Monument Chevrolet in Pasadena, Texas, has been serving the Houston-area since 1974. It is a family-owned and operated store under the leadership of company president W. Carroll Smith. Carroll started in the automotive business in 1965, working at General Truck in Nashville, Tennessee. During high school and college, he worked for General Truck in Memphis and Timmers Chevrolet in Atlanta. He holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial management from Georgia Tech and served for six years with the U.S. Army National Guard.
From March 2000 to January 2017, Carroll represented South Texas’s franchised new-car dealers on the NADA board of directors. He’s been recognized for his contributions to the local community, where he has served as chairman for the Salvation Army and the YMCA, and most especially for his efforts in supporting public education.
In the following interview, Carroll discusses how to survive as a single rooftop store in a competitive market and reveals his secret to solving the vehicle technician shortage.
Dealer Magazine: Thanks for agreeing to our interview, Carroll. I’d like to start with a few basic background questions. How did you get your start in retail automotive, and what do you like most about the business?
Carroll: I grew up around a similar business and have worked in a dealership, in some capacity or another, since I was 16. My father was a heavy-duty truck dealer in Memphis, Tennessee. So, I grew up around trucks and learned that although cars and heavy-duty trucks are motorized vehicles, they are very different. Then while in college in Atlanta at Georgia Tech, I worked part-time at a dealership, first in parts and then in sales.
What I like about the car business is its variety. No two days are alike. Every day is a new and different day. Simply put, there’s nothing routine about what we do. I probably don’t care for the administrative work as much as I should. But I absolutely love the people part of the business. And that’s not just customers but employees as well. Every new challenge is a chance to enjoy a new reward.
Dealer Magazine: Monument Chevrolet is a family-owned store. As I understand it, your two sons work with you. What’s the best father-to-son advice you gave your sons about the business?
Carroll: That is correct. My sons are in the business with me: my oldest son is W.C., he goes by his initials, and my younger son is Brandon. My wife, Molly, joins in the business on a come-and-go basis. We call her our Hugger in Chief.
As I recall, the best advice I ever gave my sons about the car business is that it’s all about the people. I know that sounds simplistic. But we’re in a very competitive market. Not counting our operation, there are 22 Chevrolet dealerships in the Houston market. I tell my managers to ask themselves what they are going to do that day to make their staff better and help them succeed.
Dealer Magazine: Did your sons go through any special training program, or did they learn the business on the job at the dealership?
Carroll: Both of them attended NADA Academy. Neither of them worked at Monument while going through the NADA training. Fortunately, I had friends that were willing to allow them to come into their stores and work for them. It was a way better program doing it that way because they got away from our store. When they returned, they brought back new, fresh ideas to our dealership. I think their training had more credibility than if they had been here working while going through the Academy. My oldest son worked for a dealership in Denver, Colorado; the youngest worked at Alan Starling Chevrolet in the Orlando, Florida area.
Dealer Magazine: What separates the Monument Chevrolet franchise from other dealer stores in your market?
Carroll: The Houston market is huge, with probably a little more than 50 percent of the retail car business controlled by public companies. What separates us immediately is that we’re a single-rooftop, family-owned and operated enterprise. Because as a family we’re involved in the business, we create a different atmosphere and a different look. I would say the biggest thing we pride ourselves on is our relationship with our employees first and second with our customers. We’re a people-first store.
Another differentiator for us is our “Beat CarMax” offer. Sourcing and buying used cars is difficult, as anyone in the business knows. We promise to beat a CarMax appraisal by $500, as long as the customer can show us their official CarMax offer within seven days of the appraisal. This has produced some new business for us, and we have yet to find a single occasion where we’re disappointed in what we paid for a car.
Dealer Magazine: What is your digital marketing strategy?
Carroll: Today or yesterday? Digital is such a fast-changing world, but it remains our primary marketing focus, rightly so when you consider the numbers. Almost all sources agree, more than 90 percent of car shoppers go to a website first. People really only shop at one or two dealerships because they’ve already done their work online. It is vital that we capture somebody in our electronic showroom or we’ll never see them in our bricks and mortar store. Our marketing is pretty much exclusively digital. We do very little other advertising in what used to be all TV and print.
Our digital focus is to be in a group of search results when anybody goes online and googles “Chevrolet dealer near me.”
You’ve got to catch people’s attention with your web page and a splash page. Unfortunately, as a Chevrolet dealer, we are homogenized because our manufacturer requires us to use a single source, which they provide. To help bolster our online presence, many of us also use a second web site. That site gives us more freedom to be unique than we can be on a standardized web site.
To stand out, we’re doing videos. If a customer inquires about a green Camaro, we’ll do a little video of one in stock and send it to them. Our BDC works to engage people. And we market a lot to our existing customer base. We have a substantial bank of information in our CRM, which we utilize all the time.
Of course, mobile platforms are important. Your website has to work on a cell phone because that’s how most people are searching these days. It’s also why we’re doing a lot more texting in sales and service. Texting seems to be the preferred form of communication.
Dealer Magazine: Which DMS and CRM solutions and other software tools do you use?
Carroll: Our DMS is Auto/Mate, and we are very happy with them, I might add. They are at a better price point than some other providers, but that’s not the only reason we’re happy. We like working with the Auto/Mate team because they’ve been very cooperative about the things we’re trying to do. My oldest son is a bit of a computer nerd, with two engineering degrees, and he is on their advisory council. Both of my sons are computer literate. They are not a 70-year-old guy trying to figure out how to operate the internet.
We’re migrating to DriveCentric as our CRM solution soon and look forward to taking advantage of what it offers. For managing inventory, we use vAuto, and for generating leads, we’re mostly using CarGurus and AutoTrader. However, we predominantly rely on factory-driven leads.
