In the following interview, we talk with Apple Chevrolet’s Dealer Principal John Alfirevich, who was recently named Ally Bank’s 2019 TIME Dealer of the Year. John started in the car business as a teenager changing oil for Bob Motl Chevrolet, where his father, Joe, introduced him to the business even before John had a driver’s license. Originally established in 1963, Bob Motl Chevrolet was relocated to Tinley Park, a Chicago suburb, in 1975 and renamed Apple Chevrolet. Today, John shares ownership of Apple Chevrolet with his father, and is blessed with his beautiful wife, Christine, and their three wonderful children.
In more than thirty-five years in the business, John has filled just about every dealership role imaginable and has held several leadership positions with the Chicago Automobile Trade Association. He also previously served as president of the Chicagoland & Northwest Indiana Chevrolet Association. In addition to winning the TIME Dealer award, John has also been awarded the Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award for Ethics, the NADA PAC Outstanding Achievement Award, and the Illinois Radio Broadcasters Recognition Award. John received a bachelor’s degree in business from Benedictine College in 1985 and graduated from the NADA Academy in 1990. In this interview, John shares what he thinks customers appreciate most and reveals an innovative approach to attracting millennials to his store.
Dealer Magazine: Congratulations, John, on winning TIME Dealer of the Year for 2019. One of the main requirements for winning is a dealership’s significant impact on the local community. I’d like to start by asking you about Apple Chevrolet’s commitment to its community.
John: Over the years, I’ve seen how dealers can make a great impact within their communities and become true anchors in local business development. I always said to myself, how can we contribute and have an impact within our community. That’s why last year, for example, we donated to nearly 100 organizations, including the American Legion Auxiliary, USO, Colon Cancer Coalition, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and the Special Olympics, as well as many local schools, churches, and sports teams.
Being a good neighbor resonates so well with customers. It’s not as if we can give to everyone or every cause, but we strive to do the best we can.
The respect, consideration, and acknowledgment we get from the community really helps promote our brand as a dealership, and it makes a difference in trust and credibility when they come to us for service.
Dealer Magazine: How does this good neighbor philosophy transfer to your staff?
John: We try to create a vision with our employees from day one about customer service and treating customers with integrity. We follow a true and genuine “We’re here for you” mentality. Being a good neighbor creates both employee and consumer enthusiasm. We show what we mean by sponsoring many yearly dealership charitable events, including ones hosted at the dealership, such as Toys for Tots and our USO BBQ for the Troops. These events help drive an employee’s genuine involvement, and along the way, enhances our dealership brand in the community. Our employees make a real difference.
Dealer Magazine: Let’s go back to the start of your career. What attracted you to retail automotive initially and why have you stuck with it?
John: One summer, while I was working at our family tavern business on the South Side of Chicago, at the age of 12, I was called by Bob Motl Chevrolet where my father, Joseph Alfirevich, worked as general manager at the time. My father asked me to come in and help perform oil changes and otherwise help out in the service department, because of a local mechanic strike that lasted the entire summer. This was my introduction to the automobile business and since that day I have worked in every department, starting my full-time career in the business in January of 1986.
Why I have stuck with it? My father has always been a great influence on me. His philosophy is “the harder we can work on something, the luckier in life we can become” — especially together! To this day, I try to live by those words.
On weekends and during college, I’d come home and work at the dealership. You name it, I did it. I worked as a porter, parked cars, serviced cars, whatever I could do, and sort of knew early-on that the car business was going to be my end game. I also knew it really wasn’t going to be about how many vehicles I was going to eventually sell; it was going to be about employing good people and making them successful.
Dealer Magazine: What still excites you about the industry? In other words, what keeps you motivated to show up every morning in such a competitive environment?
John: [Laughs] The overwhelming expenses keep me coming in. I’ve got to pay my bills. Honestly, I love how running a dealership is a team effort, and, fortunately for me, I have an incredible team. I enjoy seeing progress in every department and in every individual.
We truly scrutinize most of the customer reviews, especially paying attention to any of the negative reviews or concerns that come in. I like to ask our staff how can we correct a situation or where did we go wrong here with a particular customer? These comments or reviews truly ask great questions of us, and always make a great premise for a meeting. A productive discussion usually takes place, resulting in making adjustments. This customer feedback loop really works and makes us all better.
Dealer Magazine: What has been or is your greatest challenge as a dealer principal?
John: Obviously, there have been a lot of challenges along the way. But a recent challenge was how to replace long-time talent. We had a situation where my office manager, used-car manager, and a new-car manager all left within a short period of time due to retirement or health-related issues. We needed to replace them without losing momentum in our business. Fortunately, I am blessed with a great general manager, Dave O’Donnell. I regularly meet with Dave in the morning for thirty minutes or so to talk about what we need to do next on a daily basis. In spite of this upheaval, we didn’t lose stride or growth.
