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Q&A: A dealer’s view of 47 years in the auto industry

By Joe Taschler, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

MILWAUKEE — Russ Darrow started in the car business with a single Chrysler dealership 47 years ago.

Since then, his business has grown to 13 dealerships in southern Wisconsin from metro Milwaukee to Madison to Appleton. Darrow dealerships offer Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Jeep, Dodge, Kia, Mitsubishi and Mazda brands.

The business has more than 600 employees and is listed at No. 82 on the Ward’s Automotive list of 100 megadealers in the U.S. with $333.1 million in total revenue. Darrow recently discussed the American automobile industry with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via email.

QUESTION: You’ve been in the auto business for 47 years. What has been the biggest change in the business that has occurred during that time?

ANSWER: I really don’t know where to begin. I’ve been lucky enough to make one gutsy start 47 years ago, and grow it year-after-year to where we are today. Obviously, there have been so many huge changes ranging from the quality and styling of vehicles, to the unbelievable technological advancements, to the safety of vehicles along with airbags, sensors, satellite entertainment centers, up to right now where some of the higher-line models actually have night vision infrared, forward-facing cameras to detect persons or animals in the way of your oncoming car, and the automatic braking that occurs when objects are in front of a car.

Q: Do you remember the year and model of the first car that you ever sold?

A: The first person I ever sold was in 1960 from Heiser Ford on Prospect Avenue and North Avenue in Milwaukee. I clearly remember, and still know the families of two of the first four or five vehicles I sold. One was a Ford Fairlane 500, and the other was a Ford station wagon — I believe it was called a Country Squire.

Q: How has the Internet changed the automotive sales business?

A: It’s changed everything; consumer education and ability to get whatever they want about anything having to do with automobiles, trucks — anything. And to get it instantly, including the prices and including both new vehicles, pre-owned vehicles of their choice and also many, many pictures of every single vehicle. It’s unbelievable.

Prospective customers can design and build their own cars from home, and then when they come into a car dealership, most prospects know what they want. The car salesperson duties have also changed a lot, primarily because the showroom prospect is armed with so much information, and today, time is more important than money to so many people. People want to be treated quickly, intelligently and with very professional courtesy. Anything else is not OK.

Q: When the economy tumbled in 2008, the auto business was hit fairly hard. GM and Chrysler went into bankruptcy. Thousands of dealerships closed. What was it like to weather that storm? What did you learn from that experience?

A: In 2008, we, like so many other dealers in the U.S., were really thrown for a loop by both the speed, and the severity of the recession. Speed was a direct result of an almost immediate cutoff of retail financing and retail leasing by finance institutions, coupled with severe restrictions and changes in the world of lending by all banks and captive finance companies to the franchisee auto dealers. …

But we got through that, through extreme expense reduction processes, great response by dedicated employees within our company, by maintaining ongoing serious communications with our employees about our ability to succeed through the problems — with their help and participation, etc. And thank goodness that the auto industry has now recovered, and the banks are again anxious to finance retail purchase contracts, along with leasing cars and trucks to individuals and small businesses.

Q: What does the future hold for the car business? What sorts of changes do you expect in coming years?

A: I believe the future of the car business is excellent. Once again, people of all kinds across America have a love affair with the auto industry. The key to the continued growth of our industry is the availability of money and enthusiastic lending practices on the part of banks, other financing sources and captive finance companies of the manufacturers or factories.

Many other countries and societies in our world have a totally different view than we do, because we are spoiled. In this country, mass transit has a very useful purpose — primarily in metro cities as it relates to buses and subways. But, everywhere else in the country, people want their own transportation and they want to travel on their time schedule, with whom they want, when they want, and if they want. That’s pretty special.

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