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Off To The Races: Dealer Balances Dealership With Racing

It’s Thursday, and Eric Curran is in Birmingham preparing to drive a Chevy Cobalt SS Supercharged in the Grand-Am Cup 200. “I flew to LA Tuesday afternoon,” says the much-traveled, and slightly weary, Curran, “and a red-eye to Alabama last night.”

Curran, though, is a top contender in his field, and he’s long way from reaching the end of the road.
Next weekend there’s a race in Canada, and after that, he’ll switch over to the Acura RSX racing machine he’s best known for on a track in downtown Denver to see if he can repeat last year’s big win.

Between races, Curran has been engaged in a different kind of competition altogether as the owner and operator of an independent used Volvo operation in Western Mass. While the retail car race may not have checkered flags or trophy-carrying girls to mark the finish line, Curran is just as competitive in monitoring Performance Motoring one carefully plotted lap at a time.

In this day-to-day race, the 31-year-old Curran sticks to the speed limit in his street-legal Volvo S60R. The business pace is also considerably more measured.

The starting point came 20 years ago when his dad, Paul, started a two-bay Volvo service operation in Hadley, Mass., in what is now a fast-growing area along Route 9 near the western end of the state. The lot is close to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a cluster of other colleges.

In this part of the world, Volvos have long retained the reputation of a top-line vehicle. The all-wheel drive works well for people in a place where winters are long and hard. Volvo’s reputation for quality and safety goes back decades, which sits particularly well among the parents who come to buy a car for their teenage children.

At Curran’s dealership, there’s also a hard-won local reputation for straight shooting that brings 100 to 120 Volvos a week into the expanded service department for attention. After 20 years in the business, the Currans can rely on several generations of customers to keep the service bays occupied. Cars come in from all around the area, including nearby Vermont and New Hampshire. And more recently, service customers have come back to buy cars now that there’s a lineup of mostly late-model, low mileage Volvos on the lot.

Eric Curran stepped into a dealership job right after he graduated from high school in ‘93. After completing a raft of business courses at night at Springfield Technical College, he eventually ended up taking over the lion’s share of the management work from his father, who’s still somewhat active in the business. His first big decision was to shut down the collision repair operations he had originally been given to run in order to expand the service group. Five years ago he added the used car sales operation to the dealership, and as his company’s 20th anniversary loomed, Curran drew up blueprints for a 2,600 square foot showroom that was getting its last coat of paint near the end of July.

Curran’s clientele tend to be on the affluent end of the demographic scale, a simple fact that makes his business both easier to run and also more demanding, with clients expecting something extra on the service and sales side. One plus: having better heeled buyers with higher-than-average credit ratings allows him to run the bulk of his loans through local banks. His own business banker, the regional Chittendon Bank, takes most of the loans his sales operation generates.

The 20th anniversary watershed is causing Curran to reconsider his marketing budget, possibly shifting more dollars into television to highlight the new showroom. He likes local radio and newspaper campaigns, and he’s also regularly working on the company’s Web site, knowing that most of his customers will check him out online before they ever step foot on the lot.

Their site is designed for easy access by a connected group of clientele. Click on and you’ll see a lineup of cars in their inventory with a variety of interior and exterior photos to look over. The inventory includes not only the price of the Volvo, but the monthly payments. The customer can adjust the payments through a payment calculator readily available.. Need to borrow the money? There’s a secure finance application to fill out online as well, but don’t be quick to think Curran is content with it.

“This is the third version we have up now,” says Curran, who’s now looking over a version 4.0 that could make things a little bit easier still for customers.

Adds Curran: “The customer needs to go on the Web site at their convenience any time of the day.”

He plans to be ready for them.

Curran also had the customer in mind when he designed the new showroom. Internet access and a TV are available, as well as a relaxed atmosphere that blends in nicely with the casual approach that is at the center of Curran’s operating philosophy.

“We ran out of room, really,” says Curran about his latest expansion. “The sales office we currently are using is a very small office. It was a service office before we closed the collision repair. We needed space where I could get two sales guys and a place for customer waiting. I added in a little delivery bay. I wanted a more comfortable atmosphere. Obviously in the Northeast, weather is an issue in the middle of winter.”

He’s making the improvements even though the sales environment has been tough lately, with a lot of would-be car buyers turned sour by the high price of gas. “The service department is in a good position now,” says Curran, even if he does have to buy the pricey software package every year in order to run the high-tech diagnostics required to work on the vehicles.

“We’re in a tough position,” concedes Curran, “but we’re in a better position than most. Down the road it will be more and more difficult for independents handling multiple makes to buy the software they’ll need.”

However, having a top-performing service department does give him some real advantages on the sales side of the business. At Performance Motoring, used car buyers who purchase any vehicle that is a 2001 or newer with fewer than 60,000 miles get a warranty that covers the power train for three years or 100,000 miles. Customers that want extra piece of mind can buy a bumper-to-bumper package, but many of his customers are buying cars that are still under factory warranty. In many cases, his inventory is selected from a pool of vehicles which have only had one previous owner.

“For me, growth is a big thing,” adds Curran. “We’re repaving the parking lot in two weeks and adding an area that adds 100 by 150 feet in the parking area. We’re constantly doing improvements. At some point in time, the future could include buying into a Volvo franchise.”

While growth is constant, there are some things about the business that Curran never wants to see change. “It’s important for people to know we’re not a high pressure dealership,” says Curran. “Any time we hire a sales person or someone in customer service, we make sure they didn’t come from a super high-volume dealership. We’re friendly – not pushy – and I want us to come across as a dealership that offers great service.”

He added, “We’re just straight to the point; we don’t make

up anything. If there’s 30 percent of the brake pads left, we’ll say: ‘Look. Drive the car for three or four more months and then we’ll do the brake pads. It’s more about being friends than strictly someone they do business with.”

Curran is careful to emphasize that point time and again during training sessions with employees. Service Manager Ron Jaspersohn, who has 30 years of experience in the business, is also there to back him up. It’s a point of pride with Curran that he doesn’t have to be there every day for the message to stick.

With an increasingly hectic racing schedule, Curran has to know that when he’s behind the wheel in another city, back home all 17 employees are keeping the commitment he made with his father years ago.

“The big problem is time away from the business,” says Curran as he prepares for another race. “I have 10 races with Acura and 10 with GM. That’s 20 weekends right there.”

The race schedule, though, also includes lots of time working on promotional programs for GM and Acura – programs that give him some practical ideas that he can use himself.

“There’s a lot of conversation about running a dealership and how they’re run,” says the racer/dealer. Plus, there’s the nagging sense that his auto business could really hit the fast lane if he added a new car franchise to the mix. That would require more room to grow, but the restless Curran can’t help but think about the possibilities of gearing up auto sales to the kind of racing speed he’s grown to love.
Vol 3, Issue 9


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