By Digital Dealer
What began three decades ago as a single retail store blossomed into Orange Coast Automotive Group, Southern California’s premier new and used car dealer for Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, and OC Motorsports, its off-road division, totaling 121 employees. Orange Coast was awarded the inaugural FCA Customer First Award for Excellence, in recognition of its specific focus on the sales and service experience, employee training, and facility condition.
Jon Gray, the group’s owner and president, had visions of expanding on the foundation his dad (and mom) built from the family’s first dealership in 1981 into Orange Coast Automotive Group. After working at the mothership, Jon’s first dealership was the Dodge dealership in Costa Mesa about a mile down the road. Ultimately, Jon had a goal in mind of owning more than one store. He set out to create an auto group that consistently provided consumers the easiest and most convenient car buying experience. Jon has been a dealer-operator for over two decades.
In addition to his responsibilities at Orange Coast, he served as Chairman of FCA’s National Dealer Council and President of the Orange County Automobile Dealers Association. Jon holds a B.S. in Psychology from San Diego State University and resides in Newport Beach with his wife and youngest son, while his oldest son is serving in the Army and then off to college. Jon remains a very active participant in the community.
In the following interview, Jon discusses a range of dealership topics, including the importance of creating a family-like culture, hiring for attitude, consistency in performance, and what it will take for online retailing to succeed.
DEALER MAGAZINE: I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, Jon, and I’d like to start with your background. What attracted you to the car business, and why did you choose to make it your career?
JON: Initially, I was going to school to become a U.S. history teacher. In the summers and through late high school and early college, I would help out in the business office, and I found the accounting aspect appealing. I get that part from my mom whose background is as a business manager in the auto industry. She’s a rock star and is still auditing for the dealership.
When I graduated college in 1993, I moved to Seattle and worked for a wonderful dealer, Maria Smith, at Town & Country Jeep. I started selling cars and enjoyed the rush of it all. I met some great people and mentors. That was when the car business got into my DNA, so to speak, and I started down the career path. From there, I put my head down and blinders on for what has been an epic journey. Eventually, I moved back to Southern California to join the family business.
The original family dealership was a Jeep store opened in 1981. I was 10 years old at the time. My older brother and I would help our dad out washing cars and sweeping, lots of sweeping. As a kid, I would go in with my dad Saturday mornings, eat breakfast, and just watch. My dad’s a legend, and I’m lucky to have learned from him. As for me, I began the process of buying my first dealership in 2000; it was a Dodge store, about a mile down the street from the family store. Later we combined the two stores.
DEALER MAGAZINE: When and why did you form the Orange Coast Auto Group, and what is your vision for the group?
JON: Early on, I felt strongly that to attract the best people and keep the best talent, there was going to have to be some level of growth. I sought to set up a platform that provided clarity on structure, as well as to identify the key elements of growth, roles, and responsibilities. It was all centered around developing people, holding onto people, attracting the best people, and have them working more than just a job, giving them a sense of purpose. I think people get excited about the idea of being part of something bigger than just their job.
I enjoy working and developing people to execute with precision and to watch their personal development as they move along their career path. I also enjoy a customer-centric focus, which is how we operate. The key element in starting Orange Coast was having that kind of vision of what it was going to take to grow, communicating it to the team, and then guiding it along. Sometimes it went as planned, and sometimes it didn’t, but knowing the difference was and is the key. My goal is to continue along the path of disciplined growth while developing the next generation of leaders. Without the right people, growth can be painful.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What separates the dealerships in your auto group from others?
JON: First and foremost, what separates us is our culture. Orange Coast has always had a family feel and “we’re in it together” camaraderie. When we’re hiring people and bringing them on board, they’re the ones who tell us it seems special to be part of Orange Coast. I think that’s a testament to our management team because we want people to feel like they’re part of something unique and special.
I’m certain many other dealerships out there have similar goals and cultures. But as it pertains to my primary market and the store’s area of influence, our culture is something we’re pretty proud of. I just feel like it is part of our DNA.
I work very hard to make sure they’re achieving their personal goals as long as those align with the company’s goals. If we all do our part, then it’ll be better for everybody. We don’t take each other for granted. You’re either rowing in the canoe with us or you’re not.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Let’s address online retailing. Is it realistic to purchase a car entirely online, and if so, what will it take to get us there?
