Dedicated Agents Thrive Through Turbulent Times
Dedicated Agents Thrive Through Turbulent Times

The eighth annual Agent Summit officially kicked off on Monday, May 21, with “Automotive F&I 2018: The State of Our Industry,” a keynote address delivered by 35-year retail, agency, and F&I product provider veteran and thought leader Jimmy Atkinson. The president and CEO of Napa, Calif.-based AUL Corp. faced a crowd of agents and industry executives eager to get Agent Summit underway. For 50 minutes, Atkinson owned the stage, and he was determined to use his time to deliver a keynote speech that would meet and exceed his audience’s expectations while setting the tone for an event dedicated to the prosperity and growth of independent general agents and the F&I industry as a whole. Atkinson acknowledged the changing landscape industry members face, but his tone was one of optimism, and he highlighted the value agents bring to the market. “I said at the beginning that I was really speaking to my peers and competitors — people I’ve known for decades,” Atkinson said afterward. “Many could do the same or better than me, so I was humbled to have them really listen. I also wanted to have some fun with them, so I called out friends like Brad Blizzard, Garret Lacour, Ron Reahard and others to make sure they didn’t doze off!”

Change Is Everywhere 

“The State of the Industry” began with an acknowledgement that “The more things change, the more they stay the same”: Despite rapid change in every corner of the automotive industry, agents are still tasked with delivering products, training, and consulting — not to mention exceptional customer service. The agent provides income development to the dealers that has allowed for continually rising F&I results. They are also uniquely positioned to build the best customized solution for each situation. “How lucky are we to have found this industry?” Atkinson asked. “The automobile business gives an opportunity to anyone that is willing to work hard, learn, and be resilient!” A little resiliency can go a long way in an era marked by sweeping changes, most notably the trend toward consolidation at “every level” of the industry, including agencies, dealerships, dealer groups, and F&I product providers and administrators, Atkinson said. “CFPB who?” Atkinson joked as he noted that this is the first conference in years at which the dominating topic wasn’t the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Compliance concerns are no less real, he added, despite a diminution of the CFPB’s authority under the Trump administration. State attorneys general have already pledged to pick up the consumer advocacy slack, and the industry is still subject to a maze of environmental regulations. “But customers will ultimately drive the market, like they always do,” Atkinson said. “In some cases, our industry sounds like national politics. Talk of autonomous vehicles, ride-hailing, carsharing, and subscription ownership is becoming the norm. The coasts and large cities are driving discussion, but for much of the country, what the industry and political leaders espouse isn’t practical. While we all want to utilize these advances, they are years away from them dominating the industry, in my view.” Atkinson then touched on a number of perennial topics, including technological advancements and the vagaries of the new- and used-vehicle markets. He urged agents to keep pace with industry developments but not lose sight of the changing wants, needs, and expectations of car buyers. Citing statistics from Cox Automotive’s most recent comprehensive survey of sold customers, he noted the majority still say they:

  • Make first contact with their dealer by walking in.
  • Are mostly concerned with price and payment.
  • Want a shorter process and blame F&I for extending it.

Above all, like any consumer, today’s car buyers want to feel they are treated fairly — from the showroom to the finance department. “Technology is driving transparency, and we should welcome that,” Atkinson said. “There is value in what we sell, and we need to be creative in how we introduce the customer to our products early and often throughout the sales process — both online and in person.”

Stay the Course

Turning toward the “more they stay the same” side of the equation, Atkinson assured the crowd that, despite the real changes happening around them, agents belong to a segment of the automotive industry that enjoys a certain level of stability. F&I still represents about 40% of dealer profitability. Dealers continue to rely on agents and product providers for training and income development tools. As for the specter of new services bringing about the end of vehicle ownership as we know it, Atkinson was unfazed. Millennial resistance to buying cars will surely fade as their families grow and they move to the suburbs. As for Uber and Lyft, “Are they really reducing gridlock or is someone else just driving me around in their car rather than me driving my own?” he asked. New paradigms may change the way vehicles are used, he added, but “I’d rather sit where we do in the industry than be a taxi or rental car company. We can cover the vehicles for mechanical breakdown, tire-and-wheel damage, et cetera, and provide value to the drivers.” Atkinson stressed that, for agents, the key to enduring success is differentiation: As once-reliable 100- to 150-unit clients “disappear” into large dealer groups — many of which prefer to work directly with product providers — agents must continually reevaluate and reinforce the value they bring to the stores they serve. “That requires going into the dealership and understanding their operations and processes,” Atkinson said afterward. “Agents who back off from that commitment will see their market share erode.”

Reason for Optimism

Atkinson took time at the top and bottom of his speech to thank those who played major roles in his success. Reflecting on his work with agent and early mentor Andy Gill, he said the fundamentals on which he was trained — people, process, pay plan, and products — are as reliable now as they were then. “Account and income development was the core of what we did,” Atkinson said. “Show me, don’t tell me. Sit at the desk, run the numbers, and set the bar higher.” As long as agents and product providers and administrators continue to work together to drive value and profits for dealers and protect their customers’ investments, “I think there’s reason for optimism,” Atkinson told Agent Entrepreneur after the event. “The biggest thing — and the thing I closed my keynote on — is that agents are difference-makers. Without Andy Gill and his agency jumpstarting my career, I wouldn’t be where I’m sitting. People who were salespeople 10 years ago are GMs today. They’re touching people in those stores every day, touching and teaching. “Some people fall out of the business, but some take it and run with it and become successful,” he added. “Much of that happens because of the agent force. You’re making a difference in people’s lives, and that’s the important role the agent plays.”