Business

Business Lessons From America’s No. 1 Chevy Dealer

His father's advice still inspires Tom Durant of Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine.

What’s it take to be the best in your business? Some might say you need to master new technologies. Others might preach the importance of controlling costs or hiring the best new talent. But for Tom Durant, owner of Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine, success still boils down to the lessons he learned on his father’s car lot in Granbury. Be fair with people. Take care of their problems. And watch them come back.

Classic has been the top-selling Chevrolet dealer in the United States nine out of the last 10 years. Last year, it sold about 5,600 cars and trucks. In the first six months of this year, sales were up 20 percent, even as Chevrolet sales nationwide declined by 18 percent. Classic is on pace to sell 6,200 vehicles in 2016, which would be a record for Chevrolet dealers. About 80 percent of the sales are repeat or referral customers, some of whom have bought as many as 20 vehicles from the dealership.

After working in pipelines and construction, Julian Durant bought a Chevrolet dealership in Granbury in 1960, when his son Tom was 11. Tom started washing cars, and one day asked his father why people would drive all the way from Fort Worth to shop with them. His dad told him: “It’s basically because we treat people the way they want to be treated. If you treat them right, they’re going to go home and they’re going to send someone else out to see us.”

After graduating from Texas Tech University, Tom Durant went to work with his dad and eventually bought him out. He expanded into Fort Worth, buying a dealership near downtown, and in 1992 moved it to Grapevine. A series of expansions has built Classic into a behemoth 50-acre car lot with 2,800 vehicles. A new body shop is being added.

“I brought the country to the city,” Tom Durant says. “I treated people the way [we] did in Granbury.”

That means employing practices that aren’t common in today’s auto business, says Glen Pirtle, a veteran of the Dallas dealer world who joined Classic as general sales manager last year.

Durant believes his customers only want to deal with one person, not get bounced between managers and sales staff. So every salesperson is empowered to cut the deal. Durant also believes customers like dealing with people they know. So he has a stable veteran sales staff—on average, they’ve been at Classic for 10 years—and only hires people with experience. The dealership has no training program.

And Durant believes customers want to feel relaxed. So his sales staff has no formal dress code, even allowing shorts in the summer. If customers want to start talking price on the car lot, known as fender trading, that’s OK. You also don’t have to give a salesperson a load of personal information before a sale is conducted, as is the case at many other dealerships. And he believes in taking care of a customer’s problem, even if it wasn’t the dealership’s fault. “I’m not afraid to spend money if I have to,” Durant says.

While the way he deals with customers hasn’t changed, Durant has adapted to the times. At Classic, internet sales comprise nearly 40 percent of transactions, meaning a sale is conducted without the customer being on the car lot. Now 66, Tom Durant has spent recent years expanding. The Classic Family of Dealerships has grown to 16 stores—including the original Granbury dealership, known as Classic Chevrolet Buick GMC—and two stores in Denton, one in Arlington, and one in Carrollton.  There are other locations in Houston, Oklahoma, and Florida.

And it remains a family business. Tom’s son, Bentley, now runs the daily operations at Classic in Grapevine and is general counsel for the network of dealerships. Asked about his personal drive, Tom Durant says he got his competitive edge from his mother, who always pitted him against his older brother, Jerry, himself an accomplished auto dealer. For years the brothers compared monthly sales numbers, seeing who could sell more. Outside Jerry Durant Toyota in Granbury stands a statue of two bulls locking horns. Friends call the bulls Tom and Jerry, still battling for a competitive edge.

 

Steve Kaskovich is the deputy managing editor of business for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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