JON: Before I answer that question, I want to clear the air. I’m an investor and an advisor for a company called Digital Motors, which is in this space. So, I put my money where my mouth is, and my answer to your question is, “Yes, it is 100% realistic to buy a car online.” What’s required, however, is a platform that can make purchasing a car online more transactional instead of solely informational. In other words, instead of being just another lead form or requiring you to stop and wait for us, the digital platform must be able to take a buyer from A to Z in the sales process, down to a penny perfect payment. That’s what it will take to get us there.
Twenty years ago, if you wanted to fly, you might have called a travel agent and worked through your flight options. But ultimately, you were at the travel agent’s mercy. Today, you can research flights, pick your seat, flight connections, and ultimately book your flights online by yourself. Our industry sales process is like calling a travel agent and hoping you can get the flight, connection, and seat you want. And even then, it was time-consuming and taxing.
Retail automotive should be able to offer consumers a way to make a vehicle purchase entirely online and with no gotcha moments. That will only happen by developing trust and transparency with consumers and making them feel comfortable as they go down the purchase funnel. I believe that level of trust will eventually happen in online retailing. I’m working hard here to make that a reality.
DEALER MAGAZINE: In an age where brand loyalty seems to be fading fast, how can dealers find, create, and retain loyal customers?
JON: You have to make it easy for them to do business with you. We’re laser-focused on trying to make it easier by creating a culture where the employees are trusted and empowered to do the right thing by the consumer. Identify the touchpoints that are unnecessary and waste time, then figure out a more efficient way.
For example, we have greeters out on the service lane, and we offer free loaner cars. We don’t want you waiting in your car for an advisor to be free or to worry about what you’ll drive while your car is in service. As for the sales department, if you’d rather buy a car online and have us deliver it to your home, that’s fine too. We’ll do it, if that’s what the customer wants.
It’s also critically important to communicate with your consumers throughout the day and service all the touchpoints with ease and convenience. The better you are at nailing those touchpoints with precision, the more often you will have continued customer loyalty. A lot of our customers are repeat customers.
It’s also important to have a visible presence in your local community. We give back locally through such initiatives as the Costa Mesa Community Athletic Foundation. Supporting local schools has always been a priority for me.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What are you doing to bring in more millennials, as either customers or employees?
JON: From the customer standpoint, it goes back to what I was just saying about convenience. I don’t think there’s any argument — nor do I think it’s exclusive to millennials — that time is very relevant. It seems as if these days you can’t have any barriers in a sales or service transaction.
You want to ensure your customers have control over their time, as well as a little bit of control over the process. You want it to proceed at their speed and remove roadblocks wherever you can.
Employees, especially millennials, want a little more clarity on what their career path might look like. It seems employees today, more so than in the past, want to know a potential path, and often prefer to work a flexible schedule. I think more flexibility in a schedule can be a good thing. Why should it matter to me what hours an employee works as long as that employee is productive, especially if it also gets me a happy, focused employee?
Another challenge in attracting millennials to retail automotive as a career choice is having to overcome a stereotype. The historical sales process involved a lot of angst and arm wrestling, and I don’t think that inspires people to do this for a living. That’s why you want to provide tools to make the job less combative. Whether that’s a tool like Digital Motors, for instance, or a CRM tool, the end result makes it easier to communicate with consumers — and less combative.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What role does social media play in your business model?
JON: Social media is extremely important and a relevant part of our marketing plan. We work with an ad agency (R2 Media) that handles our social media and a third party (Podium/Widewail) handles our reputation management. Consumers want to find your website to see if you have what they need and if you’re making claims about who you are, they’re going to check for third-party validation on those claims. Social media plays a huge part in building and maintaining our reputation.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Let’s specifically turn to tools for a moment. Which solutions are you using?
JON: Our DMS is Reynolds & Reynolds. We use Elead for our CRM, Dealer Inspire for the website, Team Velocity for digital, HomeNet for online inventory, vAuto for our used car process, and Digital Motors for our online retailing.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What single piece of technology makes the greatest difference to your dealership?
JON: In the last five years or so, I’d have to say vAuto has had a huge impact on our business. When we first started using vAuto, it was something of a head-scratcher trying to figure out its value. Now, it’s an indispensable part of what we do as much as anything else. In terms of present-day and into the future, there is no doubt it’s Digital Motors.
Digital retailing is here to stay. Another solution provider we are dialed in with is Recall Masters, which helps us communicate with customers about recalls and to handle the recall process.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What is your management style: hands-on or delegator.
