Dealer Dave Wright: 'It's all about the team'

HIAWATHA, Iowa -- In December 2015, Dave Wright Nissan-Subaru moved from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, into a new single rooftop in nearby Hiawatha.

Owner Dave Wright, who turns 50 this year, got into the business at age 22, when he needed a job in the same town where his wife had taken a teaching job. Wright spoke with Automotive News TV Editor Tom Worobec this month about his new store and a smaller dealership's prospects for growth.

Q: You put fixed operations between the new-vehicle showrooms. Why?

A: The manufacturers both wanted separate buildings. I looked at the cost of that on this property and the amount of space I would lose in parking and functionality, and, quite frankly, the cost was significant to do two separate buildings.

So we built the Subaru showroom. That has two Subaru drives, and in the middle of that is parts for both sides -- each [has] a customer-exclusive counter -- and then the Nissan drive and the Nissan building. If a customer walks into Nissan, they never see or have to come to the Subaru side.

How did Subaru and Nissan respond?

Subaru was actually pretty excited about it. [After] making sure all the touch points are exclusive, [they] signed off rather quickly. We are still working with Nissan to get them to be 100 percent signed off. Both manufacturers, I think, are pretty excited about this building compared to the old building -- certainly the ability to stock more inventory and employ more people.

Dave Wright's new dealership features the Subaru and Nissan showrooms on opposite sides. Fixed operations are in the middle. 

Your dealership has won Automotive News' Best Dealerships To Work For award five times. What is your goal for employees and customers?

Culture is the most important thing to us. We want to be a workplace family. 

We all work an enormous amount of hours. We work in retail with the public. And not a lot of people necessarily want to sign up for that. So I think the environment inside needs to be one that we all understand each other's pressures from the public or from manufacturers. We need to take care of each other. 

We believe the company has to survive, the employee has to be happy, and we have to have customers. If employees take care of employees, and employees take care of the customer, and the company takes care of employees and the customer, it will be a great place to be. 

We don't split deals in sales. It's all about the team. If someone came in yesterday and you spent a couple hours with them, and today is your day off and they came back, somebody else is going to sell that car for you. And then they expect that to be returned at another time. And I think we have been lucky enough to have some long-term employees in the back that have constantly tried to coach and make all of our new employees feel welcome. 

What is your hiring philosophy? 

We want to hire the best we can. I know we can't always hire better than the rest, but then we can train and develop folks to be better than the rest. 

Our hiring process is very extensive. We do phone screening, testing, behavior testing, skills testing -- usually two to three interviews. As we've grown so much, I don't get to interview every single person, but 99 percent of them. We just want to make sure that the manager believes and I believe and the other staff believe that this person can come on board and be part of our culture first, and then secondly, be a performer for us. 

When we hire someone, we're making them a promise. They promise us that they are going to come here and do great things, but I think we've got to remember our promise -- that we need to develop them, give them the tools and resources to succeed. If we invest upfront and give them that training and give them those tools, then they will be, longer term, a better employee, and I think my return on investment is significantly higher as opposed to putting someone in a sales position, showing them their desk, a couple videos and hoping they last. 

When we hire a salesman, it is about three months on average before they ever touch the floor. 

How is the store growing? 

I'm a huge believer in you either grow or you die. And we're way too invested now to die. So growth is something we talk about in every meeting in the dealership, certainly manager meetings. 

We are constantly hiring. We're trying to hire more [business development center] people here; we are trying to hire more sales staff here, more techs, more service advisers. 

We've grown significantly every year, which is a blessing for us. We are not going to slow down. I am very blessed to have a lot of great employees right now. And so acquisitions certainly come to the forefront. If we could acquire some more dealerships to put these folks in and continue growth that way, it is certainly an option for us. 

You want to place bright employees in new roles? 

If we can keep developing those folks and keep the opportunities flowing, we'll definitely look at acquisitions. 

Would you acquire local stores? 

To wait for a store in your market could be a long wait. You try to keep your feelers out and let people know. But reality is, we need to look in the state and maybe even regionally. 

Is it harder for a smaller company to acquire dealerships, vs. giants such as AutoNation? 

A smaller group or certainly an individual dealer is at a little bit of a disadvantage, at least in the beginning. If you put yourself in the position of a seller, and this large group comes in, I think you think, "Large money, easy close." A single dealer comes in, and you need to make sure he has the money and the resources, and will there be a lot of headaches? 

I don't think all of the large groups necessarily want every market in Iowa, or every market in the country for that matter. I think if sellers look at folks like me, that aren't a huge group yet, and give us a chance, [they will] realize we can close quick, we can come with the resources, and we might be a little bit easier to communicate with as opposed to a large organization.

The car wash is open to the public and also is used to prep sold vehicles. 

Was your new car wash part of the growth plan? 

No, it wasn't the original plan. One of the homes I purchased here, the folks decided they didn't want to sell. It happened to be right behind the dealership. So we had to actually move the whole dealership and then chop about 20 feet off so it could be 100 feet away from their residential property. 

Not only did I lose a couple of stalls, I lost my entire car wash or detail area in the original design. Property just next door came up for sale, so I bought it. 

Then I got to looking at the price of a car wash, just to run service cars through. After the investment, I'm like, "I want to build a real one, and I'm going to open it up to the public and sell car washes." 

I knew nothing about car washes. I actually went to a car wash convention and tried to learn all I could as quick as I could. That car wash turned out to be three functioning components. [First,] a 155-foot tunnel that we opened to the public and sell car washes, [plus] 17 free vacuums for customers to use. I built eight bays for detail. And of course, we needed a place for our lot attendants [to prep] a sold car. So we built two more wet bays and two more dry bays for the get-ready side. 

Can the car wash get consumers into the showroom or in for service? 

Certainly, we hope it complements each other. Someone goes in for a car wash and sees we have express oil changes, and they pull in and they have a great experience in our service, then hopefully they come back and purchase a car. [But] there is no brand loyalty to car washes. You have a dirty car; you want to go through [a wash].