The Wal-Mart of Auto Sales?

Come south, young man. That was the siren song Mike Jackson heard from the desperate lips of Wayne Huizenga, the entrepreneur who built Waste Management and Blockbuster Entertainment into behemoths. Huizenga’s latest venture, consolidating hundreds of new-car dealerships into a single company based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was deep in debt. That’s why, in September 1999, he sent Jackson, president of Mercedes-Benz USA and one of the industry’s top marketing gurus, an SOS.

Despite being the biggest car and truck dealer in the country and three times the size of its nearest competitor, AutoNation was sinking fast. Huizenga bet that Jackson, who started his career as a mechanic in a Cape Cod Mercedes dealership, could be the life preserver that AutoNation needed.

Jackson already had spent a decade as a marketing strategist, driving Mercedes to sales levels once thought improbable for a luxury car import. He convinced Jürgen Hubbert, worldwide Mercedes chief, to build cars for the U.S. market with all the safety features available in Europe, because that was what American luxury buyers wanted. And he prodded Mercedes to build a factory in Alabama for assembling vehicles, namely the M-Class SUV, specifically for the North American market.

Another strategy he employed was breaking away from the auto industry’s costly spiral of rising sales incentives. “Jackson told me we have to get off the rebate drug,” says Bob Crolic, manager of an AutoNation Mercedes dealership in Pembroke Pines, Fla., and a former colleague of his at Mercedes-Benz USA. Jackson achieved this by finding the true transaction price of a model€¦quot;what it was selling for at the dealership€¦quot;and setting that as the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. He also made sure that supply was in line with demand, helping turn sales around without onerous rebates.

Inspired by the challenge of turning AutoNation around, Jackson took Huizenga up on his offer. After assuming the job of CEO, he initially had a wrenching time of saving the ship. He cut costs dramatically, shedding 200 jobs at corporate headquarters and shutting down the company’s unprofitable used-car megastores. They were supposed to be an outlet for the vehicles that AutoNation’s car rental companies, Alamo and National, took out of service, but all they produced was red ink. Going further, Jackson spun off Alamo and National to stockholders.

Jackson has focused on AutoNation’s core business, new-car dealerships, and he has slowed the company’s rapid growth. Under his leadership, he says, the company will save $500 million to $1 billion annually over the next two years. Earnings per share have increased 15 percent a year since 1999 (see charts, this page).

But for all his success, Jackson still faces serious challenges. If history is any gauge, an oil crisis or a recession could cause car and truck sales to plummet more than 20 percent, imperiling AutoNation’s future. Jackson’s formula for avoiding such calamity is similar to that of companies in many industries: embrace change and innovation or risk losing your relevancy. But, like fellow major retailers Wal-Mart and Home Depot, AutoNation can’t do it alone. The company must rely on its suppliers€¦quot;automakers€¦quot;to produce vehicles of high value and to shorten model life cycles so car buyers always have fresh choices.

In some ways, Jackson’s experience made him ideally suited for the top job at AutoNation. Prior to taking the position, he had worked half of his career in retail and the other half in manufacturing. “The retail experience gave me a sense of selling and servicing customers one at a time,” he says. Running Mercedes-Benz USA offered him the experience of managing a company on a larger scale. “I was uniquely prepared to come to AutoNation because I understood scale and long-term planning,” he says. As he moves forward at AutoNation, he will need to rely on his expertise in both.

Today, AutoNation is the country’s largest seller of new and used vehicles, both through dealerships and over the Internet. It operates 287 dealership locations and 373 new-vehicle franchises, representing 35 brands in 18 states. With revenues of nearly $20 billion, it is the largest public company in Florida. About 61 percent of AutoNation’s revenues come from new-car sales, 23 percent come from used-car sales, 13 percent from parts and service, and the rest from finance and insurance services. However, even though it is primarily a new-car retailer, 70 percent of AutoNation’s gross profit comes from its other three sectors.

Despite his intense focus on cost cutting, Jackson remains open to growth opportunities. “We’re looking for willing sellers and have an ongoing dialogue with many principals,” he says. This year alone, AutoNation has purchased five dealerships, paying for each of them in cash. “I am not going to pay with my undervalued stock,” the CEO says.

As of early June, AutoNation stock had been trading at around $17, a price that Jackson believed was too low. That’s why he ponied up $58.1 million to repurchase 3.5 million shares, or 1.3 percent of the company’s common stock, in the first quarter of this year. AutoNation bought back the stock at an average price of $11 per share. “Our shares are undervalued, so I would not give those out for an acquisition,” Jackson says. “I have all the cash I need to do acquisitions over the next two or three years and time is on my side.” His strategy is to wait for the right valuation from a willing seller.

Industry analysts foresee a strong future for AutoNation. Merrill Lynch recently rated AutoNation as a buy, with a target price of $20.50. It said the company has a “sustainable EPS growth rate at about 10 percent, driven by modest organic growth and aggressive buybacks.” Stephen Girsky of Morgan Stanley, one of the nation’s top auto analysts, describes AutoNation’s business model as very attractive. Jackson, he says, has made it even more attractive by taking the best practices from around the country and incorporating them into every AutoNation dealership. Girsky also applauds Jackson’s focus on profitability rather than growth for growth’s sake. “I like the fact that he’s very disciplined,” he says.

