. The manufacturers want everybody to be tech-savvy, but the customers aren't. We ask people if they have a smartphone. They pull a smartphone out and say, "This is what I've got." A lot of them have Bluetooth and don't even know it.
All dealerships are graded on their technology expertise. When the stuff doesn't go right, it's a disaster to the CSI scores. Today most of the negative surveys we get are a combination of Bluetooth challenges, MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch. If the customer doesn't understand what you're trying to show them, they just think you don't care.
At my dealership, we don't pay sales commissions unless the customer signs a sheet that says they received the Sync training.
How does the march of technology affect some of your longtime employees?
You've made a lot of salespeople obsolete. We're graded on how well the customer understands this stuff. When you go to school, some people move on to second grade. Some flunk. I really like showing it to customers. Customers want to buy a car to drive it. They don't care about this stuff as much as somebody might think they do.
The salespeople, they deal with demonstrating it. The customers may think they have a problem and they don't. They come to the service department thinking they've got a problem and a lot of times they don't. A lot of customers don't know how their cellphones work.
So you don't send customers back to the Verizon store?
We try to do whatever we can right here. I would consider myself a Bluetooth expert. Some of the salespeople are experts and others are on their way to being an expert. It's very hard to be an expert with every single phone. It's overwhelming. It's a distraction from selling the cars. I'm sure the renewal rate on a lot of that stuff is very low.
Renewal rates on what?
Sync services, MyFord Touch services, OnStar from GM.
You said it takes longer to deliver a car these days. Can you elaborate?
In the old days we used to do a delivery checklist, set the radio station buttons, fill it up with gas and deliver it. Now you spend an hour going through the technology and the Bluetooth, and they keep coming back because they don't understand the stuff.
They should give the customers a certificate for graduation from Bluetooth Academy. Everybody wants it to work the way they want it to work. They don't want it to work the way it's supposed to work.
And there's so much variation from one vehicle to the next.
You can buy Sync with MyFord Touch or without. Some packages have navigation and some don't. There's nothing simple about it. It's a nightmare for a salesperson to sell and it's a nightmare for a consumer to own it.
I have personally bought back two cars myself that the manufacturer wouldn't buy back because I was tired of the grief. Sometimes you can fix a car but you can't fix a customer's head. At that point, you better get him a new car or he's going to divorce you and get a new brand.
How has the balance shifted between the factory and the dealership?
It's about the same. If we didn't have technology, we'd have something else on our plate. We had paint issues in the '80s, transmission issues in the '80s and motor and tire issues in the '90s. Now we're dealing with technology challenges.
What has changed on the service side?
You're servicing the customer now and not the car. When the manufacturer wanted us to do free car washes, we were already doing that with free scheduled maintenance. There was no learning curve there.
The majority of dealers who were proactive, you have to service the customer not the car. You're buying owner loyalty.
How is your service department revenue?
Revenue is a challenge, no doubt about that. If it wasn't for diesel work, we wouldn't have any high-ticket items. It used to be our bread and butter, working on Lincolns and Mercurys. There aren't any more Mercurys. Lincoln is so low volume and the quality of those cars is unbelievable.
How do you make up for the loss of service revenue?
You just sell as many Fords as you can.
How has Ford's culture changed during the Alan Mulally years?
I don't really know Alan Mulally. All I know is what I've read about him. But I would say he's done a lot of great things for Ford Motor Co. His decision not to take any bailout money was a great one. People still talk about that. As time goes on, that too will be forgotten. Back in the '60s, people wouldn't buy a Japanese car because of World War II. It's a very forgiving country at the end of the day.
What does bother me is how much business is being sent to China. That bothers me. What interests me is what's going on in North America. History will show you the company [Ford] has always made money when they make money in this country.
Why don't car dealers get any respect?
I guess because we sell used cars. Lawyers have the same issues. I think it's that way in every profession. A lot of lawyers, they call them ambulance chasers. A lot of people think car dealers don't care about anything but making money. But that's not true.
Car dealers are the backbones of most of the communities in this country. Ford and Chevy dealers share the longest history of providing sponsorships and donations and community support across this country. Ford and Lincoln and Chevy and Cadillac dealers have done that for 100 years.