An Interview with Brad Blizzard
An Interview with Brad Blizzard

F&I is evolving rapidly, but 35-year industry veteran Bradford “Brad” Blizzard believes the core concepts of effective processes and superior customer service will serve it well in the Digital Age. Agent Entrepreneur caught up with RoadVantage’s national vice president of sales to take a look back at his career as an F&I professional, agent and executive, predict the future of the industry, and learn what life is like in a subtropical paradise.

AE: Brad, where am I reaching you today?

Blizzard: I’m here in St. Augustine, Fla., where I’m based.

AE: I have visited St. Augustine. Isn’t it America’s first city, or something along those lines?

Blizzard: It is the oldest city in the United States. We just celebrated our 450th anniversary. Of course, I’ve only been here for a segment of those.

AE: Are you from Florida?

Blizzard: I am. I was born in Miami. Where I grew up in Miami, there wasn’t much there, apart from a few ranches.

AE: It must be something to see your hometown change so much in your lifetime.

Blizzard: It’s crazy. And we do see it fairly often. We still have quite a few friends in Miami, and one of our three kids lives in Hollywood, Fla. My wife and I moved to St. Augustine seven years ago. North Florida is a little less fast-paced.

AE: How did you get into the auto industry?

Blizzard: Almost on a whim. I had always gravitated toward insurance-related businesses. I was working for a large insurance company in the early ’80s when my nephew started telling me about his job as a finance manager at JM Pontiac. He told me about the work, how he got involved in it, and the money aspect of it. One thing led to another. I went down and interviewed and, two or three weeks later, that was the start of my career.

AE: Did you go directly to F&I?

Blizzard: I sold cars for a very short period of time. JM Pontiac had 16 F&I managers. It was quite the operation. We sold 450 to 500 cars a month from a single-point Pontiac store, including used cars. And I learned so much there. Working at JM Pontiac was almost like going to Automotive University. And if you weren’t aware, JM was the founding place of what is now Jim Moran & Associates.

AE: That store?

Blizzard: That store, that setup, the way we handled people in the F&I department. They started spreading the word, reaching out through 20 Groups. Other dealers would send people to JM Pontiac. They would spend the day in the training room upstairs, then sit with an F&I manager for the balance of the night.

AE: What did you know about F&I when you started?

Blizzard: I don’t think I even knew what “F&I” stood for. But I learned, quickly. It was an extraordinarily quick fit for me. Whether it was meant to be or dumb luck, that was the beginning, and it’s moved on from there. I’m very blessed with the career I’ve had.

AE: We talked about how Miami has changed in your lifetime. How about the degree to which F&I has changed during your career?

Blizzard: It’s really extraordinary. When I started, we had credit insurance, disability, service contracts and a little bit of GAP. Finance terms were 48 months at the most. The scope and size of it was nothing like it is today. And the way we handle customers has changed as the product availability has exploded. I really enjoy talking with my kids about it, although sometimes I’m still not sure they understand what I do.

AE: How long were you with the JM group?

Blizzard: I was at that store for a couple years. I was actually slated to go straight from that store to working at JM&A. It didn’t quite work out. I had a vacation coming up they wanted me to forego. We put it on hold and, in the meantime, a friend called from Atlanta to tell me about a consulting firm called Gill & Associates. It was like JM&A — training, consulting and sitting in the dealership and taking care of business when someone is gone. I interviewed and wound up moving from South Florida to Atlanta to get into the consulting side.

AE: I have met a number of F&I specialists. They all seem to enjoy the combination of training, consulting and taking turns.

Blizzard: It’s exciting. You get to do some travel, and it’s not the same thing each and every day. It’s a wonderful piece of the business to be in, and it’s very rewarding. I stayed with Gill & Associates for three years. Then they merged with Voyager Life out of Jacksonville, and we formed Voyager Automotive Group. That took it to a different level. They moved me to Denver to be Western regional vice president. I had seven regional managers, and we had business from California to the Mississippi. But that company was eventually sold to American Can, a cannery. They were part of Primerica Financial. They essentially bought the assets.

AE: How did that work out?

Blizzard: It unraveled in about six or seven months. We had 35 or 40 people at that time. We were guaranteed one year’s salary, but we had to stay out of the business. So I took some consulting jobs and then eventually got back into retail. I did a stint with a large Ford dealership, and that was a great refresher course. I relearned F&I at the grassroots level. After that, I ended up relocating back to South Florida from Denver, and I started my own agency. I called it “Bradford Consulting Group.” My wife thought it had a ring to it.

AE: How much did you know about running an agency?

Blizzard: Not much, to be honest. But I had been around agents, and I thought I could apply my business acumen to it. And, quite frankly, it worked out very well. It’s a unique scenario to start from zero — no accounts, no employees — and build it to where I got it. I’m proud of that and I really enjoyed it.

