For this installment of Dealerships in Depth, we spoke with Jerry Mullinax, of the Mullinax Auto Group.

Mullinax Auto Group specializes in sales and service of new Ford cars and trucks and pre-owned vehicles of all makes and models throughout the Southern region, with several dealerships in Apopka, Kissimmee, New Smyrna Beach, Orlando, West Palm Beach FL, Mobile AL and Olympia Washington.

Q. What do you think is your greatest strength as an auto dealer?

I think our real strength is our people and the culture we have developed over the years. We have a lot of great people who work for us. The majority of our employees like working for us, and many of them have built careers here. I find that very rewarding. A lot of that is because we have a culture that is very customer friendly, not adversarial in any way. We were the first to be a one price shop. We call it UP FRONT® pricing. This allows both our customers, and our employees to enjoy a lower stress environment, during buying, etc. It just makes the total experience that much more pleasant for everybody.

That’s also one of the things that really distinguishes us from other dealers. You know, my dad started doing the UP FRONT® pricing back in 1975, long before Saturn made that part of their brand. He is credited as the first dealer ever to do “one price”, so when I grew up in the car business, I thought that was the only way it was done. So, UP FRONT® pricing, no surprises, no dealer fees, it’s all in our DNA. We just keep it real friendly, and real simple.

Q. Tell us a little about your personal background Jerry. How did you get started in the industry and build this Auto Group?

My dad started it all in 1970. He bought a Ford dealership out of bankruptcy in Amherst, Ohio. My brother Larry and I starting working there when Larry was in the 4th grade and I was in the 3rd. We started mowing lawns and things like that around our dad’s dealership.

My dad was successful with Ford, and grew the business. Soon we had five dealerships, two of which were in the top five – we had the 3rd largest and the 5th largest Ford dealerships in the U.S. Eventually, we sold our dealerships to AutoNation. So, I worked for AutoNation for three years, and then around sixteen years ago, I bought the Apopka location. My brother Larry joined me about two years later, and we bought the New Smyrna Beach location. We now have six Ford locations in Florida and Alabama, and two years ago, we bought a store in Olympia, Washington.

Q. What is your most significant accomplishment as an auto dealership/ auto industry professional?

For me, I really think the most rewarding part of this business is when I see people grow with us. We have so many people who started with us working in the detail department, cleaning cars for nine dollars an hour, and the most rewarding thing is to see these people move up the ladder. They took on other jobs, selling cars, becoming full-fledged techs, or managers, and then I see them buying houses, sending their kids to college, what-have-you. It is just such a great feeling to see how it was when they came here, barely able to afford rent, and 4 to 5 years later they are buying houses. We made that kind of difference in their lives.

Q. What are the greatest challenges facing auto dealers right now, and how is your company responding to those challenges?

I really think the greatest challenge facing auto dealers right now is margin compression, especially on the new car side. In the last 18 months or so, there has been a lot of margin compression, particularly in Florida, but in some of our other stores as well. In fact, I think it was happening in Washington before it hit Florida. In any case, there has been a lot of margin compression and we’ve got to be better in service, parts and used cars, to make up for that short fall. In the future, there may not be a lot or growth in new cars, and you are going to have to know how to make money from the other parts of the business.

Q. How long have you been a client with MBAF? How has that relationship helped you face those challenges, and otherwise helped you to reach your goals as a dealer?

Well, I have been working with MBAF and Ira Silver, for 10, maybe 11 years now, and the thing that is great about Ira, is I can call him anytime. I don’t know that there are too many people out there that I can call at any time, but, Ira I can. He is going to pick up the phone and answer me and talk an issue through. If we have an issue and I need some advice right away, it’s not like “set up an appointment with my assistant,” and we’ll talk four days later. No. With Ira, I can call him and we can talk about it right now. He knows his stuff, he does a good job, and is someone I can count on. I like that.

Q. Where would you like, or expect your dealership to be 5, 10 years from now?

Of course we want to continue to grow. Five years from now maybe I’d like to see us with ten stores, and continue to develop people so we have good people to run those stores… people that can take us into the future.