PITTSBURGH — For Corina Diehl, becoming a dealer was trial by fire.
She took over dealerships selling Chrysler brands and Toyota in Butler, Pa., from her husband, Matthew Diehl, just days after his unexpected death in April 2007. The next year, auto sales began to freefall during the Great Recession. The fledgling dealer cut costs, and Diehl Automotive Group survived. Today, it is thriving and has grown to eight locations around Pittsburgh and 500 employees, up from 70 at the time she took over. This year, sales are averaging 700 new and used per month, flat compared with 2017.
Diehl's two children work with her: son Matthew, 30, as a vice president; daughter Rachel, 24, as an office manager.
Diehl, 56, spoke with Automotive News TV Editor Tom Worobec in November.
Q: You are building your fourth collision center and giving it an environmental focus.
A: We are trying to be as green as possible. I am a mother. I have a grandchild on the way. We are doing everything as efficiently as we can, which tends to cost more, but at the end of the day, the savings will be there.This collision center will allow me, from a fixed perspective, to increase sales. Margins keep shrinking on the front end, and the collision business is really good if you are good at it.
Moving forward, we have focused on fixed. Our margins are shrinking. Everybody has their hand in there — government regulations. When I first took over in '07, the market wasn't as driven to stair-step programs — everyone giving cars away. Which I really don't understand. We bring value in every car we sell. We care about our customers. But if they'll go shop the next dealer who will go below [bottom-line vehicle cost] for the stair-step money, it is insanity.
It doesn't sound like you are too fond of stair-step incentives.
I am not fond of stair-step incentives. It drives everyone to insanity. At the end of the month, all we are doing is focusing on hitting numbers. We are really not focusing on the customer. We are not focusing on the dealership as a whole. I mean, ultimately, we are if we hit the stair-step. But we find ourselves giving away products to customers who will, moving forward, expect that. So you build this long-term state of insanity. Because that customer that bought that Ram truck that was in on the last day of the month, that got the most incredible deal that I wouldn't give to my own family members, is going to come back in two, three or four years and expect some insane number below invoice. I find it to be devastating to the automotive industry.
If we focus more on what we can do for our customer, we are all better off. That's my focus. We do free state inspections for you. We wash your car. All the little things that actually matter. When you call your salesperson, they'll schedule your service appointment. It is about taking care of the customer. Period. I preach it. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am nurturing. And I expect that from my staff.
How do you see the current state of the dealer franchise system?
I believe the franchise system is going to be around forever. Yes, you have Tesla who came in, opening their own stores. I've gone to their stores. Other than somebody saying, 'Hi,' in a pair of jeans, you are on your own. And you know what? Consumers still need help. Not every consumer does a tremendous amount of research so they know all the nuts and bolts. That's why I have a sales staff. Customers come in, and sometimes they really would like a champagne-budget car, but, in actuality, we need to get them a beer car. Doing the entire process for them enables them to get what they want and, more importantly, what they need.
Will [the franchise system] change over the years? I'm sure, to a degree. But the laws protect us as dealers, and I find that to be very important for us. We spend a tremendous amount of money in the community. We spend a tremendous amount of money being a franchisee. Do I believe we are here to stay? I do. At least in my lifetime.
What is your view on facility improvement programs?
I've had my challenges with the manufacturers. I get that they want a prototype model for everyone. Or a standard showroom. I go back to who I am. I have sayings that have gotten me through a large part of my life. I need to see them. So in three of my showrooms, I have my favorite sayings up on the wall. Customers take pictures. The feedback has been so wonderful.
The manufacturers, eh, they haven't been so happy. But at the end of the day, I got them to understand the value. Do I think at times they are correct in what they want? Yes. Do I think at times that they are over the top and don't get the real world? Yes.
You were thrust into this position after your husband died.
I worked part time at the store. And he went and died in April of '07. Wasn't part of the plan. Certainly very shocking. You know, you live your whole life, and you make assumptions, and they don't always turn out. I had a friend come over, dealer friend. "Do you want to keep it, or do you want to sell it?" And I took about a whole second to decide I wanted to keep it for our children. For everything we had sacrificed and worked for.
