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A Classic Operation

Feb 23, 2012 04:43PM ● Published by Mike

from NET Business Resource Magazine - Nov/Dec 2011

Tops in the Nation - Tom Durant and son Hagen have built the nation’s No. 1 volume Chevy dealership (6 years running) at Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine by treating their customers and employees like family.

According to Classic Chevrolet owner, Tom Durant, it all started with his father’s Chevrolet Dealership in Granbury, Texas. For over fifty years the Durant family has been in the business of selling cars in the Dallas, Fort Worth marketplace. After learning the trade from his father Julian, and older brother Jerry, Tom purchased his first dealership in 1972 and never looked back. In recent years Durant’s flagship Grapevine dealership has expanded to 22 acres touching most every aspect of the industry from new and used vehicles, and commercial specialty vehicles, to a state-of-the-art body shop. Along the way his namesake Durant Auto Group has built a solid and sustaining business that includes ten dealerships throughout Texas and Florida.

Many years later, the Durant family tradition continues as son Hagen has ascended to the role of Classic Chevrolet’s General Manager. Together father and son have successfully established a community first ideal resulting in a rewarding streak of highly satisfied employees, customers, and accolades as the nation’s top volume Chevrolet dealership five years running.

Classic Beginnings
One day, as a boy, Tom Durant walked up to his father and asked him, “Why do all these people drive way out here to buy a car?” His father’s reply, “They come out here because we treat them right.” Long before advertising budgets were as big as they are today, Julian Durant had built his business, and repeat business, the old-fashioned way, by treating his customers the way he would treat his own family.

Through his father, Tom Durant got an early entrance into the family business. “I started working at the age of ten,” says Tom, “Everybody in the family worked, that’s just the way it was. I was at the dealership all the time before and after school cleaning cars, and doing all kinds of shop related stuff.”

Despite practically growing up at his father’s dealership, Tom didn’t truly make his way into the car business until he was in college. It was during his Texas Tech years that Tom began working at his older brother Jerry’s dealership in Weatherford. “I got my first real taste of the business during college when I went to work at my brother’s dealership,” says Tom, “He put me to work managing the service side of the store.”

As fate would have it, one weekend Jerry had to leave town and asked his younger brother to oversee the all-important sales floor. The weekend was slow and uneventful, totally fine by Jerry, and just what Tom needed to earn his brother’s confidence. Over the course of the very next weekend trip, Tom remarkably closed on the sale of fourteen cars. It was then that he became captivated with the car business, “I realized I liked dealing with customers and selling them cars,” says Tom, “I was amazed at how you could take care of a family’s needs, provide them a service, and form a relationship for life.”

The relationships the Durant family of salesmen formed with their customers was totally different than the industry norm at the time. Rather than treating their customers as a one-time profit center, squeezing out every bit of a margin they could, they would offer a good car and friendly service at a fair price. What resulted was a long-term relationship and the cornerstone of a successful philosophy that still stands more than half a century later.

In 1972 computers were starting to become more important in the industry. It was also a time when financing agreements were changing towards longer term deals than just three years. The industry was changing right before Julian’s eyes and the future was looking to be more than he could handle. It was at this time, and after the stellar weekend of sales, when Tom made the decision to jump into the auto industry head-first. “I told my father I wanted to be a car dealer,” says Tom, “but I didn’t want to work for my brother. I wanted to be my own boss.”

In a move to make sure Tom wasn’t making a hasty decision, Julian agreed to take him into the operations at his Granbury dealership. Initially, Tom worked beside his father and had a first hand look at the inner workings of a dealership. It wasn’t long before Tom proved his heart and soul were in the business and after four months his father agreed to sell the dealership to him. It was then that Tom Durant started to build his own Chevy empire.

Classic Chevrolet Moves to Grapevine
For over a decade Tom grew the business slowly and steadily, by treating his customers right, just as his father had done for years. Each day Julian would still come by for his morning coffee, and each day the business would grow a little bit more. In 1988 the opportunity came for Tom to purchase a once prominent dealership in the city. At the time, Classic Chevrolet of Fort Worth was not doing well and it still had over three years remaining on its lease yet Tom saw potential. “I always wanted to be more than the son who got his dad’s dealership,” and he made the acquisition. As more and more people were leaving the city for the suburbs Classic Chevrolet struggled along, but the successes at the original Granbury operation helped Tom build a solid foundation for both. At the end of the lease, Tom knew he would be able to relocate Classic Chevrolet to the suburbs, just as so many people had already done.

