For Brian Fulton, moving from the corporate suite at Mercedes-Benz Canada to man- aging a single dealership was the right step at the right time.
His career switch is part of a growing trend as technology and shifting consumer behaviour transform auto manufacturing and retailing, say industry executives.
Fulton, CEO at the automaker for five years, joined Zanchin Automotive Group in October as a managing partner of a recently purchased Mercedes-Benz store in Newmarket, Ont., about 50 kilometres north of Toronto.
“I’ve gone from 59-dealerships responsibility and here you are front-face to the customer, which I wasn’t directly in front of in my previous role,” Fulton said.
“When I look at a lot of the strategic decisions and policy decisions we made, it’s one thing to understand it at a corporate level, but when the puck drops and you are on the ice here [at the dealership], I’m playing the game.”
Paul Cummings, who spent 13-plus years in top leadership roles at the Canadian operations at Volvo and Mitsubishi, made a similar transi- tion.
Cummings, CEO of