Lance Iserman is glad to be back on the front lines of auto retail.
After rising through the ranks to COO at AutoNation Inc. in his 18 years at the public dealership group, Iserman is now CEO at Morrie's Automotive Group, a 17-store dealership group based in Minnetonka, Minn.
Iserman joined Morrie's last June after leaving AutoNation in January. His was among a handful of executive departures announced by the nation's largest new-vehicle retailer during its search for a new CEO.
"I'd reached a point in my career where I was a little bit too far removed from retail," Iserman said of his last role at AutoNation. "And so [Morrie's] was a nice opportunity to get back involved on the retail side. So smaller group, but a bigger role within a smaller group."
Morrie's is majority owned by Fremont Group, a private investment company that bought its stake in 2016 from longtime dealer Morrie Wagener. Fremont is the investment arm for the family behind construction and engineering giant Bechtel Corp.
Iserman said he found the Fremont ownership structure compelling. He has taken an ownership stake in the group himself, though he didn't disclose the percentage he holds.
"It's a great family office," he said. "And they're interested in growing their footprint in the automotive retail space."
Iserman aims to help with that growth goal, both organically at Morrie's existing dealerships and through potential acquisitions. Iserman, 55, spoke with Automotive News TV Anchor and Producer Jennifer Vuong last month. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: You spent a lot of time at AutoNation. What did you learn?
A: It's an environment of sharing and who is doing things well. And so you leveraged best practices throughout the organization.
If you have a couple of stores doing something well, we would test it and monitor it and then we'd maybe roll it out somewhere else. It was really a company of best practices and processes. It was the big takeaway for me.
At Morrie's, you've been tasked with boosting struggling stores and implementing best practices. How is it going?
It was very much an entrepreneurial company, very much cutting edge. They're one-price, so that's ahead of the curve. They were doing a lot of things right. Each store essentially had their own playbook. I came in and looked at the different things they were doing and said, "Let's figure out what works best and bring the general managers together and let's create best practices processes. Leverage the size of our brand, our store count. And whoever is doing things well, let's cascade that through the organization.
What work still needs to be done at Morrie's?
When I got there, they had a centralized sales business development center that they used for all the stores. We dismantled that and put that back into the store. So [there's] a big focus on traffic management, [e-commerce], phone — closing those opportunities at a much higher rate. Traffic management is a big focus for us right now.
Have total group sales increased since you came on board?
We have increased our sales through the [e-commerce] process dramatically, probably a 20 percent increase. That's just through having a process that resonates with the customer. So we're definitely growing that.
The Midwest seems to be a very friendly environment for new-car sales. Our new-car volume was actually up last year, sort of bucking the industry trend.
It's a great place to do business. We sell about 25,000 a year. We are one-and-a-half used to new. So we sell more used than new. It's nice that we have that sort of control of our own destiny.
What do dealers need to look for when acquiring stores?