Dealer Magazine: If you could limit your store to using only one piece of technology, what would that be and why?
Carroll: I wish it were so simple that we could pick just one piece, but the reality is that it takes all of them – and the more connected and transparent – the better. It’s the DMS, the website, the lead generators, the scheduler, the phone system, the inventory management system, and more. Today, we truly cannot operate without them all. And, when the technology solution doesn’t exist, we have developed our own. Through a separate company, Dealerwrx, we developed technology solutions where one doesn’t exist on the market. In fact, my sons recently received a patent on a technology solution we developed to manage our BDC.
Dealer Magazine: What are the biggest opportunities as well as the biggest challenges for dealers in general and for Monument Chevrolet specifically?
Carroll: The biggest challenge may revolve around the technology space and how a dealer can stay up to date with its own technology. As someone who oversees a one-rooftop store, I worry all the time about maintaining our capability in an extremely fast-moving, always accelerating technological world.
Now, let me turn that around. Technology also represents our biggest opportunity, learning how to maximize its potential. Sometimes we have so much data and so much technology that we don’t know what to do with it. The chance to track a customer lead based on what the person looked for and where is a huge opportunity for dealers to better manage their ad spend. Tracking leads is one of the areas where technology can bring focus and help answer questions we couldn’t previously answer. Dealers like to say we waste half of our advertising dollars, but we just don’t know which half. The digital space is similar – we just don’t know as definitively as we need to where our most productive dollar spend is. But we will!
Our biggest opportunity is to tie together all of our technology systems to better understand what our customers look like, what they want, how they act, and where they came from. If you listen to prospects and customers, and follow the data, they’ll tell you what you want or need to know.
Dealer Magazine: Are you a hands-on type of manager or more of a delegator?
Carroll: I would describe myself as pretty much a hands-on manager. I like the business enough that I enjoy being involved. I feel as part of a team, not so much a boss, and enjoy getting involved. But when I do, I always work through the managers.
Dealer Magazine: You represented Texas dealers on the NADA board, and have served on other boards in your community. In your experience, what three skills must a successful leader possess?
Carroll: The ability to describe a job; ability to monitor performance; and ability to do whatever is necessary to get the job done. As a leader or manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure the right people are on the bus and in the right seats.
Dealer Magazine: Finding and retaining talent is a constant industry challenge. What do you look for in a new hire?
Carroll: Our approach in hiring is to look for someone who has both desire and motivation and can be trained to do the job.
One of our goals here at Monument is to grow people. We’re passionate about it, especially highly desirable technicians. Many years ago, we partnered with our local high school and junior college to bring in students starting their Junior Year to our service department to train and work as interns. Probably 40 to 50 percent of the high school kids we bring here in their junior year as interns end up going through the school’s vocational program. We assign an intern to one of our technicians and they learn the skills that way. When we meet with the parents, we tell them this is a serious investment. Don’t send your kid to us if you just need some place for him to technicians, I don’t. I’ve got plenty of good technicians in my own community, because we’ve essentially grown our own.
Dealer Magazine: Are you doing anything special to attract millennials as either customers or employees?
Carroll: Good question, because millennials are different than other generations. For instance, they’re not the ones who are willing to work 80 hours a week to sell a car. They’re more interested in stability and predictability in pay. They appreciate a better work-life balance and don’t want to put in long hours. Knowing that dynamic, a lot of our sales staff are paid hourly, plus receive incentives and bonuses. That’s the employee side of the equation. We’re not doing anything out of the ordinary to attract millennials as customers other than realize we need to be digital to reach them.
Dealer Magazine: What steps do you take to ensure customer satisfaction?
Carroll: I believe we already have all the technology, systems, and processes in place to help keep our customers satisfied and to measure how we’re doing. The most important thing you can do for customer satisfaction is communicate. We regularly measure our service advisors, and check to see how many customers with cars in the shop they contact every day. If it’s going to be more than one day, we make sure the customer knows. The main step we take is to make sure we keep in touch with each customer, even if we can’t get a part or can’t fix their car that day. As long as you communicate with your customers — and meet other expectations — you should be able to maintain high customer satisfaction scores.
Dealer Magazine: It’s not often we get to talk with someone who’s been honored by his local community with his own day. The city of Pasadena, Texas, honored you with “Carroll Smith Day.” What was that like?
Carroll: It was a surprise to me, and it was very special. What it told me, of course, was that the city leaders know and respect Monument Chevrolet as a difference-maker in the community. What was even more special was when the school district recognized me for my contributions to public education and named me as their distinguished Citizen of the Year.
Dealer Magazine: What’s ahead for Monument Chevrolet?
Carroll: First and foremost, we come in every day expecting this business to still be a one-on-one customer and employee-driven business. And we expect to be around for a long time. The personal transportation business might look different, but it will be around. At this point, the industry faces challenges to its traditional model, from autonomous cars to ridesharing subscription services to EVs. No matter what happens, we’re nimble enough to adapt to a changing market. The biggest mistake you can make is to assume nothing is going to change. I have a team in place that always looks for ways to convert challenges into opportunities.
I love telling this story. A 16-year-old high school intern trained with us. After high school, he went to junior college and got an associate’s degree. Then he went to the University of Houston and got his bachelor’s degree. He returned to our store and now he’s our sales manager. That’s what I meant earlier when I talked about growing people. It’s giving people the opportunity to move up within the organization. I think that’s my proudest contribution.
Dealer Magazine: Last question, Carroll. What one word or expression best describes your approach to being a car dealer.
Carroll: Pride. Pride in what I do and proud of what I am.