AKRON, Ohio — When Joey Huang graduated from dental school, his mother suggested he set up a practice next to his used-car store, selling cars Monday through Friday and working in the dental office on the weekend. But his heart was already in automotive retail.
Today, Huang is president and dealer principal — in partnership with John Rocco — of the six-store Great Lakes Auto Group, stretching from Columbus through Cleveland and on to Akron and Ashtabula, Ohio. The group's 300-plus employees sell vehicles from Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, GMC, Honda, Hyundai, Jeep, Kia and Ram. New and used volume last year totaled 8,700 vehicles.
Huang, 47, spoke with Staff Reporter Jennifer Vuong this month at the dealer's Great Lakes Honda store here.
Q: How did you get into auto retailing?
A: I went to Ohio State University for undergrad, and came home for the summer and sold cars. I loved it. After a couple years of doing that, they asked me to become a used-car buyer. My junior year in dental school, I had a chance to open up a small used-car lot right next to my father's office and it just really worked out well.
How did you balance that with school?
I balanced it by having a partner join me — a wonderful guy named John Rocco. We had a lot of fun doing it, and we stuck behind our product, and it went very well.
My dad is an obstetrician/gynecologist in the office next door. He's like, "Guys, make sure nobody comes in here and starts complaining to me in front of all my patients." Right.
We thought with my dad delivering over 4,000 babies in Ashtabula County, as long as all his patients came to buy cars from us, we were going to be successful.
Your dad didn't want you to be in the auto business, did he?
I don't think my parents wanted me to be in the auto business. In fact, I know they didn't. My mom — I still remember her crying. For my parents, the No. 1 thing they want is for you to be respected in your community. My parents moved over from Taiwan and South Korea. And they knew if their children were educated and physicians, that we were going to be respected in our communities. That's what they care about most. For the car business, they worried about that.
How can dealers overcome negative stereotypes of the business?
I think in any profession, it's the small few that ruin it for all of us. The majority of our car dealers in the country are phenomenal guys and women who give back to their communities and are wonderful people. There are a handful of people that don't do the business the correct way.
How did you get involved with the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers?
NAMAD has been a wonderful organization that has really been the key to my success and my growth. Without NAMAD, I wouldn't be the dealer I am today, and I know that.
Another minority dealer, a Honda dealer, invited me to go to NAMAD for the first time out in California. I went to the meeting and it was awesome. I mean honestly, it was a position where we as dealers were candidates, able to meet manufacturers' key people.
Why is it so important to get more minorities into retailing?
When people come into our dealerships, it's important that our dealerships look like the communities that we have around us. And I think most dealerships do a great job at that.
In the dealer world, it may not be the same case. Our buying public of minorities is over 10 percent. But our dealer body is not over 10 percent. And the manufacturers have made a commitment to add minority dealers so that our buying public and dealer body look very similar.
Are the automakers doing enough?
Right now we don't have a lot of add points. But they have been adding minority dealers and they have been doing a good job. Would I say they could do a better job? Sure. But from what I see, it's been a good job.
What is the biggest threat facing auto retailers?
I think one of the biggest things that is going to face us in retail this year is going to be credit. We're seeing some levels of delinquency near pre-recession levels. I'm sure we are going to manage that, but I think that's a problem where it could get a little risky. As we continue to drive sales, we want to make sure that we are doing it the right way — not trying to buy the business, but letting the business come to us.
Are you seeing longer loans in your stores?
We have eight-year loans now. We have multiple ways of financing our customers. Cleveland's a big lease market. In our Honda store, we leased over 50 percent of our cars. Our Hyundai store, certain models — Sonata or Elantra — we lease those products at 70 percent.
Are longer loans the way to make vehicles affordable?
Either longer loans or better leases. In Cleveland, we find it's with better leases.
How will your group change in a future of online sales and other developments?
I'm just letting someone else, and the best of this country, figure it out. And I'm just going to copy what they do. Really. I'm not the innovator. I know that, but I'm really good at perfecting process and perfecting some of the things that other people do. And that's been one of my strengths.
Do your stores do online sales?
We do. Our dealerships go from three metro point stores to three rural stores. In our rural markets, we sell based on our reputation and carrying a good car and being there to service the customer. In our metro market stores, we are a Velocity store, a vAuto store, selling on the price of the car and doing it at a higher volume.
I'm not saying which way is the right way, but I can tell you our [metro] customers may not be getting as great of a product as our rural [ones]. Why? If you want to be ranked No. 1, [2, or 3 in volume], it at times can limit you putting four brand-new tires on that car and doing all the proper service that we really should.
I think in the future [that is] going to be big. Why? All these customers today [who] have been buying some of the cheapest used cars out there, they are going to get stung. And the next time around, they are going to learn from their mistakes and they may look at a certified car. And our certified programs are going to be the best programs out there. I can assure you with Honda, there's probably not a stricter program out there, [with] audits that keep us accountable. That's what you have got to have.
Do you still buy used cars for your dealerships?
My roots are still in used cars. For three of our six stores, I still buy every used car for them. I still go to the auctions myself. I love it.
Where is the overall market heading?
Do I think U.S. sales have plateaued? I do. Are we going to go down this year? Yeah, it's just a matter of how much. For most of us dealers, we'll spend a lot of time making sure our pre-owned business is strong to counter that, as well as our service and parts business.
How has your dental school experience translated into your dealer life?
First, it's a great set of customers. I was president of our class in dental school. The majority of my class, and really everybody — from my dean of students, from my dean of academic affairs — they've all bought cars from me.
On the other side, probably just work ethic. You know, that bedside manner that we're taught. Those have probably been my best attributes with our customers. I don't call them patients or anything, but you know what? It's kind of a similar relationship — of standing behind and being reputable and taking care of them. We're just taking care of them in a different way.