Although the pandemic rocked retail auto sales throughout the country, some dealerships are reemerging with healthy sales. The owners of Nutley Auto spoke to us about their dealership, staff,...

Although the pandemic rocked retail auto sales throughout the country, some dealerships are reemerging with healthy sales. The owners of Nutley Auto spoke to us about their dealership, staff, customers, and what they tell others about paving a solid path for business success.

PHOTO: Nutley Auto

Although the pandemic rocked retail auto sales throughout the country, some dealerships are reemerging with healthy sales. That’s certainly true at Nutley Auto – Kia, Goodyear and Carquest Auto Parts in Nutley, New Jersey.

When your doors are locked and people are calling and saying, ‘I need a car and you're the one we want to sell it to us,’ we are very pleased.

The dealership, just outside of New York City, has seen record sales since the doors reopened. Perhaps that’s not a surprise when you consider the ties that Owners Anne and Jim Russomano have with their community and the steps they have taken to protect customers and staff.

Jim recently spoke to us about his dealership, staff, customers and what he tells others about paving a solid path for business success.

What brought you to owning a dealership?

My wife and I purchased a Chevy Buick dealership in 2005, and at the time, the dealership wasn't operating very well. We built the business up nicely in the first three years we were there, but then the 2008 meltdown happened. That was our first real bump in the road. At that time, General Motors let every dealer in the country know they would decide who would keep dealerships. Soon after, we received that infamous letter.

That had to be devastating.

It put us in survival mode. I didn't know what we were capable of until 2008 - 2010. We were a car dealer, we also became a Goodyear Tire Center and we became a Carquest auto parts store all out of our little location here in Nutley, New Jersey, about 12 miles outside of Manhattan.

What happened with GM?

General Motors told us they would consider us remaining a Chevrolet dealer, but we had to get rid of the other three businesses. And after some deep, deep conversation, we decided to leave General Motors and start our new Kia business in 2010.

That’s quite a leap.

It was and who would have thought back then that Kia would become the exciting brand it is today. We were lucky. Every model they have produced over the past decade has just been great.

Your other businesses have also done well, I hear.

Yes, it’s been a really great growth period for us. We are very fortunate that Nutley is a desirable market and Goodyear and Carquest were onboard with our vision to reimagine our company. We knew that we were going to have to have a tire center and independent auto parts to do repairs or non-Kia vehicles because there were not many Kia’s on the road 10 years ago.  Goodyear and Carquest have been great partners during our rebirth.

Our growth has been spectacular.

We give a lot of credit to our employees. Many hung with us through extremely tough times. And we are well outperforming expectations. We have become a 1000 unit sales operation. That’s pretty amazing considering where we began.

PHOTO: Nutley Auto

PHOTO: Nutley Auto

What kind of growth does that mark for you?

When we launched in 2005 the store was selling less than 30 total new and used units per month. We’re not going to stop when we are hit with adversity. My wife and I were making decision about expanding our facility when COVID hit, and thank goodness we didn’t make that investment  at this time … So it’s been quite a ride.

What’s 2020 been like for you?

We got out of the gates really quickly in January and February and then, bam, in the middle of March we were shut down. Our sales department was shut down on March 21st.

Sadly we had to furlough, 30 of our 40 employees. We never had to do that before in our lives. 10 of us remained here to grind it out.

How did you keep the business running with all of the employee furloughed?

Parts and Service were open. Anne, our GM, BDC, office and parts manager were here operating the business with a receptionist, driver and two technicians. We had some business. We were really proud that we were able to take care of some essential workers that needed service work done.

A lot of people would have given up.

Anne and I both come from very, very entrepreneurial families. And we had mortgaged our home to be here. We have four children and at that time in 2010, three of them were in college. So we knew if we gave in, we would have lost our home. To us that was not an option we just put our heads down and plowed ahead. From 2010 to 2012, we were not sure we’d make it.

It’s awkward for me to talk about us, but we are just very, very hard workers. And we had no choice because we would have lost everything.

Your father-in-law was in the car business. Is that what brought you into it?

Yes. I never wanted to be in the car business. I did work for my father-in-law for 9 years. He helped me come to the realization I had a future in the industry. Still, we knew that if we wanted to have our own dealership, we’d have to strike out on our own. I had a very serious conversation with my wife, our children and in-laws that after nine years in the family business we needed get out in the world and see how other dealerships were run.

