Gary Premeaux
Gary Premeaux
South Bay Ford

With nearly four decades in the business, South Bay Ford’s Gary Premeaux has succeeding in automotive retail down to something of a science. “Just putting the three things together that it takes to sell or service a car: A car, a salesperson and a customer,” the owner of the Los Angeles-area store says. “It’s too simple, isn’t it?”

Premeaux entered the industry in 1972, starting as a porter when he was 16. From there, he worked his way up through the ranks – from a job with the credit and collection department after graduating high school through rental car and leasing department operations, F&I, fleet sales and sales management. Within a decade, he found himself on the path that led him to buy his first store in 1991.

What drives him, even after all these years?

“I like people,” Premeaux says. “I like marketing, creativity, and we still have that.”

DealerADvantage recently spoke with Premeaux to learn more about his online initiatives and how those strategies help to drive business at his two California stores – South Bay Ford and South Bay Lincoln Mercury. He said the dealerships typically sell 270 and new and used cars each month and service up to 300 vehicles per day, making him Ford’s No. 1 servicing dealer in the United States.

As for the recession plaguing dealerships across the country, Premeaux says he’s yet to experience a downturn. “Last year we did $100 million in sales, and we were up 30 percent to 40 percent from the previous year. This year, we’re on track to do what we did in 2008.”

DealerADvantage: What do you think the secret to that is?

Premeaux: Putting the formula, the three things together. A car, a salesperson and a customer.

DealerADvantage: How important is the internet to you right now?

It runs the business. Without the internet, I don’t think any dealer could survive.

DealerADvantage: How do you manage internet sales at your store?

Premeaux: We have a dedicated internet department with a director and three salespeople. If you’re a customer who submits a lead, an autoresponder will send a template explaining our special internet program. You’ll get a follow-up call. The goal is to set an appointment to get the customers in, not to sell the car. If the customer wants price, we’ll give it. We don’t focus on  trying to sell the car over the phone as a core competency.

DealerADvantage: What kind of change in your internet strategy and tactics have you been implementing over the past few years?

Premeaux: We have increased our photos. We look to get more photos, better photos. We shoot the pictures of the cars now on the showroom floor – both new and used. Our comments and descriptions are very detailed on all of our cars. Our prices are competitive.

DealerADvantage: What’s it like maintaining gross these days with internet customers?

Premeaux: If you’re selling price, it’s difficult. If you’re selling the dealership, the car, your service, it improves.

DealerADvantage: How active are you in the day-to-day internet department? We often hear industry consultants contend that owners are more detached than they should be from this side of the business.

Premeaux: I’m not an owner executive, I’m an owner operator. I’m here Monday through Sunday. We have processes in place in all of our departments. I spend more time focusing on one of the three components we were discussing earlier – and that’s the customer. It’s much easier to get a car, it’s much easier to get a salesperson. It’s much tougher to get a customer. We have meetings every Monday with every department, including the internet. We focus on closing ratios, car sales, penetration and lost sales to other stores. That’s just one meeting. I’m very in tune to every department in the store.

DealerADvantage: What trends are you seeing in online automotive in terms of how shoppers are shopping and dealers are selling?

Premeaux: I see dealers getting more intelligent in terms of what they should be doing on the internet. They’re starting to understand the three focal points of what it takes to be successful: pictures, comments and price.

DealerADvantage: You’ve said that you have little turnover at your store, noting the average employee has been with your for 10 years. What advice would offer to a new internet sales manager?

Premeaux: Build rapport and a relationship with the customer. Find out their personal interests, engage.

DealerADvantage: That sounds like basic sales skills. Do you emphasize that with your folks in any tangible way?

Premeaux: Absolutely. We listen to all the incoming sales calls, and we’re able to listen to every new- and used-car sales call and service and parts call that comes in. We’re very in tune with the conversations going on, and that gives us some direction in our meetings in terms of coaching the managers – and tracking and training our salespeople.

DealerADvantage: How do you train within your internet department?

Premeaux: Within the internet department, we set processes. We review over the phone when they’re communicating with the customer. We look at their closing ratio. We look at lost leads. And if we see something falling down or going sideways, we’re meeting every Monday and it’s managed every Monday. So they know they’re going to be held accountable to the things that we ask.

DealerADvantage: We’ve seen the Big Three automakers grapple with significant challenges in the past year. What’s your outlook for Ford?

Premeaux: Obviously, Ford has done well. I’m on the FDAA – the Ford Dealer Advertising Association – and we have discussed the position of Ford and the perception of Ford. Right now, the perception of Ford is incredible. We’ve discussed how much money would have to be spent to try and attain that perception that’s out there right now. Billions couldn’t do it.

Looking at the product coming in, we just got the new Fusion Hybrid, which we can’t keep in stock. They’re in and out. We’ve got a new Festiva coming in, we’ve got the Transit Connect, a small minivan that’s the No. 1 selling vehicle over in Europe. We’ve got the new MKT coming in, on the Lincoln side. All the new stuff coming in under CEO Alan Mulally’s leadership has been much better thought out than what we saw coming in the past. The future product looks good.

DealerADvantage: On a lighter note, South Bay Ford is something of a celebrity.

Premeaux: Probably 80 percent of the commercials of a Ford store on TV are this store.  When we built the store seven years ago, it was very expensive.  We began looking for alternative sources of income to selling cars and servicing cars, and I started a marketing program for filming. We do movies here, TV shows and commercials. We’ve had a lot of stars in the store.

DealerADvantage: Does that translate into sales for you?

Premeaux: Well, when we do a shoot, the production companies come out with 60 to 100 people.  We pass out flyers offering special deals on any new or pre-owned car.