A Different Take on Buy Here Pay Here

With 15 used car stores in Michigan and Illinois and about 650 employees, RightWay Automotive Credit as it exists today is a far cry from where it began.

RightWay is owned by third-generation dealer Dick Garber, whose Garber Management Group encompasses not only the 15 RightWay stores but also eight new car dealerships in Michigan, Illinois and Florida representing 11 manufacturers. When traced back to its roots, the business that eventually became RightWay Automotive Credit started as merely a tool for selling a few additional vehicles from the used car department of his flagship store, Garber Buick.

According to RightWay Vice President Mike Crane, “We started offering loans to customers from our Buick location in Saginaw, Mich., by doing what you would probably consider a standard buy here pay here model back in the early ‘90s.” A related finance company, Gateway Financial Services, was created and the BHPH operation was initially developed under the name New Century Auto.

The moniker RightWay Automotive Credit was officially established on January 1, 1996. This was not simply a name change, but rather signified a change in the business model. The operation had grown to three used car lots, and those stores began to offer indirect subprime financing as well as buy here pay here. The organization changed its collection philosophy and quit collecting payments at the store level since most deals are financed through the related finance company.

Nowadays, a RightWay dealership does not appear much like a traditional BHPH operation to the casual observer. “We wanted to get away from the traditional buy here pay here stigma,” said Crane. As far as customers are concerned, Gateway Financial Services is just another finance company, and many are unaware that there’s common ownership between the retail stores and the RFC.

The move away from the standard BHPH model was considered by some at the time to be a risky one. “Many of our peers in our 20 groups thought it would be a disaster,” he recalled. “I understood their concerns.” One of those concerns was that if customers were no longer required to visit a store weekly to make their payments, they would end up spending their paychecks on something else instead of mailing a payment to the RFC.

To help address that potential pitfall, Crane said they began putting even more emphasis on selling the customer the dream of re-establishing their credit rather than simply selling the car. “We assigned a team of very aggressive collectors to a small portfolio of customers,” he added. “It worked well. Our delinquencies never increased.”

Over 85 percent of the group’s total sales are financed through its related finance company, while the rest are financed through outside sources like local banks, credit unions and even some regular retail finance companies. During peak times for special finance, as much as 45 percent of the group’s sales were traditional special finance while just over half were BHPH.

Crane said he has definitely seen a shift in the type of customers they are seeing at the dealerships. Previously, the stores saw two distinct sets of customers, clients with 550 and above credit scores and few major derogatory items on their credit financed through a subprime source other than the RFC, and what Crane considered to be the average BHPH customer (someone with very poor previous credit and/or collections with a score below 550 or no score at all).

With the tightening of lending guidelines by most finance sources, the stores have seen an influx of people from the 550-and-above group who are no longer able to qualify for a traditional subprime loan. To accommodate this new group of customers, the RFC created another set of parameters within their financing guidelines about a year ago that allows for a higher ACV deal structure. “This has been a relatively cash-intensive venture,” said Crane, “but we hope the long-term portfolio performance will prove it worthwhile.”

He would not go into great detail regarding the underwriting guidelines used by their RFC. “But I will say, like most buy here pay here dealers can tell you, we’ve made plenty of mistakes that have helped us determine what types of guidelines not to use,” he said. While their underwriters utilize some specific parameters, he said they do not use a set scoring system. They have tried three different scoring programs in the past, one they put together internally and two from outside vendors, but Crane said none of those worked any better than what their current guidelines do now. He said, “We basically manage our total risk per deal using three main tiers for deal structures, and this is based on the usual buy here pay here information—employment and residence stability, their budget and their previous credit factors.”

Typical inventory for RightWay tends to be about six or seven years old with approximately 100,000 miles, but the group’s full-time buyers – four in Michigan and one in Illinois – have had to make some adjustments to accommodate the new third set of customers. “The units currently range a great deal due to having some new types of deal structures,” said Crane, “but in general our average cost per unit is around $4,000.”

All vehicles sold by RightWay Automotive Credit come with a six-month/6,000-mile warranty and free oil changes for two years. However, none of the stores have service departments; it was determined that performing all service work in-house was not cost-effective for the group. Instead, each store’s service director interviews and negotiates rates for specific jobs with licensed repair facilities close to their store.

