Capitol City Honda is a locally-owned family business in Olympia, Washington, the state capital of Washington and sixty miles south of Seattle. Ed McCarroll, a native of Canada, proudly became a U.S. citizen in 1953 and was a partner in several car dealerships in California. In 1965, Ed relocated to Olympia and purchased his first dealership, Capitol Chevrolet. Six years later, he was one of the first Honda dealers in the Pacific Northwest when he opened Capitol City Honda. In 2013, Ed received the 40-year service award from American Honda. Capitol City Honda has won national recognition for the continuous high level of its customer service. The franchise has three locations in the popular Olympia Auto Mall.
Today, Kelly Levesque, Ed’s daughter, is the dealer principal of the business while Kelly’s husband, Chris, is its general manager. Kelly grew up in the business and worked in the store during her summer vacations. She earned an MBA from Seattle University, as well as a certification from the National Automotive Dealer Academy. In our interview, Kelly discusses what separates Capitol City Honda from the competition, her management philosophy, and the importance of being a woman.
Dealer Magazine: Capitol City Honda is a locally-owned family business, started in 1971 by Ed McCarroll. Today, you’re the dealer principal and your husband, Chris, is the store’s general manager. Have you encountered any special challenges in running a family business?
Kelly: Where to start? I think the challenges, in the beginning, were in building the management team. Over time, we’ve positioned our key people in place, which has made a huge difference. I’ve been in the business for about 20 years. As soon as I completed NADA Dealer Academy our general manager left, and I became the general manager at age 27. It was a challenging time and I had a lot to learn. Since then we have formed a solid management team. Everybody’s now moving in the same direction and jelling together. Getting the right team together may not have been a special or unique challenge, but it was my biggest challenge.
Dealer Magazine: What attracted you to the family business in the first place, and when did you realize it would be your career?
Kelly: I’m an only child. So, it was always in the back of my mind that the car business may be a special opportunity for me. Before joining my dad’s business, I went to Seattle U. and earned my MBA. I didn’t decide to come into the business until after grad school. I knew it was this huge opportunity, and if I didn’t join the dealership, it would have been sold and not be part of our family anymore. Ultimately, I wanted to keep the tradition alive in our family.
My father is a huge part of me being here and why I love this business. He was very passionate about the business. It was pretty much his entire identity. He was one of those people who started out as a salesman and worked his way through the business to become a multi-franchise car dealer.
It’s really cool when we have people who come to work for us at an entry-level position and we see them move up to management. I really believe in promoting people from within and giving them opportunities to grow. A big part of what I learned from my dad, for sure, is that 100-percent success depends on the people who work for you.
Dealer Magazine: When your father opened Capitol City Honda, it was one of the first Honda dealerships in the Northwest. What appeals most to you about the Honda brand?
Kelly: My father had many franchises. He worked with Chevrolet, Toyota, Mercedes, Acura, Nissan, and Honda. The last two dealerships he had were both Honda franchises. He made that decision and decided it was the strongest of all the brands he had represented. I am glad he made that choice because it has definitely been a great franchise to work with. Honda’s quality and reliability are easy to sell. The dealership’s role is to provide a relationship with the customer.
Dealer Magazine: What separates Capitol City Honda from the competition?
Kelly: We’re an active part of the local community. My husband and I were both born and raised in Olympia. We grew up in this community, which is something of an island community and a small town of about 125,000.
Plus, the company has been in the family line for over 45 years. It’s a big deal to us that it’s a family-owned business, especially since there are so many dealer groups now.
We give a lot to charitable organizations. Our business philosophy is, we always want a customer to tell their neighbor they had a great experience at our store. Because it’s such a small community, our goal is to create customers for life.
The dealership offers many benefits to customers including a referral program, lifetime car washes, and first free oil change. We also worked with Binary Solutions to offer lifetime powertrain warranty and ten years of roadside assistance to our customers.
Our service department is an award-winning department. They’ve won the America Honda Council of Parts and Service Professional Award for three years in a row, one of only 150 service departments nationally to win the award. That’s the big one. They’ve won other awards, including the Honda Customer Service Experience award, which we won ten times and Honda Fix It Right the First Time award for eleven years. We are a Honda Xpress Service Elite store. We have many long-term employees, including a master technician who has worked here for 40 years.
Dealer Magazine: Why is it important to be a woman dealer principal?
Kelly: I grew up going to Washington auto dealer conventions. The car business was a way of life for me even on vacation. In that core group of people, year after year I saw a very family friendly business environment. We are fortunate that our auto dealer association has always been very inclusive of female role models. The head of Washington Auto Dealers, Vicki Fabre, has been a strong leader and role model. Because I grew up in the business, it feels like family to me.
In dealer meetings, there may be more men than women, but I’ve always felt very connected to the people I’ve met along the way. We’re all in this unique industry that ties us together, and that creates commonality, whether you’re a female or a male. Running a car dealership will always offer you a challenging work environment and I never find it boring.
I have three daughters. It’s important for me to be a woman dealer principal because I want to be someone my daughters can look up to. I’m a woman in a career that is normally led by men. One of the challenges—and strengths—of being a female car dealer is the ability to be able to multi-task: being the role-model mom, the community leader, and hands-on in the dealership. Those are the challenges. I’m not sure any of my daughters will join the family business, but they will have that opportunity. I want them to believe if their mom can do it, they can do it, too.
Dealer Magazine: What is your management philosophy… are you a hands-on type or more of a delegator?