In response, our first go-to was to find and replace employees from within the dealership that showed the willingness and passion to learn and grow. If we detect someone might have a secret talent, we educate them further. I go by the theory of “never stop learning.” I try to promote people who I see are very engaged in the business, and if they are, they can move into the next position easily. Dave and I believe in cross-training as many people as we can. This kind of leadership plays a huge role in helping our employees and our business grow.
Dealer Magazine: Let’s stick with leadership for the moment. What traits are present in good leadership, and can leadership be learned?
John: The best way to teach leadership, of course, is by example. If you’re going to talk the talk, you must be willing to walk the walk. Good leadership is the ability to transfer or influence your vision to your other leaders and managers, and have an open mind about their ideas. Ultimately, you must come together as one. Great leadership comes from within, yet sincerity, honesty, and principled efforts earn you the respect that truly moves companies forward. I try to instill in our managers to take ownership of their own departments; the ones who do, truly work better with other departments and move the needle together.
Dealer Magazine: Are you more of a hands-on manager or the kind who sets the agenda and then delegates?
John: You have to be a little bit of both. As dealers, we all make hundreds of decisions a day. But, at the end of the day, we train, so that we can entrust and empower our managers to make great decisions and be accountable for themselves as well as their team. Their leadership is what is going to move us forward, not mine. Obviously, I’ll make adjustments as I see fit.
Dealer Magazine: One of the key challenges facing the industry is building the right team. What qualities do you look for when hiring or promoting?
John: You’re right about that. It is a challenge today. We get a ton of resumes and go through them all carefully. I’m a big advocate of hiring dedicated people. Do I look to hire people who are in the game to win? Yes, but, more importantly, they must have the instinct and drive and willingness to continually educate themselves.
As far as what I look for in character, there’s no doubt in my mind that ethics and honesty are top traits. You can teach just about anything in this business, but to find sincere, honest employees is what we look for and hope to promote.
Dealer Magazine: You played football in high school and college. What lessons did you learn as a football player that you’ve been able to apply to your career?
John: I had a coach at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, who was passionate about one’s own accountability. He talked about the importance of knowing and liking yourself first, more so off the football field than on. Being accountable for yourself was number one. Whether it came to not doing your homework or missing that workout, the bottom line is, you’re cheating yourself. He also talked about improving yourself by doing things that others won’t, so that you can achieve things that others can’t. I got hurt in college and sustained a knee injury. He’s the one who told me to not let that knee injury stop my success. I have used that knee injury my entire life as a reminder and as motivation to work harder than anybody else.
Dealer Magazine: You already talked about your efforts in cross-training your employees. How important is training to your store’s success, and can you cite an example?
John: Training is everything and one of my hot buttons. I’ve always been committed when it comes to training, and I always believe we can do more by training. I believe employees limit their own potential by not taking training seriously. Likewise, they harm the growth of the business when they do not commit themselves to personal growth. I’m not talking only about taking classes, but having a thirst to learn more on a daily basis.
For instance, I’m always encouraging my team to take home resources, such as Dealer Magazine. I encourage them to read articles to stay on top of what’s going on in our industry. Staying engaged is part of the day-to-day training. It’s so important, because the world is moving incredibly fast. We’re in an Amazon.com age right now and yet some people want to stick with their ‘old dog tricks,’ even though those truly don’t work anymore.
I was in a tech meeting the other day and the technicians were complaining about how much information they have to submit for a manufacturer to pay them on warranty work. I offered to pay for them to take a typing class, if they thought that might help. Any type of training is a benefit to me and to the dealership. But perhaps most of all, it benefits the person getting the training. They acquire new skills that become part of who they are no matter where they go.
Dealer Magazine: Could you tell us more about your Connection Center, what is it, how it works, etc.?
John: Sure. The idea was born one day when I walked into an Apple store. I went up to their Genius Bar with my iPhone and one of their tech guys helped me out tremendously, answering my questions. So, I started thinking that with all the technology included in our vehicles, wouldn’t it be great if our customers could come in and learn more about their cars after the initial delivery? Customers are usually so excited about their new vehicle, they often forget what is being taught and demonstrated to them about it at the time of delivery. With our Connection Center, we give them an opportunity to come back to the dealership at their convenience, so we can connect their cell phones to their vehicle and expand their knowledge on all the technology their vehicle has to offer.
Although the Connection Center has been an additional cost to the dealership, it’s been very well received. We’ll even help that new-car customer who bought a Cadillac down the street. Anybody who wants to learn more about the technology that comes with their vehicles, including the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, pairing their phone, Apple-Car-Play, On-Star, whatever, we’ll help them out. It leads our customer into a positive place about our dealership, improving our referrals and customer relations. People love it!
Dealer Magazine: When it comes to marketing these days, everything is pretty much digital. Is that true for Apple Chevrolet?