“The warranties and the oil changes have been a part of our program since we refaced the company as RightWay,” said Crane. “We wanted to assure ourselves that we weren’t selling a vehicle to our customers that already had major problems and this was the only way we could remain in this business and sleep well!” He added that in addition to the benefit of highlighting the free oil changes in their advertising, the goal of offering them is to get the customers into the habit of properly maintaining their vehicle. In many cases, the customer has never been told before how important this is.

Even though no collections are going on in the stores, the organization is of course still primarily a BHPH operation. RightWay, like many other more traditional BHPH dealerships, employs GPS-based started interrupt devices on all vehicles financed through Gateway Financial, as well as vehicles financed through a couple of indirect subprime sources. The use of GPS is relatively new. In late 2007, the group began using a code-based starter interrupt device. When a customer made a payment they were issued a code to input on a keypad built into the vehicle, and the car would continue to run until the next payment was due. This proved to be a cumbersome system. “After about a year, our volume reached the point that we were being forced to hire additional people just to issue codes,” said Crane.

The group elected to switch to a GPS-based system that would allow them to use a Web interface to send a warning tone to the customer or prevent the vehicle from starting as well as locate the vehicle. “We were initially concerned about how our customer base would accept the units,” said Crane, “but we present it up front as a tool to help ensure they will be timely with their payments, and it will help them fix their credit sooner when they make their payments on time. I don’t believe we’ve lost a single good deal due to this.” He said it was still a little too soon to determine the system’s effectiveness regarding charge-offs, but their delinquency rates have improved. He said the new system is “a little more expensive option but well worth it.”

RightWay has expanded for three stores in 1996 to 15 stores now with no plans of slowing down, so creating and adhering to a single set of processes and procedures is critical. The company has specific word tracks that are used consistently by the sales staff at all stores, and Crane said they work on group training as well as one-on-one training to ensure that consistent processes and procedures are being followed. “We are also developing a more aggressive ‘Standard Operations Manual’ that we plan on using with a compliance department to enforce accountability at lot level, which we feel will be necessary to be successful with our future growth plans,” he stated.

Consistency in the stores’ advertising and marketing messages is important as well. Crane and the group’s five regional managers together determine what will be the main message of all the stores’ advertising for a set period of time, usually a month or a quarter. He explained, “Each lot contributes a set amount of money to send this message, and then they have a budget of dollars allotted for local regional advertising that piggybacks on this message.” He said they use a number of different media for their advertising – radio, television, newspapers, Internet and direct mail – and they try different combinations of media to improve the effectiveness of their advertising.

Even though RightWay uses many forms of media to convey their marketing message, Crane said that prospecting and follow-up are undoubtedly their most effective forms of marketing. “Repeat and referral business is a large portion of our business and is by far the most cost-efficient,” he stated. “The most important thing that we do is really try to hold our sales staffs accountable for prospecting effectively … drilling it down into the front lines with your sales staff that they have to ask for the referral on every customer. There is no other source of business more important than this,” he declared.

The stores’ sales managers are required to complete a simple form every month reporting on the performance of every salesperson, which includes referrals. “Our stronger-performing sales managers don’t wait for that monthly communication to be due, though,” he noted. “They force themselves to be disciplined, and they talk to their people about it in their 10-minute daily meetings or at least weekly. It’s funny how the stores that perform the best have the people that are the most disciplined when it comes to talking about repeats, referrals and prospecting on a daily basis.”

While standardized processes, effective underwriting and diligent collections are all important to the success of an operation like RightWay, the most important factor in the group’s success is its people. “We have been very fortunate to have a strong corps of upper-level managers that have run the stores for us,” said Crane, adding that almost all of their regional managers have been with the organization since its early years as a handful of stores. Those managers and the management of the RFC, he stated, helped shape the organization and the business model into what it is today, and Crane is excited about the employees they’re currently working with in their management training program and what it could mean for the growth of the organization.

“I anticipate we will add at least three stores in 2010, and this may really be enhanced even more because the quality of candidates that we have been talking to recently has gotten so much stronger,” he stated. “Only our ability to surround ourselves with quality people will stop us from growing at a tremendous rate.”

Vol. 6, Issue 12