Dealer Magazine had the privilege of talking with Ryan Sodikoff, the General Manager and President of Steven Toyota in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
The Sodikoff’s have been in the car business for three generations. They have a total of seven locations—three franchise dealerships in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which are Toyota, Kia, and Nissan, all under the name Steven, and four non-franchise used car points in Richmond, Virginia; Winchester, Virginia; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Tampa, Florida.
During the interview, Ryan provided insights into what makes a successful dealership in a smaller market and the universal traits of dealing with customers.
Beginning of Career
DEALER MAGAZINE: What was your first job in the industry?
Ryan Sodikoff: My first job, equal with my brothers, was picking up cigarette butts at the dealerships. This has been passed down to the next generation, as my two daughters started the same way. In 2018, when we acquired the Nissan dealership, my daughters, then eight and six, helped clean up the place, including picking up cigarette butts. This was our way of setting a precedent.
It was impactful to see grown individuals taking the lead from little girls. We believe in starting young and being exposed to the industry.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Please share your background and professional experience leading up to your current role.
Ryan Sodikoff: I have progressed through various roles at Steven Toyota. In 2011, when a need for a new general manager arose, my father and founder of our dealerships Steven, relied on natural selection to place us in the right positions. My brothers and I each found our niches in different aspects of the business, and I eventually became the general manager.
My journey included extensive education and hands-on experience in the finance department, where I set numerous records and was instrumental in transforming that department into a significant profit center for the dealership.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Did you always see yourself having a career in automotive?
Ryan Sodikoff: Initially, I wanted to jump into the dealership right after high school. However, my parents encouraged me to pursue higher education. They connected me with Northwood University, where I eventually committed to a degree in automotive marketing and business management. This education was crucial for my growth and understanding of the industry.
DEALER MAGAZINE: How would you describe your leadership style, and how has it contributed to the dealership’s success?
Ryan Sodikoff: We operate Steven Automotive as a big-city business in a small-town environment. Our leadership style is about leading by example and being trendsetters, a trait my family and I inherited from my father. We’re known for innovating—we were one of the first dealerships to color ads in newspapers in the 1990s, which initially faced criticism but later became an industry norm.
Our employees are highly sought after due to their exposure to our innovative practices. Our leadership approach is grounded in the Golden Rule; we’re friendly, pay well, manage effectively, and promptly address issues. We have a mission statement emphasizing continuous improvement and respect for people, which guides our customer service.
Operations and Technology
DEALER MAGAZINE: What role does innovation play in your dealership’s long-term strategy, and are there specific technologies you’re excited about?
Ryan Sodikoff: We balance innovation with the realities of our local economy. While we’re almost recession-proof due to our rural setting, we do face challenges like the rising interest rates that affect everyone. We focus on educating our customers about these financial aspects to ensure they make informed decisions. This approach helps us maintain transparency and build trust with our clientele.
Technology-wise, we’ve implemented tools like a Canon and driver’s license scanners to identify fake or manipulated IDs. This technology is crucial in mitigating risks, especially in finance and sales operations. It helps us tactfully address potential issues without confrontation.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What business optimizations have the dealership made in overall operations? How do you ensure your team stays updated on industry trends and best practices?
Ryan Sodikoff: Our primary goal is to protect the house, ensuring the longevity of our business. We focus heavily on compliance to safeguard our operations, especially in light of recent stringent regulations. Before COVID-19, I sought a risk coach—Tom Kline of Better Vantage Point—to guide us in this area, and we have continued to meet monthly to discuss compliance-related strategies and adjustments.
We actively participate in 20 group meetings and glean insights from peers across the country. These groups provide a diverse range of perspectives that are directly relevant to our operations. My risk coach, who is active in speaking circuits, plays a significant role in this continuous learning process.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What about the service department? Have you implemented new technology or changed your process, customer experience, and offerings?
Ryan Sodikoff: We have a state-of-the-art service center with 40 bays and handle a high volume of customers efficiently. Our primary technology in service is about enhancing customer convenience rather than being overly complex or intrusive.
The focus isn’t heavily on technology but on customer interaction. We value handshakes and face-to-face communication. While we do use AI service for video texting and payment methods, the core of our service is about direct engagement.
Our process is designed to make customers feel comfortable, whether they set appointments online or by phone.