John: Yes. Everything is digital for us; everything, 100 percent. We’re not in newspapers, but we’re still on radio. But even with radio, we try to push consumers to our website or find us online in their search efforts.
I think the most important component is having a BDC that can respond very quickly to leads, not so much in a phone call, but just in making a connection. I think videos are one of the most important things we can do today. It’s a nonthreatening tool to communicate your message with today customers. Years ago, customers would have to come in to see a car; now we can film the car and show, for example, how spacious the back seat is, or present dashboard features and new technology if they’re interested. Digital car-buying awareness is more than just important, it’s essential.
Dealer Magazine: The millennial generation is the largest in U.S. history and has enormous buying power. What are you doing to target this key demographic?
John: From my perspective, I think Apple Chevrolet has a leg up in our community with millennials. We have always supported the community kids. One example is a sports television show that we sponsored and produced right on our showroom floor. Part of this show was honoring both girl and boy athletes of the week and inviting their teams to the dealership to be on-air and receive trophies and community recognition.
They remember that, yet, more importantly we actually provide to all our customers what is most important to millennials today: transparency throughout our entire business practice. A new focus on high quality quick videos, creative advertising in their world, such as the “gamers.” Gaming, which is very popular among millennials, is our next media to capture or get “Liked.” We think the art of networking their followers will be the key to successfully reaching millennials. We are just on the early threshold of connecting with followers and influencers in their world, so stay tuned.
Dealer Magazine: In what other ways are you using social media to generate business?
John: Video demonstrations, such as ‘how-to’ homemade videos that showcase features and benefits customers may not be aware of. Another big play for us at Apple Chevrolet is within our service department. Seeing is believing. If there’s an upsell, in my opinion, there’s no better way to show a customer that their brakes are worn or that the water pump is faulty than showing them a video with their own car in real video time.
We’re finding out that we get 60 to 70 percent on a close ratio versus 25 to 30 percent closing ratio when trying to sell it over the phone. In my opinion, video is a great technology and is well received by our customers.
Dealer Magazine: What one word or expression best captures your philosophy of running a dealership?
John: I believe in transparency. In the long run, it makes all the difference in the world, with your reputation and your reviews. It’s how all of us want to be treated. I preach to our sales team that each customer should be treated with “unpretentious integrity.” By that I mean, treat every customer the way you would want to be treated. Long before transparency became an industry buzz word, Apple Chevrolet practiced the true meaning of openness, which contributed to our success and, hopefully, future growth.
Dealer Magazine: Could you cite an example of unpretentious integrity in action?
John: Be glad to. A great example is the way we greet and treat each customer from the minute they walk into the showroom or visit us online. Also, our pricing is always the same and spelled out line by line. Nothing is hidden, and we do not believe in adding fees to bump for profit. And through our customer reviews, we continually hear how well-respected we make them feel.
Dealer Magazine: How can dealerships add more value to the customer experience?
John: I think what’s really important is recognizing the value of people’s time. We ask our sales team to stick to a process and keep in mind the value of “time.” If a customer is picking up a new vehicle, for example, or dropping one off for service, we want to recognize the value of their time and get them in and out as quickly as possible – without missing any steps in the process.
The only way to achieve that goal is with well-thought-out processes that are convenient to the customer. I should add, this effort never goes unnoticed. Our mission is to not only satisfy every customer that visits our store, but to completely “wow” them with a great experience.
Dealer Magazine: If you had to limit your tool chest to one technology tool, which tool would you choose and why?
John: We use a CRM tool called AutoAlert. It’s a dynamic tool that tells you everything you need to know about a customer and his or her vehicle. AutoAlert reminds us about a customer’s vehicle cycle and alerts us on when to begin reengaging that customer. In the case of a past lease customer, for example, it will notify us when the customer is three months out on a lease. It will also find a similar vehicle in our inventory that might have an equivalent payment.When it comes to staying ahead of your customers and their vehicles, AutoAlert is a CRM tool on steroids.
However, as great as a tool may be, it’s only as good as its input, and our people need to remember the power of inputting good notes. You can have the best system in the world, but if the salesperson doesn’t enter data as simple as the customer’s email address in there, the tool is dead to us.
Dealer Magazine: What is the future of retail automotive?
I find that dealers are very intelligent. I think and feel most dealers are the anchors within their communities. Nobody really knows where the product is going. Transportation is changing and moving fast. I think consumers will always need a trusted place to go to solve their transportation needs, and a trusted dealership is going to serve them better than any dot-com company can. The relationship between a dealer and his or her community is so important and that is why I believe it will survive.
Learn more at the DD26 Orlando KEYNOTE PANEL: The Heart of Growth: How Community-Centricity in Automotive Retail Brings Purpose, Satisfaction, & Loyalty.