Country Hill Motors, a locally-owned, family-operated, and independent used car dealership serving the greater Kansas City area, was founded in 1984 by Josh Buterin, who was joined in business several years later by John Zaslavsky. Throughout the 1980s, together they grew their dealership and its inventory by purchasing quality new car trade-ins from new car lots. They did this slowly and deliberately so the two could remain debt-free and quickly discovered if you buy right, selling is never a problem. Today, the company has more than 50 employees across three locations – including an offsite reconditioning center and a body shop.
Danny Zaslavsky is the general manager and partner at Country Hill Motors. Under Danny’s expanding leadership, the company has grown significantly over the last decade adding new service lines, additional businesses, and new locations across the metro. Danny also prioritizes investments in leading-edge digital solutions and technology that helps the dealership generate leads and close on sales faster, including social media, CRM, and SEO. He and his husband are the proud fathers of twin boys.
In the following interview, Danny reveals his three pillars of dealership success, talks about his popular Season of Giving charity, and, as a millennial himself, discusses how to best engage this new generation of car shoppers.
Dealer Magazine: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us today, Danny. Could you start by filling us in on your car business and personal history?
Danny: Of course! I’m proud to share that I am a child of immigrant parents. My mom and dad came over from Ukraine in 1979. We were adopted over with the help of the Jewish Community Center. Starting completely over, my mom went to work for a clothing factory in downtown Kansas City, and my dad opened up a shoe repair business by renting a small space down at the bottom of a hill off Johnson Drive. At the top of that hill was a car dealership, with less than a dozen cars on it taking up a small part of a long building.
My dad, being a car enthusiast his whole life, would often walk the lot and eventually even bought a car there. During that time, he became friends with the founder/salesperson/porter: Josh. They quickly formed a friendship and soon after a partnership.
Now at this time, I was a toddler – we lived in a duplex with my parents with us on one side and my grandparents on the other. I was raised speaking Russian until I was about six years old and later learned English once I got through kindergarten. Growing up, I spent a lot of time at the car dealership helping out how I could. When I was about 14, I officially started as a porter and worked my way to a salesperson by sixteen. I even learned to drive in the back of the lot in an old Chevy Nova with no passenger door and no reverse, what do they say? Those were the days… haha.
Like many, I learned that I excelled at the things I enjoyed doing. During the summer before my senior year of high school, I found myself fascinated with marketing. I had many conversations with my dad and Josh about our image in the community – the messages we wanted to share– and how we could stand out from the rest. At that time, we spent only a couple thousand dollars a month to list our inventory between AutoTrader magazine and the Thrifty Nickel – but I was excited to share our story and thought it could help us sell more cars.
After some convincing – my dad, Josh, and I came up with a strategy. They gave me a $10,000 budget per month for 60 days and tied my paycheck to it. If we sold more cars than our average month, I would get paid a percentage of the additional profit. If we sold less, I would take a personal hit in pay and my advertising experiment would be over.
The strategy worked! The first month we sold an additional 20 cars and the second month we nearly doubled our sales. I’ll never forget the day my dad and Josh pulled me in after calculating my bonus check. Let’s just say it was the biggest check I had ever received as a teenager – but my pay plan also changed that day moving forward.
From then on, I knew I had found my first real calling.
Dealer Magazine: Speaking of doing the unusual, your dealership has been able to succeed without a floor plan. What’s your secret?
Danny: My dad and Josh realized their biggest issue wasn’t necessarily selling cars, it was buying them. But they didn’t want to take out any debt. My dad, being an immigrant, didn’t have much money, and Josh didn’t have a lot of cash. Their plan was pretty simple – just tough and slow to execute on: sell a few cars and then use the money to buy more cars.
This was around the time that Nextel phones came out, push-to-talk phones that were something like walkie-talkies. My dad had this great idea to buy three of these phones and give them to three new-car managers at new-car dealerships. He told them the next time they’re bidding a car to page him, and he’ll bid it right over the phone!
