Jill Merriam, the co-owner and COO of Key Hyundai, with locations in Manchester and Milford, Conn., bills herself as the “Dealer for the People.” And it’s more than a tagline. Merriam — along with her brother, Jeffrey, who is the second co-owner — has structured her entire business around that core ideal.
Understanding Merriam’s philosophy requires knowing more about where she came from. While her family has been in the car business since the 1950s, she says that, growing up, she was certain she would do something else. She studied economics in college and entered the competitive world of high-stakes corporate finance. She wound up working at Microsoft, where none other than Bill Gates inspired her to change careers.
“When I was sitting in a meeting with Bill Gates — and there were probably 30 or 40 people, but I had prepared all the financials — I was thinking, ‘I don’t need to do this. My family has this amazing business. I understand the business side of it now, and I could partner with my brother and make a difference in our lives and the community, and have control over my life.’”
She was getting burned out, she says, by long hours and a frustrating inability to maximize her production. She found herself alternately stuck between projects with nothing to do and being forced to rearrange her personal and professional plans for minor emergencies. “I had little control over my life. Your time isn’t really your own. You are owned by the corporation you work for.”
The Big Move
By 2002, Merriam’s mind was made up. She left Microsoft and convinced Jeffrey to join her in opening the location in Manchester. In 2004, they separated their company from that of their father, who still owned and operated several locations of his own, including the Milford Hyundai point. When he retired in 2009, the siblings brought Milford under the Key umbrella and sold the other three stores.
For Merriam, returning to the car business is all about having purpose. From the start, she notes, Key Hyundai has never been run like a traditional car dealership. Instead, the siblings have always viewed their two-rooftop group as a corporate entity and managed it accordingly. This includes extensive coaching for employees with a goal of developing strong leaders, a culture of treating people with respect and drawing a strong ethical and moral line in the sand that they refuse to cross.
One of her current endeavors is to ensure every employee has a good work/life balance, something that most dealerships, she notes, don’t have. “This business isn’t always conducive to a good work/life balance,” she notes. “You have to be really diligent to develop the people beneath you so you don’t feel the need to be there 24/7. … In the past, it was always compensation based on hours, not skillset, and I want to try to turn that around. I plan to work to attract more people with other professional careers and control the hours so they feel this business is open to them. We are starting to hear more about this ‘Gen Y’ stuff, but behind it is some truth — too many hours really fry people. There has to be some solution to the problem.”
She is considering include implementing a four-day workweek, with 10 hours per day and five days off every few weeks. She is also studying the flow of customers into the dealership in the hopes of keeping the right number of sales, F&I and service pros on hand.
At the end of the day, she says, to attract the best professionals in the workforce, her dealerships have to be run as efficiently as any other business.
Helping the Customers
Creating a better work environment is only one part of Merriam’s “Dealer for the People” belief system. The customers are the other side of that, and financing for subprime-credit customers, in particular, is where her business has stepped up.
Merriam trains her staff to ask the right questions up front to help determine not only what kind of vehicle the customer wants, but what they can afford, all before showing them anything. “I think it’s a more dignified approach,” she says. “If you’re showing them a car they can’t afford, getting their hopes up for nothing, that is a very demoralizing process. I believe in asking credit-qualifying questions up front, and moving the process according to that.”
She relies on processes designed by Greg Goebel, the industry’s leading special finance trainer and a regular contributor to Auto Dealer Monthly.
“Jill is a special dealer and one that I have really enjoyed working with. She is not only a student of the industry, but coming from an investment banking background, she has not been confined by typical dealer mindsets,” Goebel says. “This has allowed her to create something that is not only special for her employees and customers, but profitable as well.”
In addition to making sure customers get into the car they can afford, Merriam has built a powerful BDC that helps qualify customers before they even walk in the front door. The unit gets around 1,200 calls per month, converting approximately 330 into monthly appointments, roughly 120 of whom will purchase a vehicle from Key Hyundai.
Erin Dempsey, the group’s business development manager, tracks all the incoming leads and calls and ensures they get to someone who can help. “We’re the first voice most people hear when dealing with Key Hyundai,” Dempsey says. “A lot of people have questions or concerns before coming into a dealership, and we try to make it fun and easy for them. We want to be that kind voice that isn’t judging them, and is providing them with information.”
Part of her role, Dempsey notes, is to ensure they get as much relevant information up front as they can. She invites every caller to come in, no matter what their situation entails. “Everyone deserves that invitation. Even if we can’t get them into a car today, we’ll still get them in to develop a path to help get them into a car down the road.”
Every appointment is made with a sales manager, who is given all the information the BDC team acquired on the call. They call them “VIP appointments,” and the managers take the time to verify all the details and answer questions before handing them over to a salesperson to continue the process. “If we tell them it’s a VIP appointment, and they come in and don’t see a manager and have to repeat [all their information], you lose trust and rapport. We detail the entire call to the manager, and we have a rule: no one-liners. Everything you spoke about is detailed in a note for a manager’s review, and they review them every morning. If it’s a same-day appointment, an email goes out to the managers, and we copy and paste all the notes into the email so they can review before the customer get there, to be sure the whole wall is not broken.”
Looking to the Future
Merriam is not content to simply keep running things as they are. She wants to constantly improve and expand the philosophy. Jeffery Merriam handles the back-end operations, such as banking, legal and corporate, including negotiations for future endeavors. His next goal is to expand the group’s financing reach by adding a buy here, pay here option.
“We’re opening a new used-car franchise, a BHPH operation,” says Jeff Merriam. “It will be done through a franchisor, and we’re currently buying a building to start that business. That has been [hectic], buying the building, managing the mortgages and this building hasn’t been open in four years, so getting the building up to speed as well. That’s taking a lot of my time right now. Once it’s up and running, it will take more of Jill’s time.”
The new building encompasses 25,000 square feet, and in addition to housing the BHPH enterprise, he plans to consolidate the back-office, BDC and support staff from the Manchester and Milford locations in the remaining space. Merriam hopes to move to move Key’s offsite reconditioning operation to the new site as well. From there, he plans to open two more dealerships in Connecticut, both of which will be smaller footprints, run from the new central location.
“Our goal is to get these three open so we’re diversified,” he says. “Then maybe we’ll buy another new-car franchise; we’ll have the centralized structure to continue to expand. When I wake up in the morning, that’s what I’m doing: building an empire. That is what really drives me and keeps me going every day.”
For Jill Merriam, being the face of this growing empire has been rewarding. She notes that, while her “personality marketing” campaign has raised her profile, it has also opened her up to criticism and scorn. “It really works, and helps support the business, community and customers. We also do a lot of charitable work, and I’m at the front and center of that as well. But I have to have a thick skin, because people say mean things. Everything from one [caller] saying my voice ruined his day, to really gory things such as people saying if they hear my voice again they’re going to find me and kill me. I don’t use Twitter at all anymore; there was too much collateral damage there. I don’t care if it adds another penny to the bottom line. It wasn’t worth it.”
But even with the occasional threat, she wouldn’t change anything about her current path. “I would do it all over again,” she says. “The benefits far outweigh the other things, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Twenty percent will love you, 20% will hate you and the other 60% don’t know you exist. We get the full mix.”
Toni McQuilken is a freelance writer with expertise in auto retail, F&I and agency operations. [email protected]