DEALER MAGAZINE: How is your dealership leveraging emerging technologies like AI to stay ahead in the industry?
Ryan Sodikoff: We’ve embraced AI after I learned about it at a 20-group meeting and was intrigued by its potential to enhance productivity. We began using Chat GPT to write vehicle descriptions, transforming even an ’06 Buick into a compelling read. Since July, every vehicle description we’ve written has utilized Chat GPT, which has significantly improved the quality and creativity of our listings.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What challenges do you anticipate for your stores in the coming months, and how do you plan to address them?
Ryan Sodikoff: A significant challenge we’re facing is the impact of rising interest rates on vehicle affordability. To address this, we’re focusing on educating our customers about these financial aspects. We inform them that the average new car interest rate is around 7% for 60-72 months and about 11% for used cars. By being upfront about these rates, we help customers understand how this will impact their purchase. It’s about guiding them towards choices that match their financial needs and expectations.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What innovative marketing/advertising strategies does the dealership employ to attract customers?
Ryan Sodikoff: Our approach to marketing and advertising is unique, prioritizing organic and community-focused content over typical car dealership advertising. This includes showcasing our support for the community and emphasizing the ‘Harrisonburg First’ mentality.
Our inventory management is a key aspect of our strategy, enabling us to let our vehicles and prices speak for themselves.
Our advertising agency, Dealer World led by Troy Spring, plays a crucial role in our success. Our partnership began under unusual circumstances and has grown into a mutually beneficial relationship, with both sides contributing significantly to each other’s growth and success.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What specific data analytics/business intelligence tools, metrics, or KPIs does the dealership closely monitor?
Ryan Sodikoff: We use a comprehensive report called ‘The A Car Report’ as our primary tool for data analytics. It’s like a condensed financial statement, providing historical data and allowing us to track changes over time.
I focus mainly on the percentage of change column in our KPIs, which includes standard metrics for the auto industry. For instance, I can see that our new retail units are down 5% compared to last year, but our gross is up 6%.
Additionally, we measure gross profit per employee, with the goal being $9,400 per month. Last year, we averaged $12,009, and this year, it’s $11,500 per employee. Despite some sales being down, I attribute that more to market conditions than our team’s efforts.
DEALER MAGAZINE: How is your dealership leveraging emerging technologies to stay ahead in the industry?
Ryan Sodikoff: Our ‘secret sauce’ in staying ahead isn’t just about technology. Years ago, we shifted our focus to a people business from being purely a car business. This change in perspective transformed how we operate.
Our marketing and advertising reflect this people-first approach. Instead of traditional car dealership ads focusing on payments or rates, our ads highlight community engagement, like supporting first responders and local initiatives.
Our connection to the community is deep-rooted; for instance, my family’s involvement in law enforcement and community services has been a significant influence.
DEALER MAGAZINE: How do you handle customer interactions and ensure a positive experience?
Ryan Sodikoff: We believe in treating customers with the utmost transparency, just like how we want to be treated ourselves. For example, if someone is looking at diesel options, we wouldn’t mislead them about a hybrid’s capabilities.
We focus on making honest recommendations based on their specific needs. This approach of treating people as we would like to be treated ourselves is fundamental to our business philosophy.
DEALER MAGAZINE: How do you ensure a positive and productive work environment for your team?
Ryan Sodikoff: We prioritize hiring the right people from the start, conducting thorough background checks, and setting clear expectations. Since overhauling our hiring process, we’ve seen a significant decrease in workplace issues. We focus on creating a welcoming environment, encouraging employees to engage with customers and each other positively.
For example, we teach new hires to acknowledge people from a distance as they move around our 14-acre, 75,000-square-foot facility. This approach fosters a culture of respect and recognition.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What is the most valuable business lesson you’ve learned? Advice or experiences that have stuck with you?
Ryan Sodikoff: The importance of aligning our services with the customers’ wants and needs. It’s crucial to start every interaction properly to ensure a satisfactory outcome. Misalignments, like placing a family of four in a two-door sports car, can lead to wasted time and frustration for both parties. Starting correctly leads to better results and happier customers.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What strategies have been effective in adapting to changes and challenges in the automotive industry?
Ryan Sodikoff: When we encounter significant variances in our business metrics, we dive in and make necessary corrections. This is where the insights from my family, my brothers, and the 20 groups prove invaluable. They provide different perspectives and solutions to address any emerging challenges. We’re constantly ready to adapt and make changes as needed to maintain the health of our business.
