Cox Automotive COO Mark O'Neil plans to retire in February after a career that included multiple innovations in auto retailing. His exit — about three years after Cox's $4.5 billion acquisition of Dealertrack, a company O'Neil led — comes down to timing.
"Timing's everything, and I feel like we're in a really good spot right now at Cox. Our future's bright," O'Neil said. Not one to leave "while the chips are down," O'Neil said Cox understands the changes coming to the industry and is well-positioned for them.
"This is a good time to let the next generation of leaders take over and execute the game plan to help the company successfully transition," he told Automotive News.
O'Neil, who works in Richmond, Va., turned 60 this year. After stepping down Feb. 1, he plans to spend more time with his family, including checking off several bucket-list destinations, while giving back to the community. "I'd like to do all those things while I'm healthy, and I'd like to do them full-fledged," he said.
It's otherwise been mostly work and less play for the past four decades, he said. After stints at Intel Corp. and McKinsey & Co., O'Neil's auto retailing career began in the late 1980s with Ertley MotorWorld. As president, he was part of a team that brought eight new-car brands under one roof.
That set the stage for CarMax, which he co-founded and which is now the largest used-vehicle retailer in the country.
"The first thing we did at CarMax was give used cars a good name," he said. The company pioneered "certified" programs that sold vehicles with 110-point inspections before Certified Pre-Owned programs became ubiquitous among major automakers.
Next, as CEO of Dealertrack, O'Neil said he helped lay the foundation for the digital transaction. The company understood that auto retailing was all about speed: how to get immediate approval or financing and have the customer spend less time at the dealership. A quicker process benefited the dealer, too.
Digital transactions, either partial or full, will grow rapidly in the coming years, he said, as consumers — especially younger ones — become more accustomed to buying everything from clothes to houses online.
Now at Cox, O'Neil said he's seen all the pieces come together. "And our success will be driven by being responsive to the customer, delivering an experience that the customer in today's environment wants," he said.
O'Neil sees challenges ahead. "The industry's in a huge transition as we try to figure out what are the right models of the future — and it's both what's the right purchase model and what's the right ownership model," he said.
The purchase model will come down to digital engagement, while ownership could involve subscriptions or hourly use of fleet-owned vehicles in addition to more traditional methods, which O'Neil expects to decline but continue.
In discussing his career, O'Neil uses the pronoun "we." He said that's because, while an individual or small group of people may have a vision, it takes a team to execute it.
"And all of these concepts have been very successful, but their success was really not driven by me, but I'd say driven by a team coming together to execute them," he said.
"And that's been a huge life lesson for me: The importance of hiring good people, the importance of surrounding yourself with a great team and letting that team then do its thing and under an umbrella of a very targeted vision."