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Monday, May 23, 2022

King of the Hill

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Being nice can get you to lots of places. Just ask David Gonzalez.

The general manager of Fletcher Jones Motorcars in Newport Beach has been in the car business since 1991 and knows a thing or two about what works—and what wins people over at the end of the day—hasn’t changed across the span of Gonzalez’s career.

The general manager, who immediately comes across as affable and warm, leads a team of about 320 employees with his store ranking No. 1 on this week’s Business Journal list of the largest dealers here (see page 13). Gonzalez and team—which run the country’s largest Mercedes-Benz center—cap a year that saw the completion of a major renovation and a continued laser-like focus on elevating the service offerings to keep Fletcher Jones ahead of the pack.

“When you have a friend and they tell you, ‘Oh, you’re going to see the new Superman movie. It’s the best movie I’ve ever seen,’ inevitably you’re let down because the expectations are so high,” Gonzalez said. “But, in the car business, it’s the opposite of that. It’s not a high bar; the customers’ expectations are really very low. That’s why I actually fell in love with the industry because if you’re just nice and treat people with kindness and love, it’s incredibly easy to be successful.”

The business fell about 3.7% for the 12 months through June 30 to $637.4 million, in line with the local industry, which collectively dipped nearly 1%. Product mix was the main reason. Pre-owned sales of less-expensive cars have ticked upward at Fletcher Jones Newport Beach while pricier new cars were down, which is what drove the downward movement during the period, according to Gonzalez. That trend’s likely to continue, he added, with the industry largely focused on service and pre-owned sales into the coming years.

Toledo, Vegas, OC

Gonzalez, who has been with Fletcher Jones since 2006, got his start selling Nissans to pay his way through the University of Toledo. He zigzagged around to several dealers in the years that followed, eventually working his way up to general manager status at the age of 28.

He relocated to Las Vegas after friends acquired a Lexus dealership and made him general manager there, and that’s where he met Fletcher “Ted” Jones Jr.

He started off as a sales manager at Fletcher Jones, working for the company in Fremont, Chicago and then in 2017 made the move to Newport Beach as the store’s general manager.

“I love sports and I’m super competitive,” Gonzalez said. “As you get older, you can’t quite play sports at the same level that you used to and it’s fun being on a team. The car business gives you all those attributes. Every day is a challenge and you get to do it with, hopefully, a group of people that you love.”

Some things have stayed the same across his time in the industry. Customers still think dealers make a ton of money but the margins are slim, for example. In other cases, shifts in consumer behavior continue to challenge those in the car business to make a lasting first impression.

In the past, it was normal to not sell a customer a car the first time they entered a dealership since they would typically come back, shopping five or six different stores. Now, Gonzalez said, they visit on average 1.5 stores.

“We used to go to the grocery store and now we order everything off the iPad,” Gonzalez said. “But groceries and cars, I think, are decidedly different where a car is an emotional experience for typically three years, so I think you really need to get out there and touch it, feel it, smell it. There’s definitely less of that because of the internet, but reading [online] does not tell you what your personal feelings are towards a car. It tells you what someone else feels.”

Attention to detail, listening more than talking, having a servant mentality and being consultative are all keys to successfully selling, he said.

“You have to look at it as you’re delivering an experience, not a transaction, and trying to build a long-term relationship,” Gonzalez said.

To that end, Fletcher Jones Newport Beach about six months ago capped a major renovation project that continues to elevate the experience there through increasing the number of bays in the service area to accommodate growth of that business, higher-end offices for the top sales people and a new finance area that takes inspiration from five-star resorts like the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton.

The company is also looking into an app that extends the customer service experience into the digital realm with the potential ability to book services, loaner cars, airport shuttles and roadside assistance.

“I think our future is going to be dependent on finding ways to minimize the time it takes a customer to purchase a vehicle or service their car,” Gonzalez said. “You need to create an experience, but be super respectful of customers’ time. As we get all this extra technology, you would think we would have more time, but I think I’m like anyone else, if I have the option it probably wouldn’t be more money, it would be more time.”

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