Opening its first Ford store in 1938, the Titus-Will Automotive Group, a family-owned and operated group of companies, today consists of 2 Ford, 3 Chevrolet, 1 Toyota, 1 GMC/Buick/Cadillac and 1 Hyundai dealerships with over 500 employees in the Puget Sound area of Western Washington. Titus-Will Ford and Titus-Will Toyota are among an elite group of dealerships to be recognized with The President’s Award. The prestigious award honors dealerships that have excelled in automotive retailing through exceptional customer care in all aspects.
Dawn Walston is the VP and general manager of the Titus-Will Toyota operation. After three decades with Titus-Will, she has held just about every job in the store, from service scheduler, customer relations manager, Ford service manager, Ford general manager, and in 2011, she was asked to take over their Toyota store. Titus-Will Toyota currently carries about 600 vehicles and employs 210 and includes a collision center that she also oversees.
In our interview, Dawn talks about her amazing journey of three decades in the car business working with the same auto group and rising through the ranks. She also talks about her store’s commitment to fairness, integrity, and in changing the perception of car dealers.
Dealer Magazine: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us, Dawn. You’ve been in retail automotive for more than three decades and are currently the VP and general manager of a busy Toyota store in the Seattle area. How did you get your start?
Dawn: Somebody mentioned that Titus-Will was looking for a service cashier. In November of 1984, I walked in and interviewed and started what I never imagined would be a lifetime of passion and love for the business. No one grows up thinking, I want to work at a car dealership. I had always worked in restaurants, where I took on additional roles such as management at a young age. My parents knew people who owned restaurants, so I sort of grew up in the restaurant service business, from the time I was 14 when I had my first job, and always in Tacoma.
I started at Titus-Will scheduling service and processing work orders. Everything was manual back then, even the advisors worked outside in the elements, with a little heater over their head. I was 21 years old and, like a sponge, I was absorbing everything I could. I learned how to order parts for Ford and Toyota, process warranty, write service, and so on. Paul Titus requested my help calling on outstanding accounts. Learning that part of the business, led me to address any customer concerns and employee concerns. All the while I was still working in the service department. When we acquired Hyundai, they were brand new in the country and wanted a stand-alone. As a result, a parts person and myself were asked to transfer and oversee the parts and service department for them. Our service manager was busy with Ford and Toyota, so I was given the opportunity to work with Hyundai reps, customers and employees.
Toyota opened a new position called the customer relations manager and Mr. Titus offered me the role, which I accepted. As a customer relations manager, I immersed myself in education, training classes offered through Toyota, Ford, JD Powers and more. In the 90’s most customer concerns were related to quality and service, which put me in a something of a partnership with the service managers on both the Toyota and Ford sides of our business, as well as the manufacturers. During this time our Tacoma location had Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, and Daihatsu. I wore many different hats, from vehicle deliveries to F&I to working with the manufacturers. Anything to do with customers or employees ended up in my office. I even handled lemon law issues between our customers and manufacturers, crazy busy time – and a priceless education.
Although Titus-Will is a family business and I am not a family member, they always treated me like family. That’s exactly how we want all our employees and customers to feel.
Dealer Magazine: You won an award from Toyota early in your career. What was the award and how did you win it?
Dawn: Toyota had a contest for employees from service, parts, technicians and customer relations that would have us compete against others in our 5-state region. We were tested on our positions, training skills, as well as Toyota knowledge. CRM competitors had to know the history of Toyota, all the ins and outs of warranties, customer handling and so on. I won first place in the Toyota Region, which meant I had to compete in the national contest in California with people from all over the country. I was so nervous. However, people here were incredibly supportive.
During the competition, I completed a written test and then was placed at a desk and, while being videotaped, had to deal with three different customers—on a time limit. I could barely breathe when it was done and couldn’t stand because my legs were shaking. I took second place in the country and was awarded a trip to Japan, where I was inducted into Toyota’s Assembly of Champions. There were 138 delegates from every country in the world attending, and I was the only woman. The challenge and the trip completely changed my life.
Dealer Magazine: How did it change your life?
