Dealer Bill Cole, 58, is poised to become president of the West Virginia Senate next year, and the state's lieutenant governor. He was elected to the state Senate as a Republican in 2012.
Cole grew up working in his family's heavy-truck dealership but branched off on his own into the aftermarket parts business. After receiving an offer he calls almost too good to be true, he sold his parts company, paving the way for his purchase of Nissan and Honda dealerships in Bluefield, W.Va., in 2000. Cole subsequently added Subaru, Kia and Hyundai stores, plus another set of Nissan and Honda stores in Ashland, Ky.
Cole Automotive Group's sales are down nearly 10 percent this year as the coal-driven economy of southern West Virginia has faltered. Cole spoke with Staff Reporter Amy Wilson.
Q. Are you still in expansion mode?
A. If the right deal comes along. [But] I don't want to halfway do something. I think we have enough to say grace over for now. I'm involved in the political scene in West Virginia, so that's taken a great deal of my time personally. I'm a businessman first, so if there's an opportunity to expand, and we can handle it, we'll certainly consider that.
Why did you go into politics?
I love my state of West Virginia. We have so many things going for us, particularly from a natural resources point. Yet continually, we're one of the poorest states in the nation and come up on the wrong end of every list. Our state hasn't been business friendly. We need to be able to encourage other businesses to come here. I want our kids to quit leaving West Virginia for opportunity elsewhere.
How will your political role mesh with your auto industry role?
We're [near] last place on a list called Judicial Hellholes [as named by the American Tort Reform Foundation]. For car dealers, that equates to sue-and-settle letters coming from trial attorneys, and those are just brutal. It's important we work on our judicial issues as well as tax issues.
When we talk about economic development, we always talk about going outside the state to bring business in, but the place we really need to start is to make sure the business we already have is healthy and moving forward. Car dealers represent an incredibly large part of the retail makeup of any state. We employ a lot of people. They are good-paying jobs. I need to do the things that I can to stabilize not just car dealers, but business in general.
Are the pressures on the franchise system growing?
The pressures on dealers are growing. The franchise system has proven its worth for years and years and continues to do so.
What are those growing pressures?
I see the pressure on the dealer body from the manufacturers. I completely understand and support facility initiatives manufacturers put out there. It does enhance the value of the brand. I have a problem with the amount of time and energy manufacturers put on all the measurements of customer satisfaction. Ultimately, the true test of a dealer's ability to provide exceptional customer service is that customers come back time after time to do business.
Are unrealistic expectations the problem?
I don't want to put a sharp stick in the eye of the manufacturers. But, gee whiz: I have full-time people who do nothing but manage the customer satisfaction scores, and I pay people based on customer satisfaction. And then, all of a sudden, we're pushing a number.
Customers are saying, "I got a call the day I got home after I took delivery from the dealer. Then I got a call the next day from the sales manager. Then I got one the next day from the dealer principal. By the way, the manufacturer called to ask was everything OK, and then they called a week after that and two weeks after that." By the time we do all this follow-up, a customer is saying, "This is becoming painful. I love my car. I told you that the first time, the second time, the third time. But after 10 or 20 times, enough's enough."
What other pressures on dealers concern you?
In the finance arena, the rules are changing on us constantly. We go to seminars; we hire consultants; we have people mystery shop us; we do everything we can do to try to stay ahead or stay in compliance with the law. But it becomes a task that maybe the dealer body just can't meet. It's like getting audited from the IRS: No matter how good you are, they're going to find something because they've got to.
Has the debate over Tesla's factory stores affected you in West Virginia?
Not too much in West Virginia. We'll get our turn. Electric cars are challenged in a place like West Virginia because we have hills everywhere, and we also have cold weather. Those are the two things toughest on a battery. From my Nissan brand, we have a Leaf, but we don't sell too many around here.
Funny little side story, though: Nissan makes us put public charging stations outside our dealerships. So I've sold a couple of Leafs, and nobody uses them. But I have a guy who bought a Tesla that pulls up to my dealership every day and plugs right in because his office is close. I'm sorry -- my electricity isn't free. But he doesn't have any problem pulling his Tesla into my Nissan store and laughing and leaving it on charge. So even though I don't sell many Leafs, I'm providing a Tesla owner his charging station. Oh, well, got to love being a car dealer.