In 2003, Chris Stout left Universal Underwriters to start AutoSolutions LLC, a Minnesota agency offering training, F&I products, and associated services to dealers nationwide. Agent Entrepreneur caught up with Stout to discuss his baseball and automotive careers and learn why you should never, ever change your top performer’s pay plan.
Chris, where are you from?
Stout: I’m from the Central Valley, Modesto, Calif. I went to school at the University of San Diego.
And you played baseball.
Stout: I did. I started as a second and third baseman and played a little right field senior year.
Were you recruited?
Stout: I was a walk-on, and I knew I wanted to go to school in Southern California, so we did a trip to L.A., San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Pepperdine, all in one weekend. At a lot of schools, you’re dead before you show up. USC let 20, 30, 40 kids walk on, and four made the team. I talked to a guy playing at San Diego who said I would definitely have an opportunity to play, so that was my choice. And today, they’re a powerhouse.
How hard was it to balance school and baseball?
Stout: We played 55 games a year, and when we weren’t playing games, we were practicing, and that season goes from the middle of January to the middle of May. Playing baseball six or seven days a week — and traveling — you brought your schoolwork on the bus. You did it between classes, after dinner, anytime you’re not working out or out on the ballfield.
And you studied business. Doesn’t that require a lot of group work?
Stout: It does. We had group classes, group projects. But in-season, you had games four, five times a week. You just had to figure it out.
Did you have any fun?
Stout: Oh, yeah. Much more fun than they do now. It’s much more strict.
Did you think about going pro?
Stout: I thought about it. I knew I wasn’t going to get drafted. Our pitching coach had a program where he took a group to Sweden and coached club teams. I signed up and we all lived there for six months. We taught kids as young as 15 and adults as old as 32. We would play twice a week and teach them the ins and outs of the game, how to get organized, how to take infield practice before the game. And the Swedes are very good athletes — soccer players, hockey players — their athletic skills are good.
Baseball is a pretty difficult sport.
Stout: They say baseball is one of the hardest things to do athletically. It’s a challenge. But it was a great time. And there was a lot going on in the summer in Stockholm. I had never been to Europe before, and we traveled throughout the Northern European countries, so it was an eye-opening experience. I came back a different person. I remember when we first went out, we ordered beer, and it was $8 a glass. We were used to 50-cent beers. Then we came back and never wanted to drink Bud Lite again. That was before the microbrew revolution.
What brought you back?
Stout: I had to come home and start my career. The Ernest & Julio Gallo winery is headquartered in Modesto, and I applied for a job there, in 1990.
Wasn’t that just before the California wine industry blew up?
Stout: I saw that in the ’90s. They were buying vineyards in Sonoma Valley, moving mountains to grow grapes. I was a sales field rep, had a territory, going to grocery stores and convenience stores, selling wine, then became a district manager. Premium wine was the fastest-growing category and that’s what Gallo was getting into.
That led to an opportunity with one of the largest distributors in the world, Johnson Bros., which is headquartered here in Minnesota. They recruited me to go to Hawaii to be the general sales manager for a distributor there, working with the general manager. But the GM never moved, and my wife and I didn’t like living on the Big Island, so I asked for a transfer to Minneapolis.
You didn’t like Hawaii?
Stout: It was just a cultural deal. We were in Kona, which has one or two traffic lights and only like 10,000 or 15,000 people. You go to the beach, eat at a restaurant or hotel, go hiking. It was a good atmosphere, a great environment around you. But at some point in time, you just can’t go to the beach every day. And a lot of the people don’t like you. You’re the haole. It was the first time I’ve felt discriminated against. And the schools weren’t great, and we wanted to have kids, so we wanted to get back to the States.
Do the kids ever say, “Dad, what were you thinking? We could have lived in Hawaii!”
Stout: No, they love living in Minnesota. It was the right move. But I knew when we moved that, for Johnson or any other company, they don’t like you forcing the issue. It was going to be a strike against me. So my goal was not just to move back but to find a job in another industry that pays more commission than salary. I wanted my wife to be able to stay home, grow the family. And it just so happened I knew a rep for Universal Underwriters. So I went to work for Universal in 1997.