My product provider at the time was Safe-Guard, and I got to know Doug Duncan very well. He offered me a position with Safe-Guard as national vice president of strategic accounts — clients like AutoNation, Sonic and Mercedes-Benz of North America. We had seven regional managers. I lived in planes and hotels, lots of travel. I oversaw that for several years.

After Safe-Guard, I initially went back to consulting, then basically ran into the opportunity with RoadVantage. A friend of mine came up with an idea for a product he thought would work. He needed to find a provider to underwrite and back it. I had known Garret Lacour for some time, and he had just started RoadVantage. We took the product to Garret and he helped us take it to market. Garret and I started talking about his vision for the company and where he wanted it to go. He offered me a position when the company was in its infancy, and I took it. It was an opportunity to be involved in something great from the ground up. That was almost six years ago.

AE: RoadVantage has really raised its profile. You have those big ad campaigns. And I like the meter panels you put up at Agent Summit, with photos and testimonials from agents and customers.

Blizzard: That is directly attributable to our marketing department. It’s unparalleled in terms of what Melissa Anderson and her team do to get us into the marketplace. There are only a few major national product providers. Garret knew RoadVantage had to be different if we wanted to make some kind of an impact, so we took that and ran with it.

AE: Having worked as an entrepreneur and as part of a company, would you say you have approached those roles in different ways?

Blizzard: Yes. On the entrepreneurial side, you wear so many hats. You’re doing accounting, marketing, sales, HR — all the things that go into running a company. But essentially it still boils down to my background in the auto industry. From selling cars to F&I to sales management, those components are connected to everything I’ve done in my career. You hear folks say it gets into your blood and stays. I couldn’t get out of this business if I tried.

AE: Will digitization change that? Would you have fallen in love with the industry if your experience was closer to what the next generation of dealership personnel can expect?

Blizzard: I believe I would have, and I believe more people will. It’s a fantastic industry, and everyone gravitates toward something they like to do. And it can still be a high-paying, lucrative career path. But I think we have done a less-than-stellar job of introducing it to the next generation. We need to show them what our industry is about and how it fits with what they’re looking to do. That will be paramount to keeping it going.

And since the next generation has grown up with digitization, they will in turn help the industry evolve with customers’ shopping habits. From a digital aspect, the auto industry is like an ocean liner: It turns, but it turns slowly. But at the end of the day, it’s still about the basics. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in — it’s about the customer experience, and doing things in a way that meets consumers where they are. That part of F&I hasn’t changed, it’s just the tools that we use to reach the customer that are evolving.

As we continue to move into the Digital Age, we’re utilizing as many things as we possibly can to help dealers engage customers as shopping behaviors evolve. RoadVantage is producing informational videos for consumers. They enable our agent partners to help dealers get F&I product information to customers, who can then see these videos on the dealer’s website or on monitors on the showroom floor. So the first time the customer hears about these F&I products isn’t when they sit in front of the F&I manager. That sets the F&I manager up for an easier, more productive meeting with the customer, moving the focus from education to determining what the customer can afford to buy to protect their purchase.

AE: What are you working on right now?

Blizzard: From a company standpoint, we have a couple big things we’ll be talking about in the not-too-distant future. We think they will create new opportunities for our agent partners. That’s how we view them, as partners. We are ultimately a product provider and administrator. What happens beyond that is up to agents, and we won’t lose sight of that. We can’t thrive without our agent partners. They have a customer experience with us, their dealers have a customer experience with them as well as with us, and then the car buyer has a customer experience with the dealership and also, again, with us, when they call in a claim. Each of those pieces has to be perfect, and that is our focus — providing the best experience for everyone involved.

AE: If an agent was struggling with a dealer client and asked your advice, would you suggest they look downstream, at the end user’s experience?

Blizzard: I would, and I’m going to steal that from you. (Laughs) But it is, absolutely, it’s the big picture. An agent might say, “My dealers are all happy.” But it goes way beyond that. As a former agent and knowing agents, I believe a key element is having the best product provider for you. One size does not fit all. And it’s important to look at those relationships: What kind of service am I getting from my provider? Do they assist in field installations and all those other pieces to the puzzle? How do they handle my dealers’ claims, and what is the consumer’s experience when they call in? So yes, I would certainly offer that advice, to look at it from that perspective.

AE: What do you do in your free time?

Blizzard: Interestingly, my wife is the managing partner in a company that owns six vessels in the Bahamas, British Virgin Islands and Indonesia. They host one-week, live-aboard dive cruises, on 65- to 105-foot boats. It’s part scuba diving, part eco-adventure. My wife and I also enjoy going to the beach and sailing, and I play golf. I like to say our biggest hobby is our children, but we don’t get enough time with them for that to be true. But all three of them still live in Florida, so it’s easy to see them when we can.

AE: If you want to keep your kids around, raise them in Florida, where there’s no state income tax and houses are affordable.

Blizzard: Yes, that has made things much easier!