What’s it like to try to run your business at ground zero of this pandemic?

Anne and I are survivors, but it was extremely difficult to furlough 30 people. There were just the ten of us for six weeks, from the middle of March until the end of April. In April, we were able to sell cars online here in New Jersey but the showroom was locked and test drives were prohibited.

We brought back two of our salespeople to sell the cars online. Part of the challenge was we were not ready technologically, and the State of NJ Motor Vehicle regulations prevent the remote signing of certain documents.

Customers still had to come to the dealership and provide a wet signature, as we call it. So we were able to put a couple of deals together in he month of April. It was a pretty dismal month, though, and we were really still not sure where this was going. Some of our key people were in constant contact with us from home.

We kept asking ourselves, ‘How can we help our employees when it's over?’

And then on May 1st we were able to bring our furloughed employees back to work through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) offered by the Federal Government. A few weeks later we were finally able to unlock our showroom doors and get back to business (with some restrictions).

What was customer demand?

It was difficult at first. People were afraid. Our sales manager, who is very, very good at what he does, was going out of his mind trying to sell vehicles in a remote or socially distancing environment. People were making appointments just to speak to us. They were shaking the doors and we were on the other side of the glass telling them they could not come in because of the laws and restrictions. We were trying to make deals over the telephone when people were walking around our lot. We put a handful of deals together even though we couldn’t do a lot of things, including test drives.

As restrictions eased, customers came into the showroom.

I'm not surprised because I hear that you have very strong ties in your community as well. So, I don’t find it odd that people were coming to you.

I do want to talk about that for a second. We do some volunteer work coaching college students as they prepare to enter the workforce. I was on a Zoom call with some students recently. I spoke with them about no matter what you do with your life, it's really critical to develop relationships within their network and in the community where they work. Doing so requires hard work and dedication morning, noon, and night. We have been very involved in our local Chamber of Commerce, we have sponsored Pinewood Derbies, 5-Ks, many, many community events. Also, we have some very long-term, key employees who are very involved in the community and community fundraisers.

When COVID hit, our business was devastated. The 15 years developing these relationships has certainly helped us bounce back.

When your doors are locked and people are calling and saying, ‘I need a car and you're the one we want to sell it to us,’ we are very pleased.

What other key players helped you weather COVID?

There are three key players for us through this pandemic – our trade association, Bank and accounting firm. The New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Dealers (NJCAR) has been a great resource. I can't tell you how many webinars I was on during the last three months.  Their guidance through this process was valuable. And they're in constant negotiation with the Governor. That paid off because our industry opened sooner than others.

We're also very, very fortunate to have an incredible local banking relationship with Valley Bank and we have an accounting firm that is very auto-centric. They have had webinars and conference calls and have reached out to us with feedback.

These three organizations were incredibly valuable as we tried to navigate and figure out our way through this. It seemed we had new executive orders every day. They helped us understand the law and put the policies and procedures together to make sure we are within the law while protecting our customers and employees.

I understand ARMD Resource Group works with your dealership. Can you share a bit about that partnership?

ARMD is a tremendous regulatory compliance tool for educating our employees and protecting our dealership as we navigate through the ever-changing Federal and State laws that impact the retail automobile industry.

Instead of having group meetings, handing out pieces of paper and discussing compliance issues, we now electronically administer assignments to each employee based upon position, title and responsibility. Employees are required to complete assigned modules. As each session is completed we have an electronic record that is date and time stamped for each course completed. These courses have generated indepth discussion to answer any questions and clarify any confusion.

Employees now know that they are accountable for their own training. Unlike in the past, our employees are completely engaged in the importance of understanding what compliance means to them personally and to our dealership as a whole.

We have benefitted greatly from our partnership with ARMD during a recent State compliance audit. The investigator was more than satisfied with our training efforts and impressed with the records we were able to provide by employee name and modules completed.     

Since our doors have been unlocked, our sales business is at a record pace. We just hope that we continue to build back our business from here.

Some people are calling this a dance … We’re doing all we can to stay in that dance.

Read: Restoring Consumer Trust and Dealership Profitability Post-COVID

Originally posted on F&I and Showroom