What was the job?
Stout: Account executive. I did everything from property and casualty to F&I products to our subprime financing product. I had a territory, a list of new-car dealers I was responsible for, and my goal was to take care of the business we had and grow it by building relationships and providing financial and insurance products and services for the dealerships in my area.
How tough was it to switch industries?
Stout: It was challenging. There were a lot of claims coming through, like massive insurance claims that would follow a hailstorm. I learned you had to get to your dealers quickly, make sure they get taken care of and make sure they have the right coverage. That’s where the finance part was getting bigger and bigger and we started to focus more on that area.
And the culture there was great. The people were good, lots of talented salespeople and managers. And it had an entrepreneurial spirit. They allowed field reps to be aggressive, do well, take care of the customer, grow the business. It really felt more agent-based than direct writer-based. I was there for six years, started at the bottom and worked my way to the top.
Why leave to start the agency?
Stout: Universal and I had a falling out. I signed a massive dealership group and created a new limited warranty program — unique in the marketplace at that time — specifically for large groups. And after I got them signed up, they ended up changing the pay plan on me. That’s when I knew I had to make a decision. And it was a difficult decision. My wife didn’t agree. She was worried. We had just had our third child. I had benefits, a company car. You have to trust you can do it, believe in yourself, and go.
Who was your first client?
Stout: Saturn of St. Paul. Four dealerships.
Was that all you needed to get started?
Stout: No, we had a couple other dealerships that came on immediately after that. Then we grew the business from there.
When did you start to feel comfortable?
Stout: You know, we had a good start, but I think it probably took a good two to three years to where you felt comfortable saying, “This is a stable business. We can keep growing it and making it better.” But I don’t think you ever feel safe.
Maybe you shouldn’t.
Stout: Right! So I always try to have that mentality. And in that first two or three years, we started bringing on agents. We hired our first agent four or five months into it, which was a leap. And then it probably took two more years before we hired another one. It was slow growth in that respect, but by the time we hired our third or fourth agent, we felt we had a sustainable, viable agency.
I take it you were fully hands-on at that point.
Stout: We were. We did the training, supplied the products. We did everything.
And you pride yourselves on doing things a little differently, correct?
Stout: We try to manage it like a partnership, as a consultant to the dealership. How does a dealer, a GM, a GSM look at the business, their salespeople and sales managers, their finance people? That led to asking our software provider to create a desking menu. We needed it to have the same feel as the finance menu — for compliance, for consistency — and it all tied together, so we could track it and see how they did.
So we were an integral part of creating that desking menu, and now it’s becoming a crowded space. I think you always have to be exploring new ideas and look at everything. If you’re not, you’re going backward. I do believe that, in the car business, there is a lot of blocking and tackling. Sticking to the process and using tools you have is critical, but so is looking ahead at the next innovation you need to make sure dealers are prepared. For the last two or three years, “digital retailing” has been the buzzword at NADA and everywhere else. We’re figuring out how to integrate that into the way our dealers sell cars today.
Have you seen any platforms that stood out?
Stout: There are so many out there. We’re trying to figure out which one is the best. It has to work well with the dealer’s system. Last year, we probably looked at five, six, seven. We’re in the process of vetting all those companies. We haven’t made that decision yet.
How was your time at Agent Summit?
Stout: This was my third time going, and I think it’s getting better and better every year. And I think going to NADA and all the other events you can attend is good. You can spend a lot of time on the road today, all these conferences and the national meetings for all the companies you do business with. You have to schedule your time appropriately to make sure your dealers are taken care of and so are the agents supporting them.
What do you do when you’re not working or traveling?
Stout: I try to spend time with my family. We have two kids in college, so we’re making sure we carve out time to see them. Our youngest is a junior in high school. So we try to keep it low-key. When you travel a lot, you like to use your downtime to stay at home.