Many dealers are struggling to effectively use their business development center (BDC) and online marketing to find new customers and set appointments. But others have figured it out, and it is paying off in spades. One example is the Atlantic Auto Group in Long Island, N.Y., and Toni Anne Fardette is the secret to their success.

Fardette serves as the group’s director of business development. She joined the industry in 2000, when she was going to college for a political science degree, and got a part-time job at a local dealership in her hometown of Brooklyn. That part-time job turned into full time when she realized the dealership’s BDC would work around her schedule and pay her a commission. In fact, she was doing so well, they eventually offered her the role of Internet manager.

She turned it down.

They wanted her to replace the woman who had trained and mentored Fardette as she learned the business and eventually decided to leave college and make the automotive world her career. Instead, in 2005, she left and took a job with another dealership. Fardette worked for a few different places before, in 2008, she ended up at Huntington Toyota as their BDC manager. She planned to leave and take a year off in 2010 when she had her son, but the general manager didn’t want to let her go, and convinced her to continue to work part-time — getting full-time pay — instead. And then, a few months later, the owners of the group called and said she had been doing such an amazing job at the one location, they wanted to make her the BDC manager over all the stores in the group. The rest, as they say, is history.

“They only had 11 or 12 stores then, and now have 22 stores, so it was about half the size when I took the position,” Fardette says. “I knew it was a full-time position, so I couldn’t work just a few days a week, but my husband and I agreed when he said, ‘Hey, this is what you’ve been working toward.’ So April 2011, I started the position I’m in now, and I’m still here and doing it. It’s fun. I was a part of the group when they really started to grow quickly, and I got to be part of the process, setting up BDC. I think I was very fortunate.”

“She is a bull!” says Michael Brown, partner and owner of the Atlantic Auto Group. “Her best talent is something that cannot be taught. She has more tenacity than anyone I’ve worked with. In addition, her time management skills are incredible. She can accomplish in a day what will take most people a week. We saw pretty quick that, having her run only one BDC department, that we were underutilizing her.”

Atlantic Auto Group’s director of business development, Toni Anne Fradette, leads a digital marketing strategy that includes 22 stores and is backed by ongoing sales and BDC training.

Atlantic Auto Group’s director of business development, Toni Anne Fradette, leads a digital marketing strategy that includes 22 stores and is backed by ongoing sales and BDC training.

A Love Affair With Online

Fardette openly admits that, if the Internet hadn’t come along when it had, and she hadn’t ended up in that department, it is very likely she wouldn’t have fallen in love with the automotive industry or stayed in it for so long.

“I took this position at the right time to really get involved at the start of digital marketing,” she notes. “Dealerships were just getting into it, and I had a lot of support from the managers. They allow me to make my own decisions, and they back me up from the top down. I’m very blessed.”

She notes that she is always looking for new information that can help her improve her business, so when the opportunity came in to go do a Sean Bradley Internet Sales 20 Group in Boston, she took it. And that was the start of a whole new chapter for her and Atlantic Auto Group.

“I know we’re good — we’re No. 3 in the country for privately owned groups and that’s not an accident — but I came back from that conference and said I think we can do so much better. We’re good, but there is so much more we could add. That’s what impressed me about his group.”

“She is feared in the industry,” says Bradley, who is the founder and CEO of Dealer Synergy. “She represents a $1.1 billion dealer group, and she’s this woman from Brooklyn who takes no bullshit. She doesn’t have time for it. She is a high-profile, high-level executive, and she knows her stuff. She is so good at what she does.”

Fardette started Bradley’s full program in just one of her stores, Massapequa Nissan, and the on-demand program at five others. That expanded to more of her stores, and now, they are adding video, with Bradley’s company taking over from their previous provider to create content for all 22 dealerships, the executives and the unique value each of the Atlantic Auto Group stores brings to consumers.

But the relationship doesn’t just go one way. Fardette brings her own insight to the table, and Bradley has learned a few things from her, as well. “She constantly bounces stuff off me, and we brainstorm together,” says Bradley. “We co-created the entire CRM process for the group. We are leveraging each other’s backgrounds, since she sees what works and doesn’t work in the store. And I’m taking that and applying it to hundreds of clients nationwide.”

Digital marketing for dealerships is crucial because consumers today are far more educated, Fardette believes. And to her, if the customers are coming in knowing more about the car and the dealership than the salespeople do, that means the dealership needs to do a better job of being part of the conversation. “With the way technology has changed, and will continue to do so, [digital marketing] is as important as it gets,” notes Brown. “This is where people go for anything now.”

The video, she notes, is just the next evolution of that process. There are, she says, seven reasons people go online to look at information before purchasing a vehicle. It is her goal to have content that addresses every single one of them, and makes a case for why the group, and the individual stores, have the best value propositions to meet those needs. The new video content has started with introducing the general managers and their teams, and allowing each of them to inject their own personality into it, to give consumers a taste of what they can expect when they walk in the door.

“If we’re going to spend the time creating videos, let’s talk about what makes us different,” Fardette says. “How many walkaround videos can a customer really watch? I want to focus on why should you do business with us. The number one thing customers usually say about car dealers is they’re all the same. If I’m going to earn their loyalty, I have to show them why we’re not only different, but better.”

Toni Anne’s husband, Frank Fardette, serves as general sales manager at Atlantic Honda. He says Atlantic Auto Group puts a priority on effective management and training.

Toni Anne’s husband, Frank Fardette, serves as general sales manager at Atlantic Honda. He says Atlantic Auto Group puts a priority on effective management and training.

Across the Atlantic

Fardette’s continued success hinges on staying ahead of the game. Her husband, Frank Fardette, is the general sales manager for one of the group’s locations, Atlantic Honda. He notes that Fardette’s success is in large part because she understands that it is, in the end, all about the people.

“We have a good reputation on the island, and a lot of people automatically go to the group when they want to buy a car. We get a lot of support from management and have a lot of support people who ensure we get the proper training. It’s not like working at a store where they throw you to the wolves; you know what’s expected of you right from the beginning, and we are very well-trained.”

Fardette spends a lot of time focusing on keeping her staff informed, ensuring they have all the latest tools and know how to use them. She conducts phone training with the BDC and sales teams, ensuring everyone knows how to handle every potential curveball. She also offers email training, to ensure everyone knows how to craft the right messages and convey the right tone to the consumers.

“She has a dedicated trainer that not only holds training for new hires, but goes to each location to make sure they have what they need,” Frank Fardette says. “They make sure we have everything we’re supposed to, and that give us a good chance at success.”

Toni Anne says Atlantic takes pride in how well the BDC and sales teams work together. The BDC team personally hands off clients to the sales team, and they communicate constantly so everyone knows what is happening on a deal — and can make suggestions on what they can all do better next time to ensure they constantly improve.

Brown says that team-first philosophy and willingness to embrace new technologies has propelled Atlantic Auto Group to success and will continue to serve them well into the future.

“We don’t believe in any magic potion,” he says. “We want to be the best at the basics: blocking and tackling. Our philosophy is simple: If we get our customer to return to us, then we win.”

Toni McQuilken is a freelance writer with expertise in auto retail, F&I and agency operations. [email protected]