This solved two problems: dealers knew instantly how much money they were going to get so they could work their deal – and not risk losing at the auction. And for us, we got to buy in bulk and at better prices than at auction. As a result, we were able to buy cars on our terms, at our speed, and without going into debt. Investing in ourselves is and continues to be one of the pillars of our success.
Dealer Magazine: What marketing mix works best for Country Hill Motors?
Danny: We continue to do some traditional media; however, it is only for our referral program and our vehicle buying center (VBC). Social media has become an important part of our strategy. We work with a company called Social Driver. They have been very important to our success. Social Driver is a digital marketing agency out of Washington, D.C., and they work closely with us to engage our customers. They help us define who our customers are so that our conversion rate continues to improve. We create targeted ads for the public to find cars and for us to get referrals, and ultimately to sell cars.
We still depend on third-party vendors such as Autotrader & Cars.com, but we don’t rely on them. The difference is intention. When you rely on them, you essentially buy whatever they sell you and wait for the results. When you depend on them, that means you hold each other accountable and work as partners. Our relationship with third-party marketplaces has always been a two-way street – we measure conversion, not click through’s and leads, not impressions. It’s a key distinction.
Dealer Magazine: What is your management style: hands-on or delegator?
Danny: I’m a delegator, and here’s why: I can only run so fast. To achieve what we want to, I know I need to surround myself with people who will bring us all higher; a rising tide raises all ships. Define your vision (macro and micro), and work with your team leads, one-on-one to flush the vision out, and then, work on getting things done.
Dealer Magazine: What separates your dealership from others?
Danny: Our niche – I believe different is better than better. We have very high standards around what we buy, how we recondition it, what type of warranty comes on it and so forth – however, I think what makes us different is our variety of cars in the $5-15k price range. We also knew that people buying our cars often didn’t have another car in the driveway. That meant, the vehicle they were buying from us was very important to them as their sole means of transportation. We take that personally – and it shows.
Our goal has been and still is, to deliver a $5,000 car, but with a $30,000 type of experience through the way that we recondition the car, in the way that we warranty the car, as well as our Country Hill-only promises and incentives. At the end of the day, we sell used cars. The history of cars, or anything mechanical for that matter, is wear and tear. Allocating money for what we call “policy work” or “make right” allows us to go above and beyond our warranty. We don’t argue with our customers; we solve their problems.
Dealer Magazine: It’s rare when we get to interview someone who owns a VANDERHALL franchise. What attracted you to these three-wheeled beauties?
Danny: We love power sports and especially things that go fast. We love driving down the road with our hair on fire! We came across VANDERHALL through one of our partnerships where we buy cars from. They had recommended us to VANDERHALL as a dealership that might be interested in becoming a dealer. The first time we drove one, we got so excited and loved it for several reasons.
First, it’s fun. It’s hand-built, fast, well-made, and aligned with the consumer process we aim for. Also, relative to other things like it in the market, the vehicles are well priced considering the craftsmanship and engineering.
Again, different is better than better. Don’t try to be better, try to figure out a way to be stand out. VANDERHALL is another way in which we allow ourselves to be different.
I drive one home often. If I didn’t own the franchise, I would certainly own a VANDERHALL. They are so much fun.
Dealer Magazine: What drives your business philosophy?
Danny: At Country Hill Motors, we have three pillars: invest, innovate, and train. When we started the company, the first thing we wanted to do was invest in ourselves, and the way we did that was to be self-sufficient. That meant deciding to be debt-free and deciding not to have a floor plan, deciding to go slower, and only buy the inventory we wanted to buy.
Over the years, we have turned our invest pillar outward to our community. We call it Country Hill Carma. Most notably, our yearly Season of Giving charity helps three families right here in our city. Through partnerships with our vendors such as TV and radio stations, we ask Kansas City to nominate someone they know and love to receive one of these very special gifts. One family receives a minivan, another a new water heater or furnace, and the third food for a year from our partners at Sprouts. Each also receives thousands of dollars of gifts and essentials. Each year we get nearly 1,600 nominations – it just shows how much of a need exists right here in our own backyard. Hard to believe this year will be our twelfth year.