Dawn: After the challenge, the company decided that my future was even brighter and offered me the Ford service manager position. I ran the service department for nine years, and I was supported by an incredible crew and we grew beyond expectations, developed a commercial fleet business and became a top tire dealer in the country and President Award winner. I was a member of a council that visited Detroit twice a year to help find ways to improve quality and restore the Ford image. In April of 2007, I was asked to be the first GM of our Ford store, which had always been managed by the Dealer Principal. At first, I was reluctant due to the looming recession; however, our Dealer Principal, Graham Tash, would not take “no” for an answer.
I am very proud that during the Great Recession, we did not go through layoffs or cancel healthcare benefits. We focused on low-hanging fruit and all of our employees worked together to help and to develop ideas. We still grew our business, while saving to maintain our most valuable asset: “our people.” It is the people you work with that help you weather any storm and make the difference in your company’s success.
Dealer Magazine: Titus-Will has been around since 1938. To what do you attribute its long-running success?
Dawn: We have a tagline that says it best: A Tradition of Excellence since 1938. Integrity and fairness are paramount for us. Our goal is to change the perception of an icky car dealer image by replacing it with an incredible, transparent and honorable experience and reputation for generations.
Dealer Magazine: Which DMS and CRM solutions are you using?
Dawn: Reynolds & Reynolds for DMS. I had the pleasure of going from handwriting everything in our business to choosing our first DMS back in the day. I believe we were the second dealer in the country to switch from paper to electronic dispatching and service. Currently, we use VIN Solutions for CRM. All nine rooftops use the same CRM and V-Auto appraisal tool, and this allows our sales associates to cross-sell at any of our dealerships. Cross-selling provides over 2,800 vehicle choices and a better customer experience.
Dealer Magazine: How committed are you to digital marketing?
Dawn: We employ digital marketing managers for all our stores and we developed the people for this critical position. Our mission is to make sure that our virtual dealership online mirrors our physical location and is easy to use and has a consistent message for our staff and customers.
Of course, we’re always looking at our analytics and shopper insights and sourcing to adjust our strategy and companies every 90 days. Our number one source is always repeat and referral business; however, even our most loyal customers now work digitally, and we must always be reviewing how we market and communicate through all digital channels, including social, streaming and video.
Our current focus is on mobile technology. We want to make sure our mobile digital presence is quick and easy. We’ve noticed an increase in click to call through mobile and have taken steps to increase phone-to-appointment skill training. We have noticed a decline in the amount of information customers are willing to give you to submit a lead. They would prefer to have everything available up-front vs having to submit for a price or appointment.
Dealer Magazine: What do you like most about the car business?
Dawn: Every day is different and the people you interact with are amazing and everyone has a story – if you’re willing to listen. Having generations of customers, as well as employees, is fulfilling. In this business, you have to be open-minded, be able to adjust quickly and move forward. Each customer and each employee is different and being able to slow down a transaction provides a better experience for all. My favorite part is the human interaction. Even over all the years of the Internet, I believe people still crave human interaction and will choose the business based on how they are treated. In addition, I love developing people for our business and help them grow. Truth be told, I am always training my replacement. When our employees feel valued, appreciated and part of the family, then the customer feels the same.
Dealer Magazine: You’ve held several management positions during your career. Are you a hands-on type of manager or more of a delegator?
Dawn: I’m very hands-on. That said, everyone here is empowered to make decisions that benefit the customer. We work as a team throughout. All of our departments and our management staff are encouraged to create ideas, incentives and provide pricing based on the situation. We all work so well together and really enjoy the collaboration, yet sometimes a fresh perspective from another department is exactly what is needed. We have NO WALLS and I always seek input from other departments as they often have the most insight. Sometimes, I may say in fun: “Can I just be the boss today?”
When I say hands-on it is because I love to work on the floor, service drive, admin office, café, and other areas and rarely spend much time in my office. I believe leadership is shown, not told, and that being part of the team every day is rewarding. Even at 56 years young, I must always learn, be open to new ideas, humble enough to listen. I try to accept that even as a leader, you need help sometimes and to remember to ask for it.
Dealer Magazine: How does Titus Will ensure a great customer experience?
Dawn: We try to have fun every day with each other and our customers. We make sure that everyone understands that a great customer experience is a top priority and that it leads to greater retention. We are extremely driven in this approach, especially in our service operations and collision center, because we know that when you buy a car that’s not the end of the story. It’s the beginning.
