TrueCar finally has a high-profile executive walking in the door.
And he harbors no illusions about the task he'll face in stabilizing the company and rebuilding bridges with auto dealers.
Chip Perry, a veteran digital-marketing executive who built Autotrader into a $1 billion enterprise, takes over as TrueCar's CEO and president, effective Dec. 15, capping a tumultuous year marked by executive departures, numerous lawsuits and disputes with key partners. He succeeds departing TrueCar CEO Scott Painter and former President John Krafcik.
"There was a lot of controversy there in the past," Perry told Automotive News. "I believe that the relationships are reparable, but they require significant changes on TrueCar's part to make that happen."
In Perry, 62, TrueCar gains a steady hand who steered an Internet startup through boom and bust periods in the dot-com and automotive sectors. As CEO of Autotrader from 1997 to 2013, he built it into a business with more than $1 billion in annual revenue through acquisitions of brands such as Kelley Blue Book, VinSolutions, vAuto and HomeNet Automotive -- companies that now form the backbone of the privately owned Cox Automotive group.
He left Autotrader in 2013 as Cox sought to pull these brands under its own umbrella.
At publicly traded TrueCar, Perry will have the added challenge of keeping Wall Street happy. TrueCar's stock zoomed higher after its May 2014 public offering. But it's off about 60 percent since the start of this year, hammered by news of disappointing earnings and litigation.
Near the top of Perry's to-do list: Visiting TrueCar's dealer partners throughout the country, something he did more than 500 times during his 16-year tenure at Autotrader.
"I believe there are many ways in which TrueCar can better serve car dealers, and my goal will be to earn their trust back and to listen to them," Perry said. "It's going to start with a deep examination of all touch points TrueCar has with dealers today."
TrueCar's business model is sound, Perry says, but not above a few changes.
"When you run a digital marketplace company, the largest one in the industry, you learn a lot," Perry said. "You learn that you need to build the business in a very balanced way that benefits the dealer and the consumer. You can't tilt the marketplace too dramatically in either direction."
At TrueCar, he added, "there is tremendous room for improvement in how that balance is struck."
And yet, he said, TrueCar's quest for happier dealer partners -- and more of them -- can't come at the expense of consumers.
Finding that balance proved especially difficult for Painter, who drew the ire of dealers throughout the country -- even those who used TrueCar's service -- for casting them in a bad light to consumers and for insisting that they hand over customer transaction data.
His troubles were compounded by several dealer lawsuits against the company, second-quarter earnings that missed their target and a bitter fallout with AutoNation and its CEO, Mike Jackson.
Painter announced in August that he was stepping down as CEO; he will also give up his board seat at the company he founded when Perry takes over. Krafcik, who was brought in as president ahead of the IPO, left for Google in September.
This month, Larry Dominique, TrueCar's executive vice president of industry solutions, announced that he's leaving by year end. And Automotive News has learned that David Sturtz, senior vice president of TrueTrade, TrueCar's used-car trade-in tool, is also leaving.
Perry said it's too early to provide specifics on what he'll change at TrueCar, or whether that will include its policies on access to customer transaction data -- a sticking point in the AutoNation spat.
But Perry said he "hopes to find a way to work with [AutoNation] again."
He also hopes to expand beyond TrueCar's 8,702 franchised dealers. (That tally counts each brand at a dealer location separately.)
"There's a lot of room for many more dealers in the network and for existing dealers to benefit from this kind of system once it's adjusted to meet their needs," Perry said.
"I don't know what those adjustments are; I just know in my bones there are plenty of ways to improve for dealers."