Western Pennsylvania’s #1 Cochran Automotive started with a single rooftop: After finding success as a car salesman, Bob Cochran opened Cochran Pontiac in North Braddock in 1965. By 1967, it was Pittsburgh’s No. 1 Pontiac dealership. A year later, he relocated to nearby Monroeville. By the time son Rob joined as executive vice president in 1987, the dealership had added GMC and Cadillac franchises and gained a solid foothold and reputation in its market.
Five years later, Rob took over as dealer following Bob’s untimely passing. Today, his group includes 24 rooftops, 29 franchises, and 1,100 employees. Together, they sold 14,001 new cars and 10,106 pre-owned units in 2018, generating $838.8 million in total revenue. And it’s growing, fast: A string of strategic acquisitions helped Cochran jump 22 spots to No. 71 in Automotive News’ latest annual ranking of America’s Top 150 Dealership Groups.
Auto Dealer Today caught up with Rob Cochran shortly after the updated list was released to trace the history of his group and ask his advice for dealers who are thinking about jumping into the acquisition game.
Rob, how did Bob Cochran get into the industry? Bob Cochran was a great salesperson and he had great success building wonderful customer relationships. He began selling cars in the late 1950s and had the opportunity to purchase his first dealership in 1965. It took him only a few years to bring that small Pontiac store — ranked maybe 30th among Pontiac dealerships at the time — to No. 1.
He’s been gone for a long time now, 25 years. It’s hard to believe. The company is a very different one today, but still retains that challenger mentality. I feel fortunate to be around good, loyal, capable people. We’ve built 100% of our business here in Western Pennsylvania and really connected with the people here. And the community has been good to us.
I have heard Pittsburgh is on the upswing. Pittsburgh is a phenomenal story. For the last 10 or 12 years, the momentum that has occurred within the region has been gratifying. Our economy is very much diversified among health care, hospital systems, and high-tech professionals coming out of the universities here. It’s really extraordinary what’s happening in the city.
I feel fortunate to have roots in a marketplace and a region that has not just rebounded but rebounded to the extremes. There’s a sense of purpose, a vision for the market, a vision for our region. That’s part of why we’re expanding. We wouldn’t be in acquisition mode if we didn’t feel so buoyant about the prospects for continued growth in Pittsburgh.
Are you constantly looking for stores to acquire or do they come to you? They surface in different ways. Most come directly to me, at least initially. I’ve got some senior executives I lean on heavily during the process. Once we’re engaged, we assess everything. There has been a lot of movement in the market the last couple of years.
And some of it is stimulated by OEM relationships. We’re proud of the reputation we have, the relationships we have at the factories. It’s still a relationship-driven business. It’s important for us to convey good value to those we have partnerships with, and we work every day to do that.
Are you getting into digital retail? We are. We’re just beginning that process. We certainly embrace the future. We recognize the way people drive cars and shop for cars is evolving quickly. We’ve got a variety of different pilots going on in different stores.
That’s one advantage to owning multiple dealerships. You’re right. It helps in a variety of ways. It helps us understand some of the challenges one would take on by changing any system, evolving it in any way. And at the same time, we’ve acquired a number of stores over the last 18 months or so.
How do you adjust to that as an executive? Do you spread yourself a little thinner each time or delegate more responsibility each time? Personally, I’ve never been one to overly control anything. Our leadership is empowered. The management in our organization is empowered. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been fortunate enough to attract and retain higher-quality people. They are given a lot of latitude when necessary. There is a lot going on in our business. But at the of the day, it’s still people-driven. The most relationship-minded companies are going to win.
Do you ever wonder what Bob would think, or do you have to just keep looking forward? You look forward. I am certainly proud of the legacy. I’m proud of what that name represents in our market. From that standpoint, that connection with my father still exists. As far as strategic or tactical things, where we go moving forward, what the organization needs to do to get better next month, next year? You have to focus on continuous improvement in your methodology and culture.
Did you worry you were thrust into the leadership role too early? If you’re mapping out a transition plan, you probably wouldn’t have the transition take place in your mid-20s. But that was the situation. Those were the cards that were dealt to me. And I was surrounded by good people. The company had a strong name, even at that point. I had to learn and get better and that’s what I did. I’ve been really blessed with the people that have been around me. There’s a sense of loyalty among our team members, the customers we’ve dealt with over dozens of years, their families. We have a level of trust. And there’s a pride that comes from being from this area.
What was the state of the group when you took over, and could you have imagined then what it would become? We had a couple very large GM dealerships, large-volume Pontiac and GMC stores. I don’t know what I would have imagined. I’ve always had high aspirations. You couple that with just sort of a more workmanlike, let’s-get-better-tomorrow type of thought process. So I don’t know whether I would have envisioned it the way it is. Maybe not as big, maybe bigger. But it’s the ability to get smart, high-quality people around you, the people who advise me, that creates so many opportunities.
Does that extend to the staff? When a store is performing really well, that culture permeates through the entire roster, not just management. It is more complex and challenging to get that message out to everybody, but I think we do it better than most. There are always areas for us to improve. But we understand that we do better as a team and our leadership embraces that. And I’m excited about what we’ve done.
How fast are you able to impart that culture on a new store? The answer is “quickly.” And we’ve gotten better at it as we’ve acquired more. Thinking back in time, the earlier acquisitions on my watch all felt a little bumpier than the ones we’ve gone through recently. The more you do something, the better you get at it. We have transition teams go into stores. It’s worked reasonably well. Each new venture brings with it a unique set of challenges. But I’m quite pleased with the culture in the stores we’ve acquired over the last two years. I think we’ve done a good job of transitioning to how we do things.
And you bring your reputation with you. Part of it could be that, as we’ve gotten a bit larger, the people in other stores understand how we do things. When we have bought stores that were owned by an owner-operator, where they were used to having that owner-operator in the dealership all the time, it’s a transition. We understand that. We want to continue to honor the legacy of the family that operated that store in the past.
What’s your advice for a dealer who is considering expansion through acquisition for the first time? You have to ask yourself, “Does this acquisition fit into the strategic profile of this organization?” It may be a great opportunity with a great brand. But as the leader of the company, you have a vision for where that company will be in two, three, five years — from a brand standpoint, a geographic standpoint, all that. It has to fit.
Then you have to decide if you are happy with what the investment needs to be. By that I mean, do you have the necessary leadership capital to be able to take on this new venture without creating undue stress on the rest of the existing operation? We have had the benefit of growing people within our organization and finding opportunities to move people into larger roles. And that’s exciting.
So the main question is, what’s your strategy, and does this help you get closer to that strategy or not? If it doesn’t, don’t do it.
Buy-sell advisors tell us some dealers are selling because they’re uncertain about what the industry will look like in five to 10 years. Are you hearing that from the outgoing owners of the dealerships you’ve acquired? Certainly there is a segment of the dealer body that shares some of those concerns. From our standpoint, we’re bullish on where the industry is going and our place in it. Clearly there are some unanswered questions. But if we can maintain and continue to grow our relationship with the people in Western Pennsylvania who are buying cars and trucks and SUVs and getting them serviced, while things will change and evolve, we can continue to grow our business.
I understand those that have questions on where the industry may be going. They’re worried it won’t be as fun. But we like doing it. We’re having fun doing it. And we think there’s more upside in the future for those that can do it well.