In Dealership Business, Success Isn’t Always Linear

by Tracey Schelmetic

When 2020 is rolled up to be analyzed, nearly every company – even the successful ones – are likely to find they made quite a few mistakes. It’s been a turbulent and unprecedented year, and no business leaders are in possession of a crystal ball. Dealerships have had to adapt quickly to changing market circumstances, and those with better flexibility and more imagination are likely to be the closest things to winners.

In a recent Dealer News Today podcast with Dave Cantin and Andy Cherkasky, Rob Cochran (CEO and President of Western Pennsylvania’s #1 Cochran), noted that many dealers are responding to a changing sales process and customer base with panic and short-term thinking, and this is unlikely to lead to adaptability and survival.

“The businesses that survive will be those making long-term plans and strategies,” noted Cochran.

In business, Cochran, who owns and operates 21 stores, recommends strategies that are simple but maintain real depth These include taking care of customers, improving engagement with the workforce, and building better management teams. During a time of upheaval, improving the company becomes mostly about protecting the company and employees’ jobs.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

It’s also important to plan to dig in for a long campaign. Successful dealers need to be approaching their businesses with a type of “marathon mentality,” noted Cochran. It’s critical to remember that success isn’t linear, and even the best-run dealerships will have two steps forward and one step back.

“There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs on the journey,” he said. “Inventory might run short. The virus might reemerge in the fall. There are unanswered questions. We’re not going to win a race. It’s not a sprint, or even a 400-meter race. We’re not going to win or lose in a short period of time. Our people have taken that to heart. We’ve done a good job of communicating with our customers and working with our safety practices. But we’re still in the midst of it, and we have to keep focused every day. As we do that, there will be more and more opportunities.”

Entrepreneurship and Opportunity in a Crisis

While opportunities will arise during 2020 and beyond, they will require entrepreneurship to recognize and pay off. This means it will be necessary to assume risk, according to Cochran.

“What I think is fascinating about entrepreneurship is the risk involved: finding the self-confidence to say, ‘This is an idea that I can put my neck out for.’ In most cases, it’s lined up with financial risk, but to me, it’s not just financial risk,” he said. “It’s emotional risk. When you create a company, when you have people in key roles — and maybe even not-so-key roles — that can find it within themselves to say ‘I’m going to take a risk. I’m going to raise my hand. I’m going to say there’s a better way to do this.’ When I see people doing that within our organization, I can relate back to times when I made decisions to say, ‘I feel pretty good about this.’”

While data is certainly an important element of decision-making, Cochran warns against relying exclusively on statistics, particularly for the experienced entrepreneur. Balance data analysis with the lessons of experience about where the business’s goals are headed, he recommended.

Cantin agreed with Cochran’s assessment.

“When an entrepreneur thinks he knows it all, that’s the day he should sell his company and bow out,” he said.

Cochran noted that his goal for #1 Cochran is to be a better company a year from today. He plans to accomplish this by taking his own advice and focusing on internal improvements.

“Improve the work environment and understand who you are as an executive or leadership team. When we get better, opportunities come,” he said.