Bob Alvine is car dealer.
But unlike most car dealers, he didn’t start his career in the auto business. Instead, it started in commercial finance.
After getting his degree in finance from the University of Rhode Island, and then his MBA from the University of New Haven, he spent the next fifteen years in commercial finance. It’s an interesting place for an auto dealer to start.
In commercial finance, you’re dealing with big, important clients. And the relationship is of the utmost importance. Treat your clients right, and they’ll keep coming back. If you don’t, you pay a steep price. Those important relationships are built over years, and you learn their value very quickly. It was a great lesson for the years to come.
So when Mr. Alvine decided to become a car dealer, it was a circuitous route. He loved cars, and even had worked at a car dealership through college. And being in commercial finance, he had dealt with dozens of car dealers. He formed some great relationships and gained important experience getting to know the ins and outs of the auto dealer world.
And in 2000, when a small and nearly failing Connecticut Subaru dealership went up for sale, Alvine put together a business plan to show Subaru that he knew what it would take to turn it around and he could make it successful. They approved him, and he went all-in. Putting his life savings on the line and taking on millions of dollars in debt. He knew Subaru was a great brand, and was positive he could make it work.
Working long hours, (sometimes seven days a week), he’s taken that Subaru dealership from floundering to thriving. And a few years later, because of that success, he was awarded a second Subaru dealership in, this one in Watertown.
Because of his track record and his store’s consistently high customer satisfaction ratings, other brands have come calling. But he’ll be the first to tell you-he’s extremely careful about the brands he’d consider representing. He does his homework and will only consider partnering with brands with the best reputation. So, when Kia called in 2011, he knew this was a big opportunity.
“Kia is one of the brands that, as a dealer, you really want. What most people don’t know is that Kia is a hugely successful global auto manufacturer. They sell around 3 million cars annually. That’s more than brands like Mercedes, BMW and Jeep”
Alvine’s experience in valuing relationships that he learned in his early banking career has been an important lesson in how he runs his dealerships, and how he treats everyone from employees to customers.
For employees, everyone is part of a team. It’s a philosophy that resonates through every department of his dealerships. That started at the beginning at the first Subaru store, when there were just eleven total employees. Now that’s grown to over a hundred and fifty, but still with that same team philosophy. Many of those team members have moved up over the years, as he’s a big believer in promoting from within. And he’s very conscious of equal pay. In his dealerships, women and men are paid the same wages for the same positions, with no exceptions. And the highest position in the dealer group, right below his, is held by a woman.
And when it comes to customers, those relationships are just as important. He has a consumer “Bill of Rights” that’s posted in each of his three dealerships. They show the progressive and customer centric policies that he’s put in place.
Those policies are like a customer’s wish list. A price protection policy, a clear title policy. Truth in advertising. Guaranteed buy back, three-day exchange. And every new car that his dealerships sell comes with an honest to goodness, lifetime powertrain warranty. We asked him to elaborate on the lifetime warranty.
“It’s a real warranty, and it has costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to put that warranty on every new car we sell. But it’s well worth it for the peace of mind it brings our customers. It’s a huge benefit, and it’s a real warranty. You can use it nationwide, and there’s no deductible at any of our stores. It really is a tremendous value”
But probably the most customer centric policies are these two.
First, his salespeople are not paid on commission, but instead on a combination of salary, volume bonus and customer satisfaction bonus. Consumers may not realize what that actually means to them, so we’ll have Bob explain it. “Normally your salesperson, who should be your ally in helping you find the best deal, is paid on commission. That means they have a financial interest in not getting you the best deal. If they can get you to pay more, they’ll get paid more.” And they do. At nearly every other car dealer in the country, (pretty much since the beginning of car dealers), this is the way it works. This way the dealer knows he’s making as much profit on the deal as possible, because the salesperson gets paid more when they do. Often, a lot more.
But at the Premier dealerships, they don’t. They have no reason to charge you more, and actually the opposite. Because they’re paid on customer satisfaction, and a customer who’s charged too much isn’t going to be satisfied. They are actually paid more to be on your side, the way it should be.
Secondly, is the service recommendation process at his dealerships. The most profitable department in a car dealership is most often the service department. And the more often you service your car, the more money they make. So most dealers take the manufacturers recommendations for how often you should service your car, and they make the mileage intervals shorter. Sometimes as much as doubling the number of times (and cost) of your service.
But at the Premier dealerships, Mr. Alvine has done away with those costly service recommendations. He has limited any recommendations to only the ones directly from the manufacturer. “They built the car” he says “why should a dealer tell you that you need to service it more than the factory tells you”.
Both of these policies are perfect examples of what Bob calls “People Above Profits”. They both cost a lot to implement and maintain. But like the exchange policy, it’s his way of putting his money where his mouth is. Satisfying his customers above all else.
And his commitment to local charities is extremely important. Although he doesn’t like to talk about it much, he’s involved in numerous local charities. Working with Subaru’s Share the Love events, they’ve donated over two hundred thousand dollars, to Camp Rising Sun which goes a long way to helping with their mission of caring for kids with cancer. They’re also a big supporter of the Lever Center in Watertown. They support Meals on Wheels and have also supported the Jazz Fest for the town of Branford for the last nine years, among many other local charities. “We love our communities”, he said, “and we love to be a part of our communities.”
And he’s also a supporter of the University of Rhode Island – where he established a scholarship for students – from Connecticut – who wanted to attend URI but, had an economic need.
Alvine’s commitment to his customers, and his policies of transparency, honesty and courtesy have served him well. His dealerships enjoy some of the highest ratings of dealers for his brands. He’s in the process of building one of the largest Subaru facilities in New England right across from his current Branford store. His conference room will be available for local groups and charities to have meetings or events.
He doesn’t get many calls from upset customers, who felt like they were taken advantage of, because at his dealerships, they simply don’t do it.
And where most dealers won’t give a price on the phone or online, Alvine has done just the opposite. Complete transparency. He’s built a part of his site that’s called “Premier Online Purchase” and it allows you to take every step of the buying process and do it online. You never need to step foot in the dealership. And while many car dealers would bury this type of transparency deep in the annals of their website, Alvine puts it front and center. As a matter of fact, it’s the very first thing, on the very first page of his website.
Because of these policies, Mr. Alvine is the first Connecticut recipient of the Trusted Dealership Award.
So, if you’re looking for a new or pre-owned car, and you’d like to buy it from a dealer who’s honest, caring, transparent and courteous, we wish you the best of luck.
But if you’re in Connecticut, you won’t need luck. Just directions to one of the Premier dealerships.