DETROIT -- Sam Slaughter was working for General Motors in its Atlanta field office when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He survived and decided to leave the corporate world and be an entrepreneur. When his mentor, dealer Bob Sellers, determined that none of his children wanted to take over the business, Slaughter became the succession plan, buying the store in 2006.
Slaughter, 53, owns Sellers Buick-GMC and Sellers Subaru in suburban Detroit, as well as a commercial-truck dealership selling Isuzu medium-duty and GMC light-duty trucks. He spoke with Staff Reporter Jennifer Vuong.
Q: Talk about your fight with leukemia.
A: When you're 25, you're invincible; you don't think anything bad is ever going to happen to you. And I just felt more tired every day. But you don't think there's something wrong with you.
I'll never forget sitting there in hospital room at 6 o'clock on a Tuesday night, and the doctor is saying you have leukemia. When you hear that word and the cancer thing, it's devastating and you think you're the only person in the world that's been through it. I looked at my wife and she looked at me; what do we do? We were living in Atlanta, where we didn't know anybody.
The kind of leukemia that I had today has a very, very high success rate. It's still not a cure, but it's a successful remission. It was childhood leukemia. It's kind of bimodal. It's either prevalent in kids, or older people in their 60s or 70s. The doctor said to me, if you respond like a kid, you have a better chance of making it. If you respond like an adult, it's probably not going to be good news. And my wife didn't miss a beat. She said, "Oh no, no problem. He'll be a kid." So we had a great attitude about it. And we beat it. That's pretty cool.
How has having leukemia affected you?
Don't put off until tomorrow what you could do today. It drove that point really home for us. And I think it really gave me, in ways, that courage to leave GM at age 30 and really take a huge leap or risk in coming into the retail business. I feel very, very lucky to be here.
How did the experience affect your management style?
It definitely gave me a lot more empathy to what people might be going through. Not necessarily leukemia, but other things life throws at us. I really like that part of being a boss. My wife is a social worker by trade, and I joke with her that I should have gotten the social work degree because you wouldn't believe what people would tell you. But I feel honored that they would entrust those feelings and those emotions to me.
How else would you describe your management style?
I'm very open. I was told by another mentor, way early on, that I should always park my car in the back of the lot and walk all the way through the dealership on my way to the office, instead of parking right outside my door. I did that from Day One.
When you walk through the back shop every single day, you develop a rapport with people and they appreciate that. They know I'm here every day; they know I'm approachable. They know that I know that their kid is going to college, or they got a new puppy or whatever. That's really important for people because when you're having a great day, that's a good thing. When you're having a tough day, you still want to perform for Sam. And I feel very lucky that people feel that way.
When did you add Buick?
We got the Buick franchise in 2006. Back then, there weren't any cool Buicks. Nobody really did much with Buick.
Two short years later, or three, General Motors made the decision to close down Pontiac. At that point, Pontiac was 65 percent of our business. We had just completed this big new showroom for Buick, Pontiac and GMC. I didn't know how I was going to make it.
As a management team, we decided we're going to be the best Buick dealer we could possibly be. There were a lot of Pontiac dealers out there who [couldn't] believe Pontiac went away. But we took a different attitude. We literally went around the country, buying Buicks, bringing them here, selling them. We weren't making a lot of money on them, but we kept our employees and we kept our customer base. And we became the No. 1 Buick dealership in the country in 2010.
The good thing is the Buick product really dovetailed with that strategy. It started with LaCrosse and then Enclave. There's a lot of good news about Buick right now. And the Buick buyer is a lot younger than it was when we first started, which is great.
Are you getting enough Subaru inventory?
We're really inventory starved. We got the franchise in August of 2013. It was an open point, so we got an initial shot of inventory that helped us then turn, earn. But we literally were selling 50 to 60 new cars a month with a rolling inventory of 20. So it was a long list of incoming sold orders. When the truck would come in, all the salespeople were like, "That one's mine. That one's mine."
Subaru has done a great job of increasing production. They're going to get even better in the next 12 months. So finally, we feel like we are getting enough product. Now it's up to us to make sure we can keep up with it.
You have a program called Your Online Dealer. What's that?
Your Online Dealer is something that our ad agency came up with. That really was trying to get across the feeling that you don't have to go to a third party to buy a car online.
We use it as a tagline. It is not our only tagline. Our tagline is "Reputation is Everything." Because we didn't want to say we're only online. We do plenty of business through the traditional way. But everybody starts online. The message [is] that we're your online dealer, we're the place that you can come and get as much or as little as you want online.
What's the service department's role?
We call our service department the backbone of the business. We really believe that we sell more cars through the service drive than we do anywhere else. Maybe not that day, but certainly over time. I get a lot of compliments from people and that's very important. That's one of the reasons I think our all-team meetings every quarter that focus on customer satisfaction are important.
How does it help to retain customers?
We have a full-time employee in the service drive whose No. 1. job is to facilitate: Make sure no one is waiting. The customer is here for service, we want to make sure that happens. But while the car is in the service drive, we're offering to give the customer an appraisal on his or her vehicle. Because we want to make sure that they are aware that there might be an opportunity for them to put some money in their pocket or buy a new car. We probably do between 15 and 25 cars a month, depending on what programs are going on, directly through that person.
What's your service philosophy?
If a customer comes back and wants to return a part that they opened the box, technically, we're not supposed to take that back. But I want [my staff] to think to themselves, "Reputation is Everything -- of course, I'll take it back." And then we'll deal with our end. "Reputation is Everything" really is as much an internal slogan as it is an external one.