Robby Findlay is director of operations at Findlay Automotive Group in the Southwest, which has 22 brands and crossed $2 billion in revenue in 2019. In this video Q&A with Automotive News publisher Jason Stein, Findlay discusses where Venza and Sienna fit into the lineup already on his lot, Toyota's leadership in hybrid powertrain innovation and how his dealership uses SmartPath as a tool to sustain sales activity amid the pandemic.
Toyota National Dealer Advisory Council chairman on all-new Venza, all-new Sienna, digital retailing acceleration
Jason: Hi there, I'm Jason Stein, publisher of Automotive News. It's a pleasure to be here with you today, and I am joined by Robby Findlay. Robby Findlay is the chairman of the Toyota National Dealer Advisory Council, and he is in Flagstaff, Arizona today...also Director of Operations for Findlay Automotive. Robby nice to be with you.
Robby: Hey, thanks for having me.
On how Findlay Automotive Group is navigating the challenges of the pandemic
Jason: Wonderful. I want to walk through a couple of scenarios related to obviously where we are today in the business climate, and then talk about some broader issues, specifically the product that's been announced today. Let's start off with how is the Findlay Automotive Group navigating its way through some of the challenges that we've seen over the last couple of months?
Robby: You know, we're navigating just by kind of adapting to the new norm. I mean, the way people are purchasing cars, the way people are servicing cars. We've had to change the amount of time people want to spend at the store, if they want to come in at all. And so really just adapting our our business practices, you know, to what people will accept these days. And then employees, you know, some of them, they want to be at work. And, we're asking them to stay home. So, it's really just navigating the comfort level of the customers and the team.
Jason: I can imagine, Robby, the years you've been in the business, you couldn't have imagined where we are today.
Robby: I don't think anybody would have imagined this.
On SmartPath and online retailing
Jason: True enough. Let's talk about those business practices that, you know, the consumer path to purchase has already been going through an evolution. If anything, there's an accelerator that's been pushed on digital retailing. The pandemic, some would say, has pushed digital retailing forward by about five years or so. What solutions have you employed in order to remain innovative and maybe sustain some sales activity in the market, and to that extent, how has Toyota been part of some of those changes?
Robby: Well, Toyota, you know, they rolled out that their Smart Path program, which is that their buying process. We were one of the pilots here in Flagstaff. And, it really was catered to exactly what we're experiencing. You know, customers do most of their homework, most the credit information at home on their couch. And then when they come in, it's a streamlined process, and that's what customers want now. So, Toyota was very forward-thinking, and they developed it from scratch. They didn't want to partner up with any vendors. They went from scratch, and I think took on a gigantic project that's really paying off, and now they've really accelerated rolled that out to other dealers.
Jason: When you became involved, in terms of the pilot, what was most appealing about that for you?
Robby: You know, it was giving the customer the opportunity to buy a car. I think we all know they want to buy. They want to buy it this way. And it was really turning over them to say, "Hey, we know you don't want to spend three or four hours in the dealership. We know you don't want the back and forth. We know you don't want to do a bunch of homework, and then come into the store, and all of a sudden we're starting from scratch." So, it was really streamlining the front part of the process, which just leads to a great experience when they're in the store. The whole deals worked on an iPad, and there's no back and forth. It's just it's a great experience for the customers, but also for our team.
Jason: Tell me a bit about what customers have told you.
Robby: Well, they just love it. They feel like there's not somebody behind the curtain, you know, dictating the deal. They really feel like they have control. And again, they love it. Whatever they did at home, there was the vehicle they looked at, their credit...you know, they're the vehicles they bounced around to. It was all right there. We had a history of it. So, they just love that it wasn't this reset button when they pulled into a parking spot on our lot.
Jason: And kind of revolutionary that when we talked to you at NADA, you were really excited about what this could do for the business. And then, lo and behold, it becomes a valuable tool for you.
Robby: Yeah. And like you said, it pushed forward...you know, some of our bad habits, we had to get rid of them. We had to adapt pretty quick.
On the 2021 Toyota Venza and 2021 Toyota Sienna
Jason: Let's talk about product for a minute. The all-new 2021 Venza and 2021 Sienna are exciting new entries in the market. What can consumers expect out of those new vehicles, and how will it change the product lineup?
Robby: You know, I think the Venza is it's an older name, but it's a brand new vehicle, and it fills a void for us. The way I see it is between that RAV4 and that Highlander, but the Venza is a much softer look to it. And, I think being all-hybrid, it's going to be a whole new segment for us.
Jason: And, how about the Sienna?
Robby: You know, the Sienna, the outgoing Sienna is a great vehicle. The new one, again, being an all-hybrid with all the new offerings. I think it's going to be a game-changer for those people that they like all the amenities of a minivan, but they just can't get over that hump of buying a minivan. But, some of the new offerings of the Sienna are going to make them say, "Hey, it makes too much sense, it's too practical to want to go into an SUV and the downsides of that." The Sienna, it does everything. It's a Swiss Army knife.
