At age 83, Tony Viviano still comes every work day to Sterling Heights [Mich.] Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep-Ram, the dealership he owns, which sold about 4,100 new and 1,100 used vehicles in 2014. He entered the business after more than 10 years at Chrysler Corp., where he trained dealers in the then-new practice of reconditioning used cars.
Viviano spoke about his history and path to success with Jennifer Vuong, anchor and producer of Automotive News TV's "First Shift."
Q: How did you get into retailing?
A: I had found a little store out in Utica [Mich.] and they were selling five cars [a month]. I thought, before I get a little bit older [at Chrysler], I'm going to try this.
So I dump everything. I borrow money from my two brothers, my dad and my uncle, and I went in. The day I opened it up, I had 17 cents in my pocket. I couldn't even buy lunch. It was forward or perish.
The good Lord has been good to me. Within two years, Chrysler had purchased this land, and said, "We'd like you to come on down." And I says, "Well, I don't have no money." And they said, "We'll work a partnership. You've got to put in 25 percent and then every year, you can buy in. If you lose, all the money of yours, you're gone." Within about four years, I brought the whole place out.
What was your secret to success?
There's no secret. It's family, and it's people -- and by the grace of God, too. You got to have something helping you a little bit. But it's hard work. You just got to do it.
Then you bought other brands?
Meadowbrook Dodge, then a Chevrolet-Pontiac-Oldsmobile [store] up in Imlay City. And I used to own Dollar Rent A Car in Detroit.
How did that happen?
I got a call from a friend of mine and he was going to lose Dollar Rent A Car. I took a look at it and I thought, 'Well, all right.' I had a [counter in the] terminal at the airport.
It was a good education because the rent-a-car business is very, very difficult. You can lose a ton of money real fast. I can tell you tricks that you wouldn't believe.
A guy comes in and I see him rent a Cadillac. About three hours later, he brings it back and I thought, "Is there something wrong with it?" "Oh, no, I just wanted to take it for a ride." And I thought, that's odd. So I go out there and look. And he was so dumb -- the wheel covers all had fingerprints. He rented the car, took [off] the four tires and put his old tires on it and brought it back.
Guy was in a real hurry one time, he put the car right against the building and said, "Here's 10 bucks, I'm going to miss my flight." I said, "Hold on. We got to check your car." Why did he park it over there? Well, he had ripped the whole side of it off. We called the police.
How often are you here at the store?
Well, I was late today -- I got here at quarter to 7. I'll probably leave around 6-6:30. Monday night, we left here about 10:20.
Why is it so important to be here all the time?
Nobody takes care of your stuff like you do. One of the things our success has been due to is that we've always been engaged. We know what's happening.
Customers like to see you. If they feel that they're comfortable, they'll come here. ... If they come to a place that's more like a family, and you're going to take care of them. ... Maybe I'm kind of wacko, but that's the way I feel about it. Take care of people and they'll come and take care of you.
Do you have a lot of turnover?
Not really. One of the things -- and it's really, really difficult, because you need somebody, you want to hire them right now, today -- I try to interview everybody, even a porter. I can't always do it, but a lot of times we do. And I let each manager hire their own people. I will give them my opinion, and if they [still] want to hire them, fine. And I've been right a couple of times: They hired them, and we've had a disaster.
Do you have any programs to keep your employees satisfied?
How do you want to be treated? That's it. You make a good environment and you treat people right.
Some of these people treat people like their slaves. You know what? You work, we're all going to make money. You don't work, none of us make money.
Every now and then you got people that don't understand. That's the hardest part, when you got to correct somebody. You say, "Hey, c'mon. I'm treating you like an adult -- act like one." You're straight and honest, don't ever cheat any people -- I mean we try to do everything right. And if they don't get it, they are out of here.
What other challenges are there as a dealer?
The biggest challenge is where are we going. You look at these cars and the electronics -- you can't charge $100,000 for a family car.
Is there any advantage to being close to FCA's Sterling Heights Assembly Plant?
Somebody said, "We win our wings every day."
I've known people that have something right across the street and go broke because the people were rotten and nobody went there. You've got to treat people right.
Compare Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne and former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca.
Different styles, but they are both brilliant men. But Sergio is a little more on the passionate side.
Talk about Marchionne stopping by your store for your 50th anniversary.
He gracefully came. When they asked him, I had to submit my resume and somebody wrote it all up, and he says, "Does this guy still work?' He says, 'Yeah, every day. Matter of fact, he's the first one in and last one out.' He says, 'You got to be kidding.' He says, 'No. That's what he does.' He says, 'I think I got to go to this thing.' So we set it up and he came out and he was very gracious. He's a very brilliant man.
Thoughts on Marchionne and his talk of a merger?
I think it's misconstrued. I understand where he's going. He knows that you cannot keep on spending a billion dollars to put in an engine to get four more miles per gallon. You can't spend a billion dollars on a transmission and everything like that.
He has a vision. And a lot of these people get into that position and they figure they've got four to five years, take all the money and run. And he has a desire to do work and do good. I don't think he worries about making the money or something like that. He wants to do what's good for people.
You're a first-generation dealer, right?
Yeah. I got the third out there.
Two sons: Tony and Sal. And we have Sal's two boys here. His one son is running his own [reconditioning] business in our truck center. The other one we're breaking in right now.
What's Tony's role?
He's vice president, and we sort of run it all together. I'm trying to get a little bit behind. It's very difficult -- 50 years you've been running something. You got to let them get their feet smacked a little bit. So they learn. Better to do it now when you're alive than when you're dead. They can't come to the cemetery and say, "What do we do now, Dad?"