Another way we give back is through our partnership with Dave Ramsey. Over the last decade, it has allowed us to teach and graduate over 400 people from Financial Peace University, right here in our dealership.
Dealer Magazine: Let’s continue with your three pillars. What about the second one?
Danny: Innovate – We ask ourselves often, what’s our plan to stay relevant? Because the car business is rapidly changing, we continue to work to build our brand to be bigger than just selling cars. The way we’ve done that is through what I’ve already shared with you: giving back to our community and investing in our team.
It’s also working with our partnerships to align with vendors who are committed to our success and in refining our referral business. We created three calls for action: Buy from Us; Sell to Us, which is what we call our VBC or Vehicle Buying Center; and Refer to Us. Each one of these initiatives grows each month and allows us to grow our business.
Along the innovate path, we’ve created programs for our consumers designed to make their lives easier and better to do business with us. We’re an independent car dealership. We don’t have Toyota or Honda or a franchise on our building. So, we created our own certification program – that means our cars come with a 100-percent factory-like warranty. Secondly, we created a “budget-minded” selection of cars and certification process. These are cars in the lower price range but still, come with the consumer peace of mind our customers want. Being able to provide those programs to our customers has been very important to our success.
Dealer Magazine: How does training fit in as your third pillar?
Danny: Training is key. Dealer Synergy (and specifically, Sean Bradley) has been a big resource for us. Through live training as well as video training on bradleyondemand.com, our team has been able to streamline both our virtual process and physical in-store process. Whether a customer talks to a salesperson, manager, titles, service person or even a mechanic, it’s critical that each of our team members understand what we’re about. Dealer Synergy has helped us achieve this. Training isn’t something you did; it is something you do.
I believe training is collaborative thinking: working with our salespeople, our sales managers, our internet sales coordinators, our vehicle buying coordinators to align our skills and processes. As a result, we work synergistically. It’s not just coming up with an idea and telling people to do it this way – it is solving the opportunity together – leaving no stone unturned.
We work one-on-one every single day with our team, setting benchmarks and setting goals. Rather than sit and wait for the next opportunity, we cultivate our own opportunities through prospecting, service conversions, referrals, and repeat business. Dealer Synergy’s “Eight Ways to Sell” have really helped us define how we spend our time.
Dealer Magazine: Dealerships around the country are trying to get their arms around selling to millennials. In your experience, what’s the best approach?
Danny: It’s interesting because some people will say millennials are lazy, easily distracted or aren’t motivated enough. I actually feel it’s the opposite. I consider millennials to be one of the best generations. There are a few things I’d like to share about millennials because it fits into how we innovate.
Millennials are focused on community. Millennials don’t just care about the products they buy; they want to know what kind of company they buy it from. Buying from a company that gives back to the community or one that has a vision and a voice is important to a millennial. Put another way, it’s not just what a company sells but what a company stands for.
We also know that millennials engage differently. A millennial’s parents or grandparents would drive from car dealership to car dealership. They’d look for cars and take their notebooks. Today, people go online and shop for a car.
Millennials also use social media to ask friends and family before making a car purchase. They are doing significantly more research online, and also engaging us differently through text messaging. Utilizing video, our internet sales team texts consumers video walkarounds, and have entire conversations leading up the signing paperwork, all online. That’s very different than the way it used to be. We used to sell based on what we had in stock. Today, we now ask: What do you want? We adapt our sourcing strategy accordingly.
How we engage is critical to our success. Having a sales team that is trained in role-playing, using our CRM, the sales process, and so on to engage consumers. We can no longer just wait to connect with someone over the phone or in-person.
Said another way, in today’s world when a consumer walks into our dealership we’re doing less selling and more simply helping them finish what they started.
