Operating a Dealership in a Rural Environment
In small towns, it’s imperative that dealerships maintain a good reputation with customers, vendors and the community at large.
I have spent most of my formative and adult years in Kirkland Lake, Ont.
I am the dealer principal and operate a Ford dealership in Kirkland Lake, and readers may wonder what it is like to work at a dealership in a small town, compared to a large urban centre.
The one obvious distinction between rural and urban dealerships is the sense of community that exists in small towns throughout the province.
That’s not to suggest that great communities do not exist in large cities (they do), but in a small town, there is a real sense of fellowship and belonging.
Small town dealerships are heavily invested in their communities, supporting many local activities and groups such as parades, festivals, arts groups, amateur sports, hospitals and other worthwhile causes.
In a small town such as Kirkland Lake, it’s a cliché to say everybody knows one another, but it’s the truth. When I’m buying groceries or going out to dinner, chances are I will encounter people I know, either colleagues, customers or friends. Social circles and activities often overlap into business and political life.
At my Ford dealership, news travels fast, and that information can be found in a number of ways: by hanging out at the local Community Complex; by picking up the latest edition of the Northern News, listening to the local radio station or asking the former mayor of Kirkland Lake, who works at my dealership.
A few years ago, two former staff members also served on Kirkland Lake town council. In Kirkland Lake, there is a lot of crossover in careers and activities. People who live and work here feel a strong sense of community.
The Kirkland Lake area of northeastern Ontario is a resource-based economy, with forestry and mining being the largest industries. When those industries are flourishing, our business tends to do well. Our fortunes (and those of other local businesses) are closely tied with those resource-based sectors.
One of the key differences between rural and urban new car dealerships is the size of the talent pool. In a rural town, the availability of skilled sales and service staff is more limited than in a large city.
We also compete with local mines in attracting talented candidates for various positions, especially tradespeople. This has been an ongoing challenge for us, particularly when the mines are busy. In recent years, we have adjusted our wages and increased our door rate in order to stay competitive.
On the vehicle side, our dealership sells a higher percentage of trucks and SUVs than hatchbacks and sedans. That’s because rural and urban car buyers live and work in different environments and have different lifestyles, which means their automotive needs are different, too.
Plus, our overall new vehicle sales volumes are lower than dealerships in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and other large cities. The population of Kirkland Lake is 8,500, and we service a customer base of approximately 18,000 people within a 100 kilometre radius.
Another fact about rural dealerships is their long-standing relationships with customers. In our case, we have a high percentage of repeat customers, many of whom are the children of parents and grandparents who bought vehicles from us. We still do business on a handshake with a lot of our customers.
This speaks to the topic of reputation, which is something that all dealerships work hard at. In small towns, it’s imperative that dealerships maintain a good reputation with customers, vendors and the community at large, as word spreads fast.
Although differences exist between rural and urban dealerships, there are similarities as well. Dealerships of all sizes, in all parts of the province, are constantly learning how to run their businesses more efficiently and how to better serve their customers. That will never change.
This column represents the views and values of the TADA. Write to email@example.com or go to tada.ca. Cliff Lafreniere is president of the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association and is president of Pinewood Park Motors (Ford) in Kirkland Lake. For information about automotive trends and careers, visit carsandjobs.com.