Matt was a genius, brilliant, wonderful, incredible car dealer, and [I] never thought I could fill his shoes. It was challenging beyond words. I had a lot to learn. I took over, and there was a lot of pushback. It was manufacturers, employees, across the board. It was a really tough time. And '08 rolls around, and the stores were moving along, and we were making money. And then '09 hits, and the world falls apart.
We struggled. I made a lot of changes. I cut pay, and I was really proud of my team members. Instead of laying people off, we cut hours, and we survived by the grace of God. A lot of tears were shed. If you look back at that time, there were dealers that [killed themselves] to get insurance money. But I had to survive for everyone. Even though at that point, they really didn't like me. It was about the bigger picture. Because I knew if the house didn't survive, everybody was going to be out of work.
Eventually, employees bought in to your management philosophy?
I have very minimal turnover. I go back to my philosophy, which is treat people as I'd like to be treated. I'm a carpenter's daughter. I was raised to believe I wasn't special. I was just a normal person. So we are a family here. If someone needs help, I am the shoulder to cry on. I give hugs. I allow my management team to collectively make decisions. It is not a dictatorship.
The car business is tough. I truly believe people need to have a quality of life. Before my husband died, he looked at me. It is almost eerie, and I have never shared this. It was about four weeks before he died, and he looked at me and said, "If something happens to me, please sell this. It will eat you alive." And there were times it did a job [on me], but I overcame.
You have grown the group exponentially. Did being a woman make it easier or harder?
Wow. The stories I could tell. The challenges are monumental. Men try you on all the time. I hate to say it, but that's a natural thing in any workplace. Proving yourself continuously: "My husband was a genius; I'm a bitch." That was the perception early on. I had a man come up to me at a convention and go, "I bet money you are going to fail." I was flabbergasted. I mean, how about a prayer, dude? How about, "Hey, good luck"? Nope. I looked at him, and I said two words, one that ended in "you." And I walked away.
And manufacturers who never in their history had this scenario where a wife wants to take over a car dealership. And yet, all I could think of is, "I have a great team. I am doing what I am supposed to do." Because I am a woman, I am not capable? So went back and forth with them for several months, giving daily reports, and I was treated like a child, to a degree. But I was OK with that. They didn't know me, and I didn't know them. When we got to the end of my rope and their rope, they said the attorneys in the history of this organization have never done this. And they were not going to approve me. Well, mama bear came out and went, "OK, that's really great. But if you think you are going to take a franchise from a single mother, who is a widow, I won't let that happen. I promise you." I used some choice words, which I had not used previously. The next day, I got approved.
Maybe they needed me to stand up to see the caliber of where I would go, what lengths I would go to protect my house, which is how I looked at it. It has been challenging. I don't get tried on as often as I used to. I've earned my respect within the industry. Certainly within our stores.
How important is it to keep this business in the family?
The reason I stayed, when Matt died, was to give our children a place, a home. I currently have my son and daughter both working for me. And I've had offers to sell, but with them involved, it's a gift. They are both hard workers. And I can't imagine not being in this industry for the next 100 years with our children and grandchildren.
Are you looking to grow the group more?
I am constantly looking for stores. If I have the right team of people and an opportunity arises and the numbers are fair, then I am a player. I have [a letter of intent] with another manufacturer at the moment, but I can't discuss that. I'm also in negotiations with another dealer with a franchise that I don't have.
What is your relationship with your existing automakers?
If you are a good partner, you will have a good partner. Have I heard about some manufacturers not being as great as others? I have. The relationships I have with all of my manufacturers are stellar. I communicate with them. I am honest. They do the best they can. Have there been things I haven't been thrilled with? Sure. Is that what marriage is? Because essentially, I married my franchises. So I can't imagine not having a good relationship with a franchise. I know that sounds naive. But it goes back to my core values. You get what you give. Will I take those extra units if someone is in a pinch? Yes. But you better make sure that you help me when I need something.