Dealer Magazine: As a used car dealership, vehicle procurement is an on-going challenge. How and where do you get the vehicles you sell?
Danny: Sourcing the right inventory is certainly a challenge, which is why we created a VBC or Vehicle Buying Center. I knew I needed to find the right individual to lead that change. I realized the person I needed had to be more of a teacher, someone who could take information and convert it into a process and help build a team. I found that person. We shook hands and on the first day he was hired, I said I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but I want to buy 100 cars a month from the public.
We started looking at avenues for buying cars from the public. We marketed to folks on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, private sellers online. And we started giving sellers offers on their cars. We started building our vehicle procurement process to match the process that was occurring – virtual and physical process in rhythm. We figured out a consumer who put their car online Day 1, felt strongly about what they were asking but two weeks later, if they hadn’t sold it, they were more likely to accept wholesale for it. As a result, we defined a process that served the customer.
We started hiring VBC agents to keep in contact with those consumers and to build the business. Early on, one of the questions we had was why would anyone sell us their car? We quickly figured out it didn’t matter. There were a ton of reasons why somebody might sell us their car, ranging from they don’t need it anymore to wanting to lower their expenses, among many others.
We also knew there was a CarMax right across the street from us. We did something bold and started advertising on the radio and social media that we would pay up to $250 more than CarMax. That was an easy win. We trust the CarMax process but also felt they underbid many cars, so we felt we could do better. We also convert about 10 percent of the VBC buys to trade-ins. For our company, it ties back to the question of what’s your plan to stay relevant?
The other thing, what we knew, and this runs through my entire experience is how best to utilize vendors. Third-party vendors are certainly good for us, but there is a line in the sand where I, as the owner of a car dealership, get to own my consumer’s experience versus just giving it away. So, some third-parties started picking up on this VBC process and began charging us exorbitant amounts of money to sell us their leads for consumers to sell us their cars.
Therefore, we decided to create our own brand around that process. Today, we market to our consumers through digital, social, and traditional media to buy cars. Currently, our VBC buys between 50 and 80 cars a month. We’re way on our way to the 100-mark, after only a year-and-a-half into it. That’s with a team of five and a manager.
Dealer Magazine: How has your referral program helped you sell cars?
Danny: Our referral program is important because it gives consumers the ability to refer other people. Here’s what we know: what’s better than money is saving face and having a good experience. You wouldn’t recommend a neighbor if he or she came back to you and complained about their experience. It wouldn’t matter if you got paid or not, you’d look bad.
We want to make sure we give the best possible consumer experience. There’s intention, and then there’s action, and we want to provide action. And that works whether we’re buying or selling. You can learn all about our referral program (RefertoCountryHill.com).
Dealer Magazine: You have a personal story about the early days of VinSolutions. Could you share that story with us?
Danny: Sure thing. The founder of VinSolutions is Matt Watson. My dad in the early 90s, went to Sears to buy our first computer. There was a guy there by the name of Matt Watson who sold us our first computer. My dad asked him to help us hook up the computer at our office.
Matt came to our dealership and set up the computer. Josh was there and said he always dreamed of having a system that would let us do some of our sales paperwork on a computer. Matt built us our first point of sales system.
That evolved into Matt getting the idea for Vinstickers, which grew to become what we know today as VinSolutions. We like to think one of the motivators or inspirations for Matt was working with our car dealership. He continues to be a great friend and strong entrepreneur in Kansas City.
Dealer Magazine: Any final comments in closing?
Danny: I’d like to repeat what I said about our core philosophy. Invest in your team – they give their lives to your mission. Serve your customers with integrity and make sure to give back to your community. Do these things and it will make coming to work every day better for everyone.
Also, you can innovate right where you are. Some people think you need a lot of support or momentum to come up with the next big idea. You can improve your situation or your company’s situation today by asking for ideas from your own team – or being innovative yourself!