Legendary car dealer Carl Sewell is driven to connect

on Jun5

I don’t typically end interviews with a hug. But it seemed natural after catching up with Texas dealer Carl Sewell this year.

Sewell, a retail legend if there ever was one, had just finished talking about his philosophy on customer service and the future of the industry in front of hundreds of dealers at an industry conference. I wanted to talk to him more about his influences and how he passes along the wisdom — on both life and selling cars — that he’s acquired over the decades.

That brings me to the hug.

When I spoke to Sewell at length nearly six years ago, he talked about the successful treatment he’d received at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houstonfor cancer in his neck. When I mentioned I had days before found out a dear longtime friend had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, he turned the tables and started questioning me: Where is she being treated? Has she researched the best cancer hospitals for her diagnosis?

Sewell, 74, credits M.D. Anderson with saving his life, and he preaches the importance of seeking treatment at top cancer hospitals. He shares this advice with friends and acquaintances and will tirelessly push a friend facing cancer to seek out M.D. Anderson, where his wife, Peggy, has been a longtime member of the board of visitors.

My friend is now in remission. Sewell was genuinely glad to hear that update.

“It’s a hell of a fight,” Sewell told me. “And isn’t it interesting that once it really touches you, how you want to go help the fight for the rest of your life, standing beside somebody as they go through it and making them go get the best treatment?”

Family involvement

Sewell’s cancer fight helped shape the future of his dealership group, Sewell Automotive Cos.

The 106-year-old company — with 15 dealerships in Texas and two more to open soon — is being led day to day by the fourth generation of the family: Carl and Peggy’s two children, Jacquelin Sewell, 35, and Carl Sewell III, 33. But that wasn’t always the plan. When Sewell was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, Jacquelin worked for Vogue magazine in New York City, and her father didn’t expect her to join the family business.

But during a 1:30 a.m. telephone call in which Sewell told his daughter about his diagnosis and uncertain prognosis, Jacquelin declared she was coming home for good. His son was still finishing college, but a year later, both were back home in Dallas learning the business.

Carl Sewell with his father, Carl Sewell Sr., in 1957. The younger Sewell started working for his dad at age 14.

Customers for life

It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. The children had both worked in the dealerships during summers as teenagers. Sewell, who himself had started cleaning parts bins for his dad at age 14 for $1 an hour, says teaching kids about the business is something every dealer should do.

“The biggest mistake is that dads don’t put their arms around their children and include them in a very thoughtful way so they have great responsibility at an early age,” said Sewell, who remembers his own father taking him to the family’s Lincoln-Mercury store when he was 5 years old.

Sewell earned his retail legend status through his relentless focus on customer service and his 1990 book, Customers for Life, which has sold more than 1 million copies. But he counts himself lucky for being born into a dealership family and gives credit to many others for his success.

Among them are his father, Carl Sr., a dealer who refused to price cars above sticker even when 800 people flooded the dealership eager to buy one Saturday after World War II, and his mother, Louise, a onetime deputy U.S. marshal who’d been handed an arrest warrant for the notorious Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde fame.

“They were pretty tough to trick,” Sewell remembers with laughter. His parents passed along their values, which included respect for the people who took care of their family and really did the work.

Sewell also counts Stanley Marcus, who built Neiman Marcus, and Erik Jonsson, who built Texas Instruments, as mentors from outside the industry. He learned much about auto retailing from Oklahoma City dealer Bob Moore, whom Sewell calls “the finest automobile dealer I know.”

Credit for much of the company’s success over the years, Sewell said, also should go to Curly Crawford, who set Sewell Cadillac’s service department standard that still guides the dealerships today, and to Jerry Griffin, the “greatest salesman I’ve ever seen, who sold 712 cars in one year.”

Sewell’s basic philosophy about customers is to treat them as you would want to be treated and create a culture that supports that throughout the organization.

Retailers’ bible

Other dealers have long taken his guidance to heart. Wisconsin dealer John Bergstrom has said he makes sure to visit a Sewell store twice a year to get ideas for improving his own operations.

Bob Stallings, a financial services executive who got into auto retail when he bought a Dallas Hyundai dealership in 2013, uses Customers for Life like a bible. He keeps multiple copies in his office, home and even his car. He’s read it dozens of times, and it goes with him to the beach on vacation. “He is terrific,” Stallings says of Sewell.