Jason: Yeah, indeed. How are you preparing as a dealer for the new models coming online?
Robby: You know, we got to understand this with the Venza, I believe it's going to be a little more of an upscale clientele for us. You know, maybe almost a high-line customer. And, I think right now, you know, that high-line customer might decide, "Hey, I'm going to go with more of a mainstream brand." So, I think we'll have to adapt that a little bit. And then, you know, just educating customers on what a hybrid is. And, letting them know because those customers don't come and say, "either I want a hybrid or a combustion vehicle." They just, whatever feels right, whatever accomplishes their goals. We've got to be able to explain it to them, explain the differences, and show them why it's a benefit in most cases.
Jason: Dealers are always excited when new product comes in. Given the situation that we've gone through here for the last eight, nine weeks, I've got to imagine that your showroom, your teammates are extra excited about having product at some point hitting the showroom floor.
Robby: Oh, yeah. We're dying to get some fresh stuff, and obviously we haven't had the Venza for a long time. It was a really neat vehicle. And, the Sienna, yeah, it's going to be nice, once those hit, to have that offered for our customers.
On Toyota's commitment to electric and hybrid innovation
Jason: Let's talk a little bit about electric and hybrid powertrain innovation. And, we know that Toyota has already built a reputation for leadership in that way. Give us your perspective about Toyota's commitment to alternative powertrains and maybe reducing carbon emissions.
Robby: Yeah, I think Toyota, you know, in all my time with them, has talked about being a good partner for the environment. And, they're one of the brands that they practice, what they preach and they follow through. I think, rewind five-plus years ago, and it was a little scary because their plans didn't include some of our core products, and part of what makes Toyota great, and I think that, you know, they may have went a little bit of an extreme following what they thought would be the CAFE standards, and then came back towards the middle. And, now we kind of have the best of both worlds. We've got great off-road, 4x4 vehicles, and we've got great hybrids and electric vehicles. So, Toyota, in their true fashion, they seemed to hit it right on the head.
Jason: So, let's talk a little bit about the pathway forward, and as chairman of Toyota's National Dealer Advisory Council, I know that you have a lot of conversations, and there's a lot of communication with Toyota executives. I'm sure Bob Carter talks with you on a regular basis. How is Toyota communicating with its dealer body during this pandemic? And what do you see going forward?
Robby: You know, the communications been great. I mean, from the day it hit, it was, "Hey, we're going to set up daily calls with your with your representatives, as opposed to visiting once or twice a month." And, they were always there if we needed them. But, this was...their calendar was, "I'm gonna call this dealer at 10:00, I'm gonna call this dealer 10:30." It was a set schedule, and it was really nice to have that communication, especially the first few weeks when it seemed like things were changing hourly. But overall, just the communication, it's wide open, and there's no secrets. And, it's "What can we do to help? What do you need from us? Here are our plans. Here's our predictions on what it will look like a month from now, six months from now." So, the communication has been unbelievable. And, I think it's helped everyone kind of air it out, make a decision and wait till something changes. So, it helps.
On what the near future looks like
Jason: So tell us a little bit about the Flagstaff market. How are sales currently, and what do you see... Let's say a few months down the road?
Robby: Yes. We're in Arizona, and Arizona wasn't hit very hard. No forced closures or anything like that. We did have very strict stay-at-home orders, but the business remained open. It's probably about 50 percent of normal is what we're predicting for this month. So, it still hurts quite a bit, but very, very fortunate compared to a lot of areas. And, we're just gonna get through it. You know, we've kept all our employees, we've kept trying to keep them motivated, and focus on the good that's coming out of this. And we'll get through it.
On how Findlay Automotive Group has been helping its communities amid the pandemic
Jason: We've heard so many good stories, Robby, about dealers helping communities and really being ingrained within that community to assist in getting through this. What stories have you heard? What have you done? What are some areas of bright lighting in all of this?
Robby: Yeah. Like you, I've heard a lot of cool stories... you guys report on some of them. Personally, I think once the shock wore off probably two weeks into it. It was true Toyota fashion of, you know, "what can we do to help?" And, the two that I'm really proud of: first is the schools. You know, my kids are fortunate enough to be able to learn from home. But, I know a lot of kids in Las Vegas and in Flagstaff aren't fortunate so we've partnered with two underprivileged schools. We're providing them with Chromebooks for them to be able to do online learning because I've got young kids, and I know if you get them out of that habit, and you give them six-plus months off school, it's going to be tough to get them back. So, that's been a neat project we're finalizing, and then also just helping the frontline workers. So, right now at our Henderson location, the staff is out feeding the nurses, the doctors at one of the local hospitals, and it just kind of feels like it's our duty to do what we can and help those people because they're definitely fighting the real fight.
Jason: Well, wonderful, Robby. We thank you so much. We wish you the best of health for you, for your team, for everybody within the Toyota family. Thanks so much for being with us.
Robby: Yeah, thank you.