Girsky notes that AutoNation got very big very fast and that Jackson wisely calmed things down. Jackson did a better job of cutting costs than did other major auto retailing consolidators such as United Auto Group and Lithia, Girsky says. “He can potentially cut costs further, but he can’t cost-cut to prosperity forever,” the analyst says. For instance, AutoNation can’t buy cars any cheaper than it already does. “He needs to buy more dealerships if he wants to grow,” Girsky says.

But Jackson says he won’t participate in a buying frenzy such as the one that took place in the mid-’90s gold rush, when consolidators were paying an astonishing six to seven times earnings per share. Prices for independent dealerships were one to two times earnings per share. “It was important for us to step out of the [acquisition] market until the irrational period ended,” he says. The going price for independent dealerships is three to five times earnings per share today.

Putting acquisitions on the back burner enabled Jackson to concentrate on cutting costs. “There has been a 500-basis-point improvement in cost reduction since I started here,” Jackson says. That amounts to $150 million per year in savings. An example of AutoNation’s integration strategy is what the company did with its South Florida dealers. They used to have 30 accounting departments that served those dealerships. Now all of that accounting is done at one center, at a Dodge dealership in Pembroke Pines. “We’re talking about 30 dealerships that are now one as far as accounting business and technology are concerned,” Jackson says.

His goal is to bring the benefits of big-box technology to automotive retailing. “It will take us years to get to the level of Wal-Mart and Home Depot,” Jackson acknowledges, but “ultimately, it will be a benefit for the entire car dealer industry.” The easy work is over, he says, looking ahead to potential cost savings in other areas such as inventory management.

Tracking Every Customer
Low interest rates and generous inventory allowances from automakers now enable AutoNation to keep a relatively high stock of vehicles. The company’s Web site recently reported that AutoNation had about 110,000 cars in inventory. “But we have the automakers carry all of our inventory risks,” says John Zimmerman, director of investor relations. He says that when inventories get too high, AutoNation stops ordering.

The overcapacity situation in car manufacturing is burdening automakers because labor contracts require them to produce cars even at a loss, creating the need for hefty incentives to liquidate excess inventory. AutoNation normally starts paying interest when a vehicle leaves the factory. But Zimmerman says the need to move vehicles out of their plants has forced carmakers to pay the first 60 days of inventory costs. General Motors pays up to 140 days of interest on some vehicles, he says.

According to Zimmerman, AutoNation makes a profit of only between 7 and 8 percent on new vehicles. “Under seven percent, we start losing money and eventually we’d go out of business,” he says. “In good times, we earn eight percent.” He terms the present climate as “hard times,” with margins running at about 7 percent. Fortunately, AutoNation makes most of its money on the back end of the business€¦quot;and that segment offers the greatest growth potential in profits.

Jackson says AutoNation is improving its sales effectiveness through a program of capturing every kind of customer€¦quot;those walking into stores, phoning or inquiring via the Internet. Every customer call or store visit is recorded in AutoNation’s computer system, so each dealer can scan a customer’s sales history. For instance, if a customer leaves an AutoNation Chevrolet store and goes to one of its Ford dealerships, the Ford appraiser can readily find out whether the Chevy dealer appraised the car and, if so, at what value.

“Everybody goes to the computer,” Jackson says. “The computer also gives us information on which store will have the vehicle the customer wants.” Jackson says this helps customers get the best price. But price still depends on supply and demand. He notes that a purple vehicle takes an average of 90 days to sell, compared with 10 days for a silver vehicle. “We can give the customer a better price on the silver vehicle because of that,” Jackson says.

Adds AutoNation President Mike Maroone, “We’re ready and willing to sell vehicles at any price point. Our pricing policy is to compete in the local marketplace.” That helps AutoNation sell cars at the lowest possible price everywhere. “There are vehicles that we give away and others that we sell at MSRP,” Maroone says. “You have to have a mix between losers and winners.”

About 25 percent of AutoNation’s new-vehicle profits comes from the premium luxury segment. Most of the rest comes from sales of Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, Nissan and Honda cars and trucks. “Smaller brands is not what AutoNation does,” Jackson says. He believes that the domestic brands can retake some market share if their newest products can generate excitement with car buyers. He is particularly impressed with Chrysler’s new brawny yet sleek luxury sedan, the 300C (see Cover Story, page 24). He also believes that Chevrolet is poised for a comeback.

Jackson forecasts that new-vehicle sales will range between 16.5 million and 17 million units this year. He acknowledges that publicly traded megadealers such as AutoNation and its main competitors€¦quot;Group 1 Automotive, Sonic Automotive and United Auto Group€¦quot;have only 6 percent of this market. (AutoNation controls half of that.) That leaves independent dealers with the major share of sales, and Jackson doesn’t see that situation changing dramatically.  

There are critics who contend that consolidated dealer groups like AutoNation don’t offer any advantages over independent mom-and-pop franchises that they have swallowed up by the hundreds. But, while he doesn’t have purely open road ahead, Jackson has been proving those critics wrong ever since he answered Wayne Huizenga’s fateful call.

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