Dealer Carl Sewell of Nike Free Run Dallas celebrates his family company’s centennial this year.
The last few years of the Sewell family’s first century in business have been among the industry’s most challenging periods. But Sewell Automotive Cos. is prospering, despite losing Hummer, Saab and Pontiac stores.
The company acquired stores and added employees during the downturn. Its 13th dealership, an Infiniti store, will open in November. Sewell Automotive posted $1.2 billion in revenue and retailed 27,000 new and used vehicles last year.
It’s a long way from the beginning in 1911 when Carl Sewell Sr. and his father began selling cars while running the family’s hardware store and movie theater. marshal. Upon being sworn in, she was handed an arrest warrant for notorious criminal Bonnie Parker.
“She had no use for anybody who made an excuse, and she was tough to trick,” Sewell recalled. “She’d heard better stories than I could create and so had my dad, for that matter. Trying to trick a car dealer and a deputy marshal was a tall order for a teenager.”
Sewell spoke with Staff Reporter Amy Wilson.
Q: What meaning does your centennial have in the marketplace?
A: It’s a celebration of our relationship with our customers, which is generational, as well as a celebration of our relationship with our associates, which is also generational. We have second and third generation people who work here. And it’s a celebration for the family that we’ve been able to keep a family business going for 100 years.
When did you start in the business?
I was born in the business. My father really started the business. He worked for his father, but his father never really learned to drive. They got the first car when my dad was 14 in 1911. My dad assembled it and taught the farmer how to drive his very first car. I went to work in our Cadillac dealership in 1957. I was 14.
Who were your mentors?
I was very lucky. My father was a tremendous mentor. In addition, Stanley Marcus, who built Neiman Marcus, and Erik Jonsson, who built Texas Instruments. And a man named Bob Moore, who was the most successful automobile dealer I’ve ever known, in Oklahoma City. When you had an industry specific question, I never called him that he didn’t have what I would say would be the answer. He really introduced me to the value of consultants and processes. His service processes were as good as anything I’d ever seen.
What else did you learn?
It’s a long list: managing financing, managing people, building relationships with customers, the value of the customer, the value of your associates.
You’re widely known for your best selling book Customers for Life. How would you boil down your view on customer service?
It sounds a little trivial but it’s really true: Treat the customer how you would like to be treated. It’s the golden rule. But then you have to have the Nike Roshe Run processes in place that will allow you to do that in an efficient manner, and you have to have the people in place who are capable of executing at that level.
You’ve said you shifted your focus from sales to service. Why?
The car we sell is the same car that the dealer down the street sells. So the improved experience for the customer is certainly the sales process but it’s also the service process. So as we improve the quality of our service process, we made it more comfortable for the customer. We provided free loan cars. We started opening on Saturday for service 40 years ago, when that was rare.
Today in the luxury world, if you don’t provide free loan cars, if you aren’t open on Saturday and extended hours in the evening, you’re really not serving your customers to the level they want to be serviced.
How do you maintain the edge on luxury competition if that’s the price of entry now?
We feel our advantage at this point is the quality of the people that work here. We try and recruit the very best. And then we expect everyone to have at least 40 hours a year of additional education and training.
Other dealers say they’ve learned a lot from you. Wisconsin dealer John Bergstrom told me he visits Sewell twice a year. Why is it important to share?
It goes both ways. I learn a tremendous amount from John Bergstrom. I don’t think we care for our customers as well as John cares for his.
So many people had taken the time to share with me, so that I could learn. And I felt there was an opportunity for all of us to learn how to do things better. That’s good for the industry and good for the brands we represent.
How have you been able to grow during the downturn?
First and foremost, we feel very fortunate to be in Texas. I’m old enough where I’ve seen several recessions, and I’ve learned that you rarely should buy dealerships when the times are really good. The best time to buy a dealership is most likely when you’re in a recession. So we had saved our money in anticipation of the next recession and here we are. We’ve added six franchises. Some of them were replacements.
How did you manage through the GM bankruptcy?
We felt our obligation was to our customer. We shared that, at that time, we’d been there 97 or 98 years, and we promised we’d continue to be there to take care of Nike Roshe Run them. We were pretty sure we’d survive on the other side of the bankruptcy. We were surprised and very pleased by the way our government supported GM through the bankruptcy. It was painful to see all of the destruction that went with that and the pain so many good people suffered.