Managing a dealership in tough times is one thing, but when the population being served is low in numbers and spread over a large area, the challenges are amplified.
Woodward St. Anthony GMC-Chevrolet-Buick is located in St. Anthony, a tiny fishing town at the northern tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula Highway, 1,000 kilometres from St. John’s.
The dealership has survived the collapse of the cod fishery in the early 1990s, thrived with the United Nations’ designation of a nearby 1,000 year-old Viking settlement as a World Heritage Site, and today is navigating the COVID-19 storm by building lasting relationships and personalized customer service, including taking the business to people throughout the region.
In a remote community with just 2,258 residents, businesses must “hold on tight” to the customers they have, said General Manager Ken Loder, who has been with the dealership for 27 years. With a population that small, repeat customers are vital because there are few new customers to prospect, he said.
“Doing business in a small community is totally different. We build relationships that last a lifetime,” which is a philosophy that comes from company CEO Peter Woodward, said Loder. While he means no disrespect to city dealers, “we want to be different; [we want to] go that extra mile.”
The store’s 21 employees are deeply rooted in the community, supporting local causes and recreational sports and showing up to community events.
“They know me personally; they know my staff personally,” said Loder. “We’re saying hello to them by name as they walk in the door.”
The dealership has also learned to cope with adversity almost right from the day Woodward’s dad, Melvin, opened its doors in 1992, against popular advice.
“A lot of people told him he was crazy,” said Loder. “There were people in the company who told him it wasn’t wise.”
The cards seemed stacked against success.
VIKINGS TO THE RESCUE
Just months before the dealership was to open, the federal government announced a moratorium on the vital cod fishery, devastating the provincial economy and putting 30,000 people out of work.
Yet Melvin Woodward persisted because he grew up in the area and was attached to his old “stomping grounds.”
Loder said it helped that Melvin, who died in 2015, gained experience working with dealerships in Goose Bay (population 8,100) and Bay Roberts (population 11,000).
Gradually, St. Anthony transitioned to a tourism-based economy as thousands of visitors from around the globe descended — by car and cruise ship — on the town each year en route to l’Anse aux Meadows. According to Parks Canada, the historic Viking site is “the first known evidence of European presence in the Americas.”
The dealership thrived, said Loder although he did not disclose, annual new and used vehicle sales.
“We’ve always been able to keep the wolf away from the door.”
COVID-19’s impact on travel and tourism has presented new challenges, however. Loder said the two sales staff in St. Anthony as well as those in the dealership’s satellite outlets saw real economic hardship for the first time since the cod-fishery collapse, giving them a new appreciation for their customers, Loder said.
Dominic Seguin, of Noahvik Consultants in Montreal, said the personal touch is especially vital in small dealerships where opportunities for online marketing are limited. His firm offers strategic and marketing advice, as well as training and coaching to dealers and manufacturers primarily in Quebec.
“Some people think it’s not a people business anymore; it is,” said Seguin. Through word-of-mouth, customers “will become their sales team.”
Seguin said small dealerships benefit from providing service that makes the customer’s life easier — something as simple as picking up a vehicle or dropping it off, even if there is no formal concierge service, or avoiding appointment delays. Even the product or brand ranks second in importance to service, and price third, he said.
A well-served customer might say, “What is the price of an oil change? I don’t give a damn,” Seguin said.
Loder said the dealership’s remoteness has its challenges, but also its advantages. The next closest new-vehicle dealership is 470 kilometres south in Corner Brook, leaving St. Anthony with an open market of about 150 kilometres and 25,000 people. Yet, Woodward doesn’t take its local monopoly for granted; some auto buyers still travel long distances to buy other brands.
“We don’t get them all. I wish we did,” Loder said.
TAKING THE INITIATIVE
Other brands have come and gone: two Ford dealerships and one Chrysler store. But Woodward had the edge as a full-service outlet and outlasted the newcomers, Loder said.
Woodward has diversified its operations and taken its business to a number of smaller communities in the region, setting up satellite dealerships at l’Anse-au-Clair, a six-staff outlet across the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Bay Roberts, Labrador, and a three-person outlet in Hawke’s Bay, about a 200 kilometres south of St. Anthony.
Each outlet has its own sales and service staff.
As current long-term customers gradually stop buying new cars, Woodward is counting on recruiting a new generation to ensure the people of this isolated part of Newfoundland have a local dealer for years to come, Loder said.