The fact that car sellers have a bad reputation – ranking in popularity close to Congress – with the public has a lot to do with it. But there are plenty of reputable dealers who are looking for a few good men and – belatedly – women to help capitalize on a surge in car buying in the post-recession U.S. "A very good living can be made selling cars, but I think it is a misunderstood profession in a lot of ways," says Brooks O'Hara, a vice president (and now an HR consultant) at Group1 Automotive, a Houston-based company that owns and operates 162 auto dealerships, 212 franchises and 37 collision repair centers, making it one of the largest operators in auto retailing.
Between 2008 and 2010 the business of making and selling cars was in a free fall. General Motors and Chrysler had gone through bankruptcies, and while emerging from those bankruptcies GM had shed divisions and Chrysler had merged with Fiat to establish FCA. Industry sales had tanked from a high of about 17 million vehicles a year to roughly 10 million in 2009. But consumer demand is back, and sales were projected to be about 17 million vehicles through the 2016 calendar year.
Car dealerships are remarkably stable businesses. Most of the revenue and profit is actually made from selling used cars, servicing cars and fees from financing. Only about 20% comes from selling new cars, but that business is critical to keeping a dealership humming and flowing, or – if a volume-oriented big box store – churning and burning.
Careerbuilder.com typically lists some 60 jobs in sales from Group 1 out of more than 10,000 for various companies advertising for auto sales. What can someone expect in terms of compensation, hours and advancement in car sales? Here is the breakdown, according to O'Hara:
- People starting out who figure to rely mostly on store walk-in traffic are going to find it a tough grind. Hourly pay will be minimum wage or a bit better depending on the store. The real money is in commission. Working on commission, O'Hara says, is the toughest thing for second-career people with college degrees to get used to.
- Expect a five or six day work week, and about 55 hours a week to start out. In some states – such as Texas – dealerships are closed on Sundays. At many dealerships, sales staffs rotate weekends so the same people aren't always stuck working Saturdays. In some states, where dealerships are open on both weekend days, many work as many weekends as they can, and take two days off during the week. "The fact is most of the business transacts on the weekends," says O'Hara. That is one of the facts of the business that has long made it a challenge to retain women (or heads of single parent households) in dealerships.
- Every dealership has a person or people dedicated to following sales leads that come from the Internet, especially from online shopping sites like Autoblog. Some people, says O'Hara, live off their phone and like that end of the business. Others are more comfortable working leads in person. Social media is becoming increasingly important to vehicle sellers, and those who are comfortable in that space use it as a tool to stay in touch with customers they have helped for years.
- What kind of money can a top earner expect? O'Hara points to a seller he knows who makes approximately $300,000 annually, selling about 215 cars a year. How does he manage it? He has a Rolodex of customers he keeps track of, and he takes such good care of them that even though his principal business is selling BMWs, his customers go to him for any car they want to buy and he makes it happen with a salesperson at another dealership with whom he splits a commission. Conversely, new hires – as this is updated at the end of 2016 – at an AutoNation BMW store in Dallas reportedly start with a $2K base per month and a $100 commission on the sale, even if that sale is a $100K BMW. With volume incentives they can make real money, but this is a volume model on a showroom packed with new car salespeople.
- How is the business for women? It can be impressively lucrative. Laurie Moses, who works at Suburban Ford in Waterford Township, Mich. (not a Group 1 dealership) was named top seller for Ford Motor Co. in 2012, selling 559 vehicles that year. The 36-year old has been at it since 1996. The early days of selling cars wasn't easy, she said. "It was more difficult when I didn't have (regular clients). I had to prove I knew as much as the man who sat next to me." Her experience pays off. "Now the trust is there and customers know I know what I'm talking about," Moses said. For a person considering vehicle sales as a career, Moses advises not giving up. "It's tough. There is a lot of rejection. I see a lot of people give up and go do something else but they will never get to where I'm at (by quitting). You have to have a good attitude."
Although it can be lucrative, women doing two jobs – the 8-to-8 of automotive retail in addition to caring for a home and children – find the automotive retail schedule requiring too much in personal sacrifice. In short, adults with a commitment to their families still need to look at automotive retail very carefully.
- Is there a type of person who is best suited to selling cars? Group 1's O'Hara says he has seen a lot of overlap between people in the mortgage banking field cross over when the housing market went soft a few years ago. But he has also seen teachers, salespeople in other fields and even managers in other industries who got tired of managing other people and just want to manage themselves. It may sound obvious, he says, but you have to want to work with people and be willing to talk all day. The ability to network is a key to success. And you have to be adept at managing a database of people – that's where your livelihood is going to come from. And when you take care of customers the right way, they tend to want to share the experience with their family and friends, and that's how success in the business is born.
- Advancement? Many people want to stay on the showroom and control their own income. But it generally takes several years of successful selling to be considered for a position in sales management, and several years in that career step before one is qualified to be a dealership's general manager.
The future? For all the talk of a greater penetration of mass transit, light rail, and the like, the U.S. is still a country that gets around in cars. The auto industry is expected to stay very stable for the next decade, selling between 15 million and 17 million new vehicles a year. And then there is an additional 40 million (or so) used cars and trucks that get sold by someone. That someone, of course, could be you.
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