When other dealerships across Canada are struggling to rebuild supplies of new vehicles, plenty are available in a small-town dealership in eastern Quebec.
The website for Boulevard Chevrolet-Buick-GMC-Cadillac in Rimouski, Que., listed new 127 vehicles in early April, a healthy inventory as chip shortages continue to stymie the ability of automakers to produce enough finished vehicles to meet demand.
Boulevard co-owner Pierre Béchard said the supply is the payoff for a decision management made during the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid layoffs and keep selling vehicles, while also complying with strict provincial health restrictions that at times required showrooms to be closed to customers. Safety measures included keeping staff masked, expanding online sales and introducing contactless transactions.
CLOSED BUT OPEN FOR BUSINESS
During the height of the pandemic, between March 2020 and December 2021, Quebec closed showrooms to the public several times, although service departments were allowed to stay open.
Even though customers could not come in, staff at Boulevard came to work and kept in touch with customers, selling 750 new vehicles in 2021, just 50 fewer than in 2020. It is on track to sell 800 new vehicles this year, which, according to Boulevard, would make it the largest dealership by volume in Quebec east of Quebec City.
The achievement is even more remarkable in a city of 49,000 residents in a semirural area on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.
“We paid everybody, even if they weren’t working,” Béchard said. “It paid itself back really quick.”
The big payoff was with General Motors, which allocates vehicle supply based on sales. Because the dealership kept its sales volume up, GM Canada kept sending vehicles," Béchard said.
GM Canada recognized Boulevard by naming it to the President’s Club list of honourees in both 2021 and 2022 for its “exceptional year-over-year growth in retail sales, parts and accessories ... and excellence in customer service.”
SIBLINGS IN SALES
Béchard and his sister, Marie-Ève Béchard, bought the dealership from their father, Wilbert, when he retired in 2012. Pierre, 42, is general sales manager and Marie-Ève, 45, executive director. Minority shareholder Maxime Dionne is director of fixed operations.
The siblings had been working at the store since Wilbert Béchard and several investors bought it in 1995. The siblings started at low-level jobs and worked in most departments to learn the business.
Wilbert’s focus was on complete honesty with customers.
“Our father was a really good mentor,” said Pierre Béchard. Loyalty to staff during hard times pays dividends for dealerships, said automotive consultant Dominic Sigouin, owner of Noahvik Consultants in Montreal.
“I urged all my clients not to stop selling,” said Sigouin, who does not have a business relationship with Boulevard.
“If you stop selling, it’s not good for your staff and not good for your pipeline.
“Every crisis will just show more of who you are [as an employer]. You will see which employers had good relations with staff.” Béchard said he and his sister have been at odds over important strategic decisions, such as how many vehicles to order. But he sees their differences as a strength because it keeps them open to new ideas.
“When we disagree, we just close the door until we agree,” he said. “When the door opens, we’ve solved the problem.”
The straight-shooter sales approach has helped the dealership attract about 20 per cent of its buyers from outside its territory, Béchard said. “A lot of people don’t like the way they’re being treated in the big town, so they come here.”
Employees are also treated with care and are paid competitively. “They need [to be treated] fairly because the way you treat them is the way they treat customers,” Béchard said.
As a result, Boulevard has strong retention among its 50 employees. “Our receptionist just retired after 48 years,” Béchard said. “I wasn’t even born when she started here.”
Although the company has adopted online sales, the consumers of eastern Quebec still prefer to buy in person, Béchard said. “We still live in a small town. People like to come in and look at the cars in the lots.”
There’s no big secret to succeeding in a small market, Béchard said. “Being honest and treating people right — I’d rather lose a deal by being honest rather than win a deal by being dishonest.”