Kelly: Definitely a team approach. I’m the kind of person who likes to put a lot of thought into every decision. I don’t make any rash decisions. I like to talk through opportunities before making changes so I can see all the consequences of those decisions ahead of time. I am fortunate to have a great group of department heads. I trust my team to help me with the research part of a decision. They know more on a ground level about what’s happening than I do. I’m not a micro-manager at all. I think it’s important that people have an opportunity to excel, so you let them take that and run with it. When an issue comes in, we tackle it together. That’s how I approach it.
Dealer Magazine: What do you look for when hiring new talent?
Kelly: We look for enthusiasm, drive, passion. Certainly, a desired trait is the willingness to learn. Someone who is open-minded, trainable, and coachable.
Dealer Magazine: Let’s stay with training for the moment. What kind of training do your employees receive?
Kelly: We do a variety of training, including all the factory training programs. They provide lots of opportunities for our employees to go down and participate in specific OEM training. Then we have daily meetings, where we go over product knowledge with my sales management team. They go over product training, delivery training, walk-around training and so on. In the service area, we take advantage of all the factory programs out there. We’re constantly sending people to training programs.
Dealer Magazine: How does Capitol City Honda try to ensure every customer has a positive experience?
Kelly: The customer experience has a lot to do with creating a positive work environment. We try to make decisions that create great morale in our employee team.
I have an app on my phone that shows all of our reviews and customer surveys that come through. A lot of them say our employees were kind, humble, helpful. And I think that all starts with our employees being happy within their work environment. I think our employees take pride in the dealership. We always make sure to communicate to the employees that they are the reason we are an award-winning dealership. We make sure they are acknowledged for doing a great job or receiving positive customer feedback.
We try to make it a fun work environment, where people enjoy working here, and I think that rubs off on the customer. The result is good customer experience. For instance, we do a team bonding event during the Christmas season where we get together for a catered event. We make blankets for charity. It’s pretty simple. We do a project together and have dinner. All that gets donated to a local homeless charity. We also do a lot of team barbecues and in other ways try to make the workplace an enjoyable place to be.
Dealer Magazine: In what ways does the store give back to the local community?
Kelly: We have an amazing children’s museum in Olympia. We sponsor a lifetime display there. It’s a display where kids can interact with vehicles. That was a big deal for us and a donation we made over several years. But that display will always be there, and I love that we could be a part of something that benefits the kids in our community. The museum relied on sponsors to fund the building and development from the ground up. The Hands-On Children’s Museum draws a lot of people and not just from Olympia.
We typically write checks to over 60 organizations in a year: schools, churches, sports teams, charities. I’ve been involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and help put on a fundraiser for them. We also contribute to Big Brothers-Big Sisters and Boys and Girls Club. My husband and I enjoy staying active in the charitable community here, and we feel very fortunate that we are able to contribute.
Dealer Magazine: Millennials are emerging as a major consumer demographic. What are you doing to attract more millennials as either employees or customers?
Kelly: I think customers today want information quickly and transparently. A dealership’s online presence is so important in the digital age. I think the more of a visual you can give customers online of your store, the better. Video is huge right now. I notice that we get the most engagement with video posts. It gives people a way to see a little bit more about your products and your store. Once posted, the video can be viewed and shared by thousands of people. Video seems to be the quickest way to communicate with the people out there, especially millennials. It’s easy to take an iPhone and film a walk-around. The walk-arounds can be fun and light-hearted and engaging. People click on that more than on, say, a static post.
Dealer Magazine: Does a third-party provider handle your social media presence or is it done in-house?
Kelly: We do both. We have a provider who posts for us on Instagram and Facebook. We also try to keep our focus local, because some social media activity was getting too generic. We don’t currently do a lot of texting. But as far as giving a flavor of who we are at Capitol City Honda, we prefer to cover things that are happening locally. We might promote an upcoming owner-workshop. Or, if we have a special vehicle for, say, Earth Day, we will do a local post. We don’t want our messages to feel as if they’re coming from corporate. We like people to know the messages are coming from our store.
Dealer Magazine: Which vendor do you use for your CRM?
Kelly: We have recently switched to VinSolutions. I have it on my mobile phone. I can access it and drill down to see what’s going on. For instance, I can see all the messages going to our BDC on my phone. I love having that access. The apps give you so much more transparency; you don’t actually have to be sitting in the dealership to know what’s happening between your sales person and the customer. You can see it on your phone, which is pretty cool.
Dealer Magazine: What single piece of technology makes the greatest difference to your store’s success?
Kelly: I would say the mobile phone. The iPhone, for example. That is what everyone’s using to shop for vehicles, to do their research, and to communicate with us. They use it to see pictures of our vehicles on social media. I think it’s all right there.
Dealer Magazine: What do you see as the biggest opportunities and the biggest challenges on the horizon for dealerships?
Kelly: The greatest opportunities will be in the digital world. Communicating with people online is definitely a plus. Also, making everything transparent. The better you are in your digital landscape, the better your store will be.
As far as challenges, for me personally, I think staffing will remain a huge challenge. Finding people who want to sell cars. The changeover from the old guard to this new age where people want things quickly. I think the timeline for getting things done is much tighter. The I-want-it-now mentality is a bit of a challenge.
Dealer Magazine: How about the rise of EVs?
Kelly: I know it’s coming. In fact, I just installed an electric vehicle station this week. Honda is telling us that by 2030 two-thirds of global sales will be hybrid and other electrified vehicles. We’re already building our infrastructure for that.
Dealer Magazine: Dealers are entrepreneurs. In your experience, what does it take to be a successful entrepreneur or leader?
Kelly: The best leaders I’ve worked with have the ability to be open-minded to growth opportunities. They are willing to lead as an example and put the work in. A desire to keep learning and stay flexible in a changing environment is also important.
Dealer Magazine: Last question: What one word best defines your approach to running a dealership or to business in general?