In April, Larry Dorfman, the founder and chief executive of APCO Holdings LLC, announced he would step down as chairman and CEO but remain with the company as a senior advisor. He asked Finbarr “Fin” O’Neill, who had joined APCO’s board following his 2018 retirement from J.D. Power, to take his place. Agent Entrepreneur caught up with O’Neill shortly following the announcement to discuss his new role, the career path that led him there, and why dealers are the engine of the industry.
Fin, what happened to your retirement?
I had been asked to serve on APCO’s board and I was really enjoying it — great company, great culture. Larry founded it 35 years ago and it grew substantially. But I wasn’t really thinking about going back to work when they asked me to move into the CEO position. I thought about it. I asked my wife of 42 years. I asked my children. They said I looked a little bored in retirement. I’m not a golfer. So I said yes.
Is it a strange situation, taking over for a chief executive who founded the company and remains an active advisor?
Not strange, but Larry and I of course talked about it. He founded the company. He is a very charismatic and creative guy. Larry has important relationships in this business. He’s going to help us maintain those relationships. I am here to help a great management team run the business. Although I have been in the car business a long time, I have a lot to learn about the vehicle service contract business. I will continue to rely on Larry for his experience and relationships. And he is never short of ideas.
You have to give him credit for saying, “OK, this is my company, and I’ve been running it for 35 years. But I don’t have to be CEO. We’ve got this other guy.”
And that 35 years probably went past Larry in a snap, but it’s a long time. On a more personal level, he loves to get together with his family, his grandchildren. As we get older, we think about which things are more important, what we’d like to do. He saw me as an alternative. Turns out I’m able to do it for them. We generally agree on what needs to be done. I’m hoping to add value to a strong management team.
Where did it all begin? Where are you from?
I was born in Ireland. We immigrated to New York City when I was 10. I grew up in New York, went to law school there, started my career at a big law firm there.
What type of law did you practice?
I mainly did antitrust commercial litigation, mergers and acquisitions.
How did you break into automotive?
It was 1983, and I was looking for a new opportunity. I saw an ad in the back of The Wall Street Journal for an in-house lawyer for Toyota Motor Sales in Torrance, Calif. I had the classic New York-centric view of the world, so Torrance seemed like a world away. Nonetheless, I interviewed. It was the greatest stroke of luck of my life. Toyota introduced me to the dynamic world that is the automotive industry.
What surprised you about the industry?
Well, Toyota was a great place to work, and part of the reason was the culture. They are very focused on product but just as much on their retailers. It was important to Toyota that the dealer succeed. So I learned that the dealer is really the engine of the auto industry. That was an important lesson for me and one that’s very much alive at APCO, with the EasyCare and GWC brands.
At the end of the day, we’re in business to help dealers and agents succeed. We’re playing in the F&I space, selling vehicle service contracts. A lot of people sell vehicle service contracts. We are different. We offer a range of services, partnering with dealers, to help them succeed.
Dealers want us to deliver good products. Consumers are buying insurance against unexpected outlays on their vehicles. To customers, it is insurance. Most buy insurance and never use it. But when you do, you want to have a good claims experience. We answer the phone in 30 to 40 seconds. We have a well-defined process to adjudicate claims and do it quickly. We will not approve every claim, but we handle every claim in a highly professional way.
Dealers also need help in selling these F&I products. There’s a great deal of turnover in dealerships, even in F&I. We’ve got some of the best trainers in the business — online training, of course, but also classroom and instore training. We bring a lot of value to dealers in this way.
Back in the day, dealers were still maintaining margin on new cars. But by the time I got to Hyundai, we could see the business evolving substantially. Dealers were looking for profits in other parts of their business. F&I became increasingly important.
When did you move from Toyota to Hyundai?
I joined Hyundai as a lawyer in 1985. I became CEO in 1998.
How did that go down?