Like he originally planned, in 1992, Tom was awarded the opportunity to relocate Classic Chevrolet to the suburbs of Grapevine where it still stands to this day.

Son Joins the Business
Tom and his wife Susan have four children who they’ve always encouraged to be involved in the family business. Just like his father, Hagen, the oldest sibling, took to cars at an early age. “I started around ten, washing and helping in the service area,” says Hagen Durant, “then at fifteen I was able to drive the cars and thought getting paid to do so was amazing.” Throughout his childhood Hagen, like his father, would spend many hours after school and over the summers tending to the family lot for minimum wage.

Today Hagen is the General Manager at Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine, where he handles anything and everything pertaining to the entire Classic Chevrolet organization. From new car sales, to used car sales, service, and parts Hagen Durant embraces the multi-faceted challenges of his current position.

It should be noted that Hagen wasn’t exactly handed the keys to the store. He had to earn them and like his father he too got his first experiences and love for the business on the sales floor. Hagen spent his first two years in the front office helping customers find their way into new vehicles. He clearly remembers it wasn’t always easy and like any professional learning a business had his share of stumbling along the way. With cross-functional stints in sales, financing and insurance and entrance into the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) Academy Hagen formed a well-rounded background and a deep-rooted appreciation for the many aspects of the business he now runs. “It was all very intimidating at first, but with a slow approach I’ve learned quite a bit.”

Hagen has helped build a customer-centric approach that is only now being realized in the industry. “Many [auto dealers] seem to be stuck catering to metrics that keep them doing the same things,” says Hagen, “Through it all I’ve come to realize all decisions must be made with the customer in mind.”

Such a way of business includes giving Classic Chevy sales representatives authority to make deals happen. “When our sales representatives have authority it gives our customers confidence that they are dealing with the right person.” In the end, each is treated with respect and deals are done in an efficient manner that everyone involved appreciates.

Community involvement
By bringing the small town way of business to the auto industry Classic Chevrolet treats their customers and their community with passion and respect. The list of community organizations that Classic Chevrolet supports is outstanding. From local chambers of commerce, police and fire departments, to organizations like GRACE, Make-A-Wish and Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Classic Chevrolet distributes countless hours and dollars worth of community support. So much so that Tom Durant was awarded with the prestigious 2011 Time Dealer of the Year Award for excellence in sales and community service from amongst over 17,000 dealers nationwide.

With all the company does in support of its community, nothings makes Tom more proud than when the Classic Chevy staff met his personal challenge to raise money for Christ’s Haven for Children. In 2010, Tom pledged to match whatever his staff could raise dollar for dollar. The staff immediately went to work and within a few weeks raised over $90,000 that Tom and his wife Susan matched. In total over $180,000 was raised to help disadvantaged children in north Texas.


Small town feel, big time numbers
According to Hagen the keys driving their business success lie in Financial Responsibility, Service After the Sale and last but not least, the Golden Rule. The mission at Classic Chevrolet is to lead the nation in Chevrolet sales by treating their customers not as a one-time profit opportunity, but as a lifelong customer who appreciates being treated fairly.

It’s that small town way of treating others that has made all the difference at Classic Chevrolet. Since 2006 Classic has repeatedly outsold more than 3,000 other Chevrolet dealers across the country, an achievement not lost on anyone from the team who received their fifth straight trophy from General Motors executives earlier this year. “We set our goals as a team and we accomplish them as a team,” explains Tom Durant. “We have an obligation to provide leadership, inspire confidence and promote a culture of respect and support for our employees, our customers, and our community,” says Tom, “If we keep doing what we’re doing, taking care of our customers, the future will take care of itself.”

In 2010, Classic Chevrolet sold 4,780 vehicles and for 2011, their stated goal is 5,500. If they keep doing what they are doing, Classic Chevy Grapevine is well on their way to a sixth straight top volume sales award.

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