DETROIT — Shortly before Ken Thomas and several partners acquired Northland Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram in suburban Detroit in June 2018, he made a secret trip to the service lane to get a feel for how it operated.
Thomas, who began his automotive career with a short stint as a mechanic in 1985 at that very store, said the experience was horrible. He wasn't pleased with the initial greeting, and it ended up taking more than two hours to get his oil changed. This was no way to do business, but Thomas saw a ripe opportunity.
"I sat in the customer lounge, I listened to all the customers, what their complaints were. Honestly, most of the customers were OK with the way things worked," said Thomas, who is now the store's operating partner. "So I said, 'Man, if I come in, and I can do the things I want to do, and if they're comfortable with this, what can I do if I bring my own philosophy into this, and make the improvements that I want? These will be customers for life versus people that tolerate because this is the closest place.' "
A turnaround occurred under a new ownership team comprising Thomas along with longtime dealer Eddie Hall Jr., his son Eddie III and their partner, Steve Whitener, of Hall Automotive Group. Northland is the Hall group's fourth store, and the only African-American owned Chrysler dealership in the Detroit area. Thomas and the Halls are black; Whitener is white. Blacks make up 79 percent of the people in Michigan's largest city, according to U.S. Census data.
This fact wasn't lost on Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The company knows representation matters and is good for business, said Bashar Cholagh, FCA's senior manager of market representation, dealer network diversity and technologies.
"Since we've put the new operators in, they have essentially doubled the retail sales throughput from the previous operators. Obviously, it's Detroit metro, so we have a good African-American population there," Cholagh said. "That's a key example of what happens when you have your dealers represent the community, and the level of sales attainment that you can gain. So, we're very proud of how they're performing."