Stallings was thinking of Sewell when he once intervened with a customer complaining to a service adviser that a tire on her nearly new Hyundai had blown out. The adviser was explaining that the car’s warranty didn’t cover tire damage. Stallings stepped in and told the customer the dealership would replace the tire and deal with the tire company. She later wrote him a letter telling him she’d never buy a car from any other dealer and would recommend him to all her bridge friends.

Though the vehicle itself is important, “It’s more important to have your dealership and the people in your store and your relationships with the customer be the product,” Stallings said. “Carl has made a wonderful business and wonderful brand for himself by creating a culture where everybody in the store understands that the experience of the customer is really the product they’re delivering.”

Hand in their back

Getting that culture is all about hiring the right people, training them well and constantly pushing them. Many of his employees have worked for the organization for decades, often fresh out of school, and Sewell only promotes general managers from within.

At introductory meetings with potential hires, Sewell makes sure to tell them they’ll feel a hand in their back pushing them to get better at all times. If they’re not comfortable with that, they should not take the job.

“It’s always delivering a message of expectation that we need to perform at the very highest level,” said Sewell, who oversees human resources development still today.

In return, employees get a lot of autonomy, says Mark Smith, who worked for Sewell for 25 years before leaving in 2014 and co-founding his own dealership group, Principle Auto. Smith, whom Sewell personally recruited from Texas A&M, relished the freedom.

“He set boundaries for us, but he encouraged us to try things, encouraged us to fail and encouraged us to step out and do new things,” Smith said. “He’s a great guy, and he had high expectations, and as long as you met those high expectations, he let you go run the business, and it was great.”

Smith built his career on the fixed operations side of the business and eventually became general manager of one of the Sewell Lexus stores. In late 2005, Sewell got his general managers on the phone and told them about his cancer diagnosis. A few days later, he called Smith into the corporate office and asked him to take over day-to-day company operations as COO while Sewell received treatment. After Sewell’s recovery, Smith stayed on in the COO role to help get the company through the Great Recession and start growing again.

Smith today uses what he learned to run his own stores, which he co-owns with partner Abigail Kampmann.

“He taught me the value of data, the value of quality people, the value of high performance and the value of trusting people and letting smart people run and not putting shackles on them,” Smith said. “And it shows in our results.”

Six days a week

Today, Sewell Automotive’s $2.1 billion business is about one-third American brands, one-third Japanese brands and one-third German brands. A new Mercedes-Benz store opened last year, and a BMW store is slated to open in June followed by Sewell’s third Audi store in November.

Sewell still works six days a week, though Saturday is a half day, he says. He now counts his daily responsibilities as driving culture, managing capital and overseeing construction, human resources and marketing.

Sewell dismisses the retail industry’s frequent hand-wringing over hiring and the challenges of millennial employees as “a lot of baloney.”

The company recruits about 75 college graduates a year, and “they’ve got a lot more spring in their step,” Sewell said. “Our future is great, and it’s in great hands with a lot of wonderful young people who have great aspirations of excellence.”

He acknowledges online sales are changing the industry — he admits he hasn’t quite figured out how it will all play out. Despite projections that the dealer-customer relationship will matter less in this new world, customers still want someone to take care of them that they can trust, Sewell said.

“We’re a pretty wily old group,” he said of dealers. “Hopefully, we’ll survive.”

When we end our conversation, after giving me that hug, Sewell imparts a last bit of wisdom, jumping again from auto retail to helping loved ones stay healthy. “If you know someone with cardiovascular issues, go to Cleveland Clinic,” Sewell said as he walked out the door, off to another engagement.

Carl Sewell

Title: Chairman, Sewell Automotive Cos., Dallas
Annual vehicle sales: 40,000 new and used
Annual revenue: $2.1 billion
Dealerships: 15, all in Texas, with a 16th and 17th opening this year
Brands: Cadillac, Lexus, Infiniti, Audi, Buick, GMC, Mini, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz, BMW (coming)
Family: Wife, Peggy; daughter, Jacquelin, 35, and son, Carl, 33, are co-presidents of operations.
Philosophy: Treat the customer how you would like to be treated.

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