JON: I have a firm grip on the company culture. When it comes to communicating our mission and culture, I’m extremely hands-on. That said, I base the extent of my involvement on whether it’s what I call a negotiable or non-negotiable action.
Examples of what I mean by a non-negotiable would be how we treat each other and our customers, sales effectiveness, our OEM customer care scores, code of ethics, etc. I’m hands-on in the sense that I want to ensure we don’t get off course.
Negotiables are different. If a manager wants to zig instead of zag on the day-to-day things, I trust they’re making that decision based on what’s best for the company. In that case, I’m more of a delegator and keep very hands-off.
DEALER MAGAZINE: How do you define leadership?
JON: A leader must possess the ability to establish and communicate a clear central purpose and then be able to build and inspire a team to execute with consistency. As a leader, the first thing you need to do is define with absolute clarity a team’s goals and mission. Then define roles and responsibilities so that everybody knows what they must do to achieve the shared goals. You must give your team the tools and leadership and guidance to be able to execute with consistency and amplify the results.
A leader must be deeply engaged in the success of the team. A team must feel you care enough about what they’re doing on the day-to-day basis that they’re going to give you their best effort. What we strive for is what I like to call “enthusiastic engagement.” I need people more than just engaged in what we’re doing. I need them enthusiastically engaged in the key areas of our business. And when you get that, there’s a good chance you’re going to be successful.
A leader should define the company’s core values, as they will provide a sense of purpose and a basis from which to make decisions. At Orange Coast, our core values are loyalty, trust, integrity, and teamwork. Those are our four pillars.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What do you look for when hiring new talent for your stores?
JON: Back in the 90s, I was reading something about Southwest Airlines, and it has stuck with me ever since. At Southwest, they would hire for attitude and train for skill. I thought it was relevant then and still relevant now. We know if we’re looking to fill certain skill positions, such as a technician or someone in the Accounting Office, obviously that person must have some work background to fit the demands of the job.
But beyond experience, there are other questions we try to answer. Is the person driven? Will this person’s attitude mesh well with the team? Is he or she ethical and trustworthy? We feel if we hire somebody with a good moral compass, we can train that person to do the job.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What do you see as the major technology issues facing dealers?
JON: Granted, we have some great technology at our fingertips. What’s frustrated me at times, however, is the number of plug-ins we have to utilize. They all have their purpose, and I get it. But on any given day, you’re diving into Reynolds, diving into Elead, into Dealer Inspire, and vAuto. You’re bouncing around a lot. It’s remarkable how many plug-ins are involved. Let’s say you’re doing something in Reynolds and are asked a question. Now, you have to pop over to, say, Elead and look something up or vAuto if they have a trade.
It would be better if we had a more streamlined and fluid technology solution. In a perfect world, maybe one company would offer all these features, or they would seamlessly integrate a bit easier (and cheaper).
DEALER MAGAZINE: How do you ensure your employees are up-to-date on products and processes?
JON: In terms of product training, whether they’re a service technician or on the sales side, our employees go through the OEM curriculum, where they can learn the latest about an OEM’s new vehicles. We’ll focus training on where they need to improve and at what level they’re at in the store. For example, we’ll send employees to leadership management courses, as needed, to help advance their career growth. NCM and NADA offer some great curriculum.
We hold monthly employee luncheons where we talk about the most relevant news going on in the company and discuss the prior month’s results. But even with all our talk about our special culture, make no mistake about it, we are keeping score, and employees are expected to perform. During those luncheons, we recognize our top performers and have a really candid conversation about the state of the store.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Orange Coast has received many awards for its dedication to customer service. What’s your secret?
JON: Our customer service philosophy is simple: No unhappy customers. Admittedly, we are unable to deliver on that promise 100 percent of the time. However, my managers understand we don’t want unhappy customers. Period. They have the autonomy and my trust to do what they need to do to meet that commitment. Our company slogan is “Shop Easy, Drive Happy,” and I think that pretty much summarizes our customer service approach.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What one word or expression best describes you?
JON: It’s hard to pick just one word. I believe what best describes me would be equal parts loyalty, compassion, and intensity. I care a lot about people, and I will row as hard as I can in the canoe with you, but I am intense.
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This article was published in the August 2020 Issue of Dealer Magazine. You can view the August 2020 Issue here.
About the Author
Melanie Borden serves as the Vice President of Marketing for Celebrity Motor Cars.