I believe everybody loves being able to sit in their pajamas at home and shop. But you still must be ready to deliver a car to a customer and let them test drive it for a couple of days, or make servicing your vehicle convenient and easy with sincerity and care. Customers will wait in our dealership and complain it was too quick because they love to wait. That’s the story we love to hear and for our customers to tell others.
Customers today only visit 1.3 dealerships before buying, versus 5 dealerships only a few years ago. That’s a big culture change. Once they come to your dealership, they’re not kicking tires. They know exactly what they want. They’re incredibly educated and they just need to meet someone who can help guide them through the process and the vehicle.
Dealer Magazine: What skills must a leader possess?
Dawn: I know it sounds cliché, but you must lead by example and care. You have to really care about what’s going on and the people you work with. Your employees are the difference makers to your company’s success. Respect the families they leave behind every day to come to work, sometimes long days, holidays, weekends. You can never take them for granted. Our ownership has always pressed that we care about our employees first and customers second. We believe it has a natural cascading effect on everyone and it shows.
I am a prime example. You can start in this industry at any level and move up. The sky’s the limit. We find the right people and then train them to lead by example. This means, sometimes you have to be the first person in and the last person out. You have to show them that you’re just as willing to get your hands dirty as anybody else. And you got to work on the floor as a leader. You can’t do it from an office.
Dealer Magazine: When you look for talent, how do you find the right person?
Dawn: I look for a customer service attitude. For instance, in my experience people who have been in the retail business, whether it’s a restaurant job or in a mall store or whatever, make for good candidates. I look for people who like to smile and keep their eyes wide open and are eager to learn. Some people work well in a cubicle while others prefer to work directly with customers. Our goal is to figure out where an employee matches best and put them in that position with a better chance at success.
For example, we have this young man working in parts shipping and receiving. When we saw him working a front counter position with customers, we saw a greater potential. There was just something special we really liked and thought he might be a good fit as a service advisor. So, we moved him over to our Toyota Express Maintenance team. We were right. He turned out to be our #1 service advisor for the year in customer care and sales.
Dealer Magazine: As a woman in a male-dominated industry, have you encountered any special challenges?
Dawn: I have been blessed to watch positive changes from the 90’s to today. Because my name is Dawn vs. Don it can be confusing for customers. However, it has never bothered me. Instead, I would place the customer with the person who best suited their needs. My husband sometimes has been more offended because at an event or conference a man will begin talking with him until my husband says: my wife is actually the one you want to talk to. After 35 years of marriage and my career, my husband remains my biggest fan. I actually feel being a woman in this business is an asset as we see things differently, communicate differently, multi-task well, and are more open with our emotions. When a negative situation happened, I would just work my way around it.
Dealer Magazine: What advice would you give other women considering a career in retail automotive?
To get into it! Realize you have so many opportunities and we do bring a different perspective, perhaps a warmer approach. We’re different as men and women. Keep an open mind. Lose the chip. You can be strong and still have warmth. Just find a company that lets you excel and loves to promote from within, like I found here at Titus-Will.
Dealer Magazine: What separates the Titus-Will brand from other brands in the area?
Dawn: Reputation. We’ve been voted the Best Automotive Dealer in the South Sound for seven years running. We’re proud of our exceptional customer service scores, comments, and retention.
We’re in a unique market here, because there are two Toyota dealers in the same city, within five and a half miles of each other. It can create confusion, especially for shoppers doing their research online. We want to make sure they’re finding our store. Our website must be clear and user-friendly.
Another brand separator for us is our longevity. We’ve had a Toyota franchise since the 80s. This is true for our employees, as well. Some of our salespeople and staff have been with us for 10, 20, 30 years. We had a salesperson just retire after 34 years with us. We have tremendous tenure at the store, which leads to building a strong base of repeat customers and referrals. I think partly for these reasons, we’re the #1 Toyota dealer in Tacoma.
And a third is our Titus-Will Protected plan.
Dealer Magazine: What is that plan, why did you choose it and has it been successful?
Dawn: I’ll answer the last part of your question first. It’s been extremely well received. That’s because we invested in making sure our people understood it and how to talk about it. We rolled out our protection program on May 1 of this year and trained our staff, every employee of every department with meetings and rallies, and I was at each one of them. Your staff has to be confident, understand the program, and value and create the excitement.
