Katie Bowman Coleman still remembers going to her first NADA show when she was starting out in the automotive industry in the 1990s. She had left a career at Polo Ralph Lauren to join her father at John Bowman Chevrolet, owned and operated by her family in Clarkston, Michigan, since 1984.
“When I went to my first NADA show with my dad in Dallas, I was in awe of how much there was to learn,” she told me in a recent interview for GrowWithCars. “I was new to the business. I still remember the excitement from the show floor, the classes you could take, and meeting other dealers.”
Clearly, she has learned a lot: she is now dealer/owner of Bowman Chevrolet, Bowman Isuzu of Clarkston, and Bowman Auto Center. Bowman Chevrolet is one of the fastest growing dealerships in Michigan, achieving double digit sales growth every year since 2011. In addition, Bowman Chevrolet is one of only 7.8 percent of automotive dealerships where women hold key positions, according to the NADA’s 2016 Dealership Workforce Study[i]. In fact, at Bowman Chevrolet, women also hold the positions of general manager and service manager.
Katie Bowman succeeds by embracing the new 4Ps of Automotive Marketing™: product, price, place, and person – a sensibility she brought with her from the world of luxury retail at Polo Ralph Lauren. For example, at Polo Ralph Lauren, she learned how to “treat people like royalty and make the place an experience.”
We appreciate Katie taking time to discuss her career with Cars.com in the following interview. Her story is one of succeeding by putting people first and embracing digital.
You started your career in fashion retailing for Polo Ralph Lauren. What inspired you to follow in your father’s footsteps and get into the automotive industry?
I was fortunate to land a job at Polo Ralph Lauren after graduation. It was an amazing time to work for them, but I realized after about five years that I really missed Michigan. I wondered what would be next for my career if I returned home. My dad said, “Why not come work for me?”
The more I thought about it, the more sense it made to join Bowman Chevrolet. I came from retail, and here my dad was running an iconic automotive retailer. I thought, “Let me give this a try.”
Within a few years, I fell in love. I loved getting immersed in all the departments required to create a customer experience.
How did your experience at Polo Ralph Lauren prepare you for the automotive industry?
The worlds of automotive and clothing retail are very similar. Both Ralph Lauren and car dealerships thrive on customer interaction.
From day one at Ralph Lauren, I learned the importance of creating an outstanding customer experience. We treated people like royalty and created an environment to make every shopping trip an experience. Ralph Lauren stores are incredibly well put together, stocked, and cleaned, and I brought that aesthetic sensibility to the dealership.
This was the early 1990s. People did not think of a dealership as a place to come and relax, but I wanted to create a relaxing, inviting environment for our guests, so we created a customer lounge filled with free amenities.
What were your first positions at Bowman Chevrolet before rising in the ranks?
My dad felt it was important to do every single job. When I first started at the dealership, I drove the parts truck. I answered phones. I was car porter. I cleaned the bathrooms. I swept the floors. I have done every job except being a mechanic.
I have always had the philosophy that no one job is better than the other. You need every single element in place to create a customer experience that will make people want to come back and do business with you. My dad taught me that in a family business, everyone pitches in, and that is how we operated the dealership.
As you progressed at Bowman Chevrolet, you must have experienced some defining moments. What are a few that stand out?
When I went to my first NADA event with my dad in Dallas, Texas, I was in awe of how much there was to learn. I was new to the business, and I still remember the excitement on the show floor, the classes you could take, and meeting other dealers.
Another highlight was when my dad put me in charge of a $1.6 million renovation of the dealership as part of a GM image program, around 2007. It was a voluntary program, and we understood that to grow a dealership, we needed to do more than sell cars. We needed to create a showroom that would facilitate a great customer experience and encourage people to visit again. By that point, I had gotten my masters in finance, attended dealer school, and I was ready to lead the dealership.
You mention the importance of every element of the dealership coming together to create a great customer experience. How do you instill a culture of customer service?
It starts with treating your employees the same way you treat your customers. Every position is important. We treat our employees like family, and we try to always be supportive and helpful.
Customers pick up on the positivity among our team, and they’re treated with the same support and respect. Every person that walks into the showroom has the potential of becoming a lifelong customer.
Bowman also holds the distinction of having women in three executive positions, between you, your general manager, and service manager.
The growth of women at Bowman Chevrolet reflects the growth of great talent. This is not a place where men cannot get ahead, though. We have great men in sales management and fixed ops management positions that also serve on our executive team.
I realize it’s unusual in the industry to have a female general manager and service director in one dealership, but it’s not unusual for women to hold executive positions at Bowman Chevrolet.
