Colton Ray, 36
Chief Merchandising Officer, Walser Automotive Group
Colton Ray was 15 when he began his automotive industry career as a car washer. He credits his father — who for many years was a master certified technician for Walser Nissan Wayzata in Minnesota — with getting him involved in the car business.
"He's always been fixing cars around the house, always interested in cars, just like me," Ray said of his father. "I said I needed a job and he thought the dealership would be a great fit."
Now, 21 years later, Ray is the chief merchandising officer at Walser Automotive Group, headquartered in Minneapolis.
An active automotive enthusiast, Ray participates in "cars and coffee" events and, like his father, is a huge fan of American Motors cars. The two plan to race a heavily modified Gremlin at their local drag strip this year.
In 2020, as the pandemic arrived, he helped launch a program born out of some market research he conducted in mid-2019. The program, Walser To You, offered to bring vehicles to customers' homes for test drives or purchase delivery. The concept of bringing the dealership to the customer — shelved for a time because the group was working on bigger things — was revived as the virus spread.
"Right as COVID hit, we knew we had to pivot and launch a program that allowed our customers and salespeople to feel safe about doing business with us, whether it be sales or service," Ray said.
Walser To You has been a massive success, according to Ray, with more than 3,000 appointments scheduled within the first six months of its launch.
The merchandising effort helped the dealership buck the local market trend. According to the group's estimates, its market sold 14,622 fewer vehicles in 2020, a 15.3 percent drop from 2019. But Walser sold just 774 fewer vehicles, a drop of 4.7 percent.
Ray now is CEO of Walser's Fuse Autotech business, a point-of-sale tool designed to improve the sales experience, which Walser is marketing to other retailers.
— C.J. Moore