We chose Binary Automotive Solutions, and they matched us up with an incredible warranty program for all nine rooftops. When we went into the deal, we had to make sure it was legitimate and our customers would not have to go through any nonsense, such as prior approval to get their oil changed someplace else. We wanted a lifetime policy that also included roadside assistance and an upgrade policy and is a benefit to the customer here, or elsewhere. With our large military bases in the area, we needed to make sure it was easy here, as well as if the car owner is re-located and it does.
We launched it to gain a competitive advantage because in today’s retail world profitability in new cars is beyond challenging. We needed to offer something unique, and Binary Automotive Solutions and the warranty program proved to be everything we wanted and more. Titus-Will Protected is a straight-up benefit and value to our customers.
Dealer Magazine: Part of brand reputation includes how a store is perceived by the local community. Could you talk briefly about some of the ways Titus-Will gives back to its neighbors?
Dawn: Yes. We’re really big in our community investments. We partner with the Boys and Girls Clubs in the area. We’re across the freeway from an elementary school and it seems like we’ve been part of the school’s life forever. We just completed a Feed the Hungry peanut butter drive during which we collected 66,000 pounds of peanut butter that will go to our local food banks and to help ensure kids are fed during their summer break. We also every start of the school year by setting up backpacks for less fortunate school children. We are pet-friendly and support adoption and foster programs for animals. Our store is very pet friendly. In fact, we have a customer who brings in his huge talking bird in a cage while waiting to get his car serviced. We love our 4-legged customers. Our company has always been very generous to great causes whenever we can.
Whenever a young person buys a car from us and it’s their first car, we really make it special and our team creates a presentation of basic ownership tips. For example, we show them how to check their oil, how to maintain their car, how credit scores work and really explain the entire purchase process. When they know how the car works, it gives them more confidence in their purchase and makes a lasting difference. We love to do that because so many kids today don’t have those skill sets any longer.
We’re always supporting something in the community, such as the parks, sports teams, book reading programs. We’re huge with the military and participate in the Hiring Heroes campaign. Our service manager is former military, as well as many of our other employees.
I grew up in Tacoma and went to school here, competing as a gymnast. I have raised my family here. Just as we like to think of our store as a home, Tacoma has always been my home.
Dealer Magazine: You’ll be part of a panel discussion at the upcoming Digital Dealer 27 Conference. What will you be talking about and why is it important for dealers to attend?
Dawn: We’re still refining our topic, but our focus will have something to do with building the kind of culture in your store that gives employees a reason to stay and customers a reason to return.
Your employees, as well as your vendors, can become your best advocates of this culture. And you take care of this culture by giving employees a nice home to come to every single day. It’s their home because you spend more time with people you work with than you do with your own family. When you make your workplace feel like home, your customers will feel it and keep wanting to return.
My pitch is how do you change the culture and allow and enable your employees to develop and grow? We plan to discuss ways of making this happen. It’s also important to recognize that some employees just want to come to work and not necessarily be great stars. Everybody needs A, B and C players. It’s what makes a winning team and you win by retaining your people. One of the ways you do that is by letting them make decisions on their own. Perhaps it’s not the same decision you might have made, which you can cover later in a coaching session. You want them to feel as if it is their store and their name is on the sign.
I have a great story because I work for a great company and the Titus family and Will family have provided me so many opportunities. I mean who does that? Who hires a cashier at 21, lets her lead the company in many roles and then finally promotes her to Vice President in 2017? That is the company I want to be a part of and it all starts with smart and compassionate ownership. I am very blessed.
I try to attend the Digital Dealer conference every year. In fact, I’m bringing all three of my digital marketing managers to the next one.
Dealer Magazine: This is the open question. Any final words you want to add?
Dawn: My final word here is that not only do I love this crazy, ever-changing business, I also love the daily people interaction. I tell the customers how grateful I am for choosing us because customers can go anywhere to buy or service a vehicle and they chose us – we’re honored and grateful.
I always remember what it is like when you buy your first car — it’s a lot of money. It’s a big decision. Your life revolves around that car, going to the doctor, to school, your job. So, we can’t ever forget how important that vehicle is in that person’s life. If you put yourself in that position and if your car broke down, what can you do? You’ll want to go to a dealership that cares. Take good care of your customers and employees and they’ll be happy to tell your story.
I have been fortunate to have two loves in my life. My husband, who I married in May of 1984, and with whom I share an incredible family, and in November of 1984, when I started at Titus-Will and found a second amazing family. How wonderful is that!