I’ve come to realize that women can do anything in this industry. Mary Barra is the perfect example. At times, it can be tough to be the only woman in the room at an industry meeting – but I take that as a challenge. Retail taught me not to be intimidated – if you know your business you will succeed.
Why have women risen in the ranks at Bowman Chevrolet?
Everyone here, both men and women, are afforded the same growth opportunities and have earned their accomplishments. I had to work hard to earn my dad’s respect and his position. It was not handed to me. My dad set the example.
What other lessons did your dad teach you?
My dad taught me the importance of giving back to the community. We actively support four community organizations in Clarkston, and we support our merchants. Recently, we celebrated our 33rd anniversary with a dine-out in downtown Clarkson. For one night, we donated to charities 33 percent of the collective receipts from Clarkson restaurants, which amounted to more than $7,000. There is something special about being part of a small community like Clarkston.
How has digital played a role for you personally and for the dealership?
I really loved digital from the start. I was an early adopter in my own life, and I quickly saw that in retail people were as comfortable interacting with you online as they were walking through the front doors of your physical location. I knew that we were going to need to embrace digital to succeed.
We had computers at every desk at a time when other dealers were sharing one PC on a showroom floor. Giving our team access to technology was necessary to help them adopt skills such as email. We built a website early and experimented with online advertising. Throughout the process, we made mistakes, but we learned from them.
As a result, we have one of the highest internet closing rates (35 percent) regionally and for General Motors (the average internet close rate is 11 percent).
What have you learned from digital?
Digital has brought about a huge change in the industry and represents a big shift for the skillset needed at dealerships. For example, one of the skillsets needed is more effective written communication as our team responds to customers regularly online via email, our website, and social media.
How we talk with people online is as important as how we talk with them at the dealership. The sales team must know how to communicate with customers throughout the sales journey, from that initial online interaction to taking delivery of the vehicle on the lot.
The bottom line is that the dealership must deliver the best customer experience online and in the store. If we stay focused on that, we are ahead of the game.
How has being a customer of Cars.com and DealerRater played a role in your digital journey?
Cars.com and DealerRater were early on the scene as well and have helped pave the way for a lot of what happens digitally. Customers are relying on the information you give them to make better decisions, and we need to be ready for those customers. You are an important part of our marketing mix.
What are the elements of your marketing mix?
We market primarily through digital although we mix both digital and print in our local marketing.
We try to be as transparent as possible with price. A dealership must help the customer understand why there are differences in pricing, not just with the car but also the timing of the purchase There are many details to factor into the price of a vehicle, such as its trim level, in-vehicle technology, powertrain, and so on. GM may have an incentive on a vehicle, over which we have no control. If the customer buys the vehicle after the incentive has ended, they may pay a higher price than had they shopped during the incentive period.
Price is important, but a vehicle is a long-term purchase, and we focus on finding the right vehicle for a customer within their price range. We’re not going to jam people into the wrong vehicle. We’re going to find out what’s important to them for their purchase.
Cars.com has reported that most customers go directly to the lot without contacting the dealership ahead of time. How do you deal with walk-in shoppers?
Walk-in shoppers are some of the best customers because they know what they want and have done their research.
Walk-in shoppers prefer to interact with sales people. Sales people will continue to be a big part of any shopper’s decision. I wouldn’t want the process of buying a car to be like putting money in a vending machine. I want to talk to someone. I hope that aspect of car sales never changes. We will lose a lot if we lose that personal touch.
How do you see the auto industry changing? What challenges does the industry face?
The pace of change is accelerating. We need to be aware of the issues that are afoot in our industry, but we also need to take care of business and focus on satisfying the customer today. No one has a crystal ball. I believe that some of the more radical changes that you read about, such as fundamental changes in car ownership, will take longer to occur than we think.
I also believe that there will always be a place for service centers. The vehicle is still a physical entity, and it needs to be taken care of.
Staffing is a more immediate challenge. We face a nationwide shortage of skilled technicians not just in automotive but in other industries. If more people knew the benefits of skilled trade jobs, I think we’d see a higher number of people pursuing these career opportunities. As an industry, we are not filling those jobs as quickly as we would like.
Another change occurring is how customers are treated. When I first came into the industry, customers were treated just fine, but not with the level of experience that we provide today. Just look at the dealership showroom now. We provide amenities like fresh popcorn, cookies, a cappuccino machine, and WiFi. It’s all about creating a positive customer experience.
One more question. What advice do you have for other women who aspire to run a dealership?
Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges and responsibilities. Read trade journals, go to seminars, and look for opportunities to network and learn. There is no job that a woman cannot do in this industry. You have to want it and go after it.
[i] Wards Auto, “Three Women Lead Fast-Growing Car Dealership,” September 15, 2017.