At Auburn Honda in Auburn, Calif., Jason Olesnavage is enjoying the longest tenure of his brief career in auto retail. Olesnavage joined Canton, Mich.-based Victory Automotive Group in 2010, shortly after leaving the University of Michigan, where he earned two degrees and starred on the football team. He was introduced to Jeff Cappo, the group’s owner, by a professor, and the two men hit off.
“We saw that we meshed well as people,” Olesnavage says. “I was excited to learn the business from someone as wildly successful as Cappo.”
Victory operates 28 rooftops in six states, and Olesnavage has worked in several. Determined to prove himself to Cappo, Olesnavage dove into the business headlong. In his first three years, he set up shop in five Victory dealerships and tried to learn something from every manager and co-worker he worked alongside. His determination paid off, and as Auburn Honda’s general manager, Olesnavage is poised for success.
Olesnavage grew up in the Detroit area, where his father is a public school teacher and his mother is a professor at Wayne State University. He was an honors student at Ferndale High School and excelled in several sports, especially football, and made the All-Metro team as a Dealership Spotlight. When it came time to commit to a college program, he chose to play for the University of Michigan. He led the Wolverines in scoring as a fifth-year senior and earned a Master’s degree in sports management, as well as Academic All-Big Ten honors.
Throughout his college career, Olesnavage kept his eye on the future. A summer internship at an investment banking firm soured him on office work. He says he wasn’t interested in staring at spreadsheets all day. He wanted to engage with people, and he had always been intrigued by the idea of owning his own business. He was intrigued by the opportunity to join the car industry, where opportunities for entrepreneurship are numerous.
Olesnavage joined Victory in June 2010 and was assigned to Cookeville (Tenn.) Honda. He then made stops at Victory Honda of Muncie (Ind.), a former Victory Nissan store in Shelbyville, Tenn., then Tri-Cities Nissan in Johnson City, Tenn., where he worked primarily in the service department. He says he did very little helping and a lot of learning as he prepared for his first permanent assignment. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he says. “You learn by bumping your head.”
In 2011, Olesnavage worked for a full year as the service manager for OBX Chevrolet Buick in Kitty Hawk, N.C. In one memorable incident, he stepped up to assist a customer who had walked in shortly before closing, after the general manager had left. The customer bought a vehicle on the spot, and Olesnavage got the GM on the phone and “clumsily” worked out the deal. “I was walking around like a big shot for the next three days.”
His next stop was Ocean Honda in Port Richey, Fla., where he was offered his first opportunity to learn F&I — from Cappo himself. He leapt at it, noting that “You don’t find many corporations where the guy who owns the business is your direct boss.” In his prior assignments, he hit the ground running. In the finance office, he followed clear and specific instructions to close deals. “Those eight months were my most formative,” he says. In one case, his eagerness to package a deal resulted in a near-disaster. He forgot to collect almost $10,000 of a down payment and didn’t notice until after the customer had left. He had to drive to the customer’s house and ask for a check from the pajama-clad man at 11 p.m. “Safe to say I never made that mistake again.”
West Coast Travel
Finally, in August 2012, Olesnavage took the GM position at Auburn Honda. He says he enjoys living and working in California — despite occasional reminders from USC fans about Michigan’s loss to the Trojans in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Auburn is a small, affluent community located about 30 miles northeast of Sacramento, and Olesnavage says residents will buy locally if they see the value. Customers often shop for a better price and ask for a match, but he knows that is not always the deciding factor.
“We hang our hat on customer service because a Honda is a Honda and you could go anywhere to get one,” Olesnavage says. “How grateful you are for their business is what makes the difference.” He says Auburn Honda benefits from its employees’ experience, noting that some service staffers have been with the dealership since it opened 35 years ago. Stability breeds retention, Olesnavage says, and retention breeds customer loyalty. He promotes that stability by putting a premium on training.
“The best thing to look at is what gives dealers a bad experience and plan from there,” he says. Auburn’s associates are trained to be professional and extremely honest, but Olesnavage says the whole dealership has to run at top efficiency in order to maintain success. “When you run a margin as high as we do in our best months, you need to have every department clicking on all cylinders.”
At his public high school and in the Michigan football program, Olesnavage studied and played alongside classmates from a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. He says he is grateful for that experience, which forced him to cultivate leadership skills and taught him the importance of making personal connections. He applies those lessons to Auburn’s sales process. “It’s about how you make people feel comfortable, how you fit their needs and how to find a deal that makes them happy and you happy. … The worst thing you can do is fail to communicate with a customer, especially when turning them over to F&I. If they’re going to wait 20 minutes, let them know.”
Olesnavage reports steady sales for the dealership, which averages about 140 vehicles per month. In a margin-compressed environment, he says, fixed operations are the clearest path to profit. His sales consultants pitch F&I products and introduce customers to their F&I manager at the first opportunity. “This way, customers aren’t uncomfortable, thinking there is this mean finance manager taking them to the back room and shaking them down for an extra five bucks.” The strategy appears to be paying off; for some units, Auburn earns a PVR of more than $3,000. Digital sales and marketing are playing an increasingly important role for the dealership as well, and staffers are trained to diligently check for leads and respond to inquiries.
As he looks forward to completing his second year as Auburn Honda’s GM, Olesnavage says the whirlwind of his first few years in the industry have taught him that, although there is an enormous amount of pressure, if you’re willing to put in enough time and effort, you can be successful.
“You’re running a multifaceted business. I love that we’re talking to people all day long and in a constant dialogue. The job is different every day. It’s a challenge, it’s a ton of work and it keeps you stimulated.”