Hyundai’s total U.S. sales had diminished to about 90,000 units by that point, and we had to offer heavy incentives even to sell those vehicles. As Woody Allen says, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” And I was a solutions-oriented lawyer. If you’re coming to me with an idea or a problem, I know you want to do what’s legal and ethical. How do we do it? That was my outlook. And at one point they looked down the bench and said, “How about you?”
Over the next five years, we quadrupled sales. And a lot of that credit goes to great dealers. The car is not sold until the dealer sells it. There was a time when everyone seemed to be predicting the end of the dealership as we know it. Dealers and their bricks and mortar are still integral to the business.
Of course, the business model will continue to evolve, and dealers with it. Consumers are already banking online, investing online, buying insurance online. It won’t change right away. We will be there with the products and services dealers need to keep up with all the changes.
The change we’re talking about couldn’t have come as a complete surprise to the factories, even in the late ’90s.
It wasn’t. I remember when it started to become clear that the internet was going to offer a business advantage. And even then, it was clear that the computer itself would become smaller and smaller and become portable. People understood where that would go. They understood that wireless would be ubiquitous.
By the end of the ’90s, it was clear. And people were starting to say the internet will overwhelm dealers. At Hyundai, we were looking for solutions — online service scheduling, putting kiosks in stores, new technology to help with the sales walkaround. Now everyone has smartphones and iPads. Now dealers are integrating technology across their business from website to the showroom to the service drive. Auto retail is a challenging business right now.
For APCO, it’s about being a partner in a time of disruption, being sophisticated, offering real solutions with the extra services and insight that keep our customers ahead of the curve.
How long were you with Hyundai?
Eighteen years. I left when I was recruited to run Mitsubishi North America, which at the time was owned by Mercedes-Benz.
I then moved on to become president and CEO of Reynolds and Reynolds in 2005. We sold the company in 2007 and I left in 2008. Reynolds was a great company fully focused on serving their dealer customer’s needs. For me, it was an excellent opportunity to see how dealers interfaced with technology. It was a lot different than working at OEM, where your customer is your franchisee. They are going to buy your cars. The only question is how many.
In technology, dealers have choices. You must understand how to help dealers not just run their parts operation, for example, but front-end sales, financing and back-end service. Working in technology gave me new insights into this business.
And you went from Reynolds to J.D. Power, correct?
I did. I was looking for a job, not that intensely, still living in Ohio. I was helping my daughter move into her dorm at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. I got a call a week in advance from Dave Power. “Are you on the West Coast? How about meeting me for dinner?” I thought he was just checking in. I had no idea he would ask me to be president and CEO. J.D. Power is a great brand, a high-integrity company, and by March of 2008, I was there. I had the good fortune to work there for 10 years. Then S&P Global decided to sell it.
Did they bring you in for a specific reason or did they just need a new leader?
J.D. Power has always been focused on understanding consumer concerns. The challenge was that the company was running in silos. In the digital age, you can’t have data on different Excel files around the company. If the same consumer is buying car insurance and financial services, it’s important to integrate that data — not just surveys and reports but to get to deep data analytics.
J.D. Power also has great information on vehicle pricing. Today, they capture 42% of all new-car sales at franchise dealers on a daily basis. That’s great for demand analysis: What can you price a car at? What incentive do you have to offer? So, developing that business was also important.
We also acquired the NADA Used Car Guide, a premier source of data on used car pricing for dealers and the National Appraisal Guides consumer website which had five million visitors a month. My mission was to put all that together into a modern data analytics company. S&P decided to focus on capital markets. We were focused on the consumer, so they put us up for sale. Then I retired. That was my last gig, or so I thought.
Looking back on your career to this point, is it just a series of big surprises, or does it all make sense?
It makes sense. There was no grand plan but there was a theme. I learned early on it’s all about solutions. Everyone is looking for practical solutions. Getting into automotive and really growing to respect dealers, the tough job they have, and being able to help build their businesses. Whether it was product at Hyundai, software at Reynolds and Reynolds, or consumer insights at J.D. Power, it’s all about helping your customers be more successful with their products and services.
At every company I’ve worked for, our success has been based one way or another on the dealer’s success.