Fusing Family and Business
DEALER MAGAZINE: How has your personal and professional development been influenced by your upbringing and experiences?
Ryan Sodikoff: I have been significantly shaped by my family’s values and extensive travel experiences. For instance, my daughters, who are not yet teenagers, have already visited all 50 states, a feat inspired by my parents’ travels and emphasis on a global perspective. This broad worldview helps me recognize when adjustments are needed in our dealership and respond effectively. I believe in using my skills and knowledge to make informed decisions, even when they deviate from the norm.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Can you share any unique aspects of your dealership that contribute to its distinct character?
Ryan Sodikoff: The display of my father’s photography, featuring extraordinary scenes from around the world. His work, showcasing diverse cultures and landscapes, adds a unique flavor to our dealership, offering customers and employees a glimpse into different parts of the world. This contributes to the dealership’s distinct character and sets us apart from typical automotive retail environments.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What impact do you think your dealership’s unique features, like your father’s photography, have on customers and employees?
Ryan Sodikoff: Unique elements help our dealership stands out. My father’s photos offer a glimpse into worlds that many of our customers and employees have never seen, offering our customers and staff glimpses into different cultures and experiences.
This display not only serves as a conversation starter but helps create a distinctive atmosphere that separates us from typical automotive dealerships. This aspect, combined with our commitment to transparency and treating customers with respect, creates a distinctive environment. We’re not just selling cars; we’re building relationships and offering experiences.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What are some of your future plans or aspirations, both personally and professionally?
Ryan Sodikoff: On a personal level, I have a deep appreciation for food and travel, much like my family. Professionally, I’m focused on maintaining and enhancing our dealership’s unique culture and continuing to provide exceptional customer experiences. We’re always looking for ways to innovate and adapt, whether it’s through technology or new business strategies.
Advice on Success
DEALER MAGAZINE: What is your approach to handling advice or suggestions from others in the industry? And what advice would you offer to someone managing a dealership or looking to enter the automotive industry?
Ryan Sodikoff: While I value different perspectives, I firmly believe in following my own path. When faced with decisions, I often hear various suggestions, but I choose to do things my way. This approach stems from my upbringing and the unique worldview imparted by my parents. My own experiences have shaped my ability to make informed decisions, even if they sometimes go against conventional wisdom.
For those managing a dealership or considering entering the industry, it’s crucial to be transparent and ask the right questions. Understand the dynamics of the place you’re entering. Not every operator is the same, and finding a good fit is essential. If you can’t connect with the right people or get the answers you need, it might not be the place for you.
DEALER MAGAZINE: With your experiences and family background, what advice would you offer to others in the industry, particularly those who might be navigating its challenges for the first time?
Ryan Sodikoff: The key is transparency and being true to who you are. In this industry, and frankly, in any business, you have to be upfront and honest. Not just with customers but with yourself and your team. You can’t fake passion or commitment, and people recognize authenticity.
My advice for newcomers is to embrace who they are, learn continuously, and not be afraid to show their human side. This industry is as much about building relationships and trust as it is about cars.
Remember, we’re in the people business. Treat others with respect, be open to learning from every situation, and don’t be deterred by the occasional setback. It’s all part of the journey.
DEALER MAGAZINE: How do you maintain a balance between staying professional and being relatable in the automotive industry?
Ryan Sodikoff: I believe in keeping things real and approachable. Professionals like Vinh Giang, who uses magic to convey messages about perspective, have influenced my approach. He’s candid about his mistakes and maintains his humanity, which is something I resonate with. In our dealership, we aim to be transparent and genuine, whether it’s in our interactions with customers or our approach to business.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What advice would you offer to someone new to the automotive industry?
Ryan Sodikoff: It’s essential to have a realistic understanding of what the job entails. We strive to be transparent with potential employees about the realities of working in a dealership. It’s not just about the promise of earning potential or flexible hours; it’s about understanding the demands and challenges of the job.
We aim to align expectations with reality, ensuring that new hires are fully aware of what they’re signing up for.
If you can’t get clear answers or access to the right people during the hiring process, it might not be the right place for you. Just like in the food industry, transparency is key. People appreciate openness, whether it’s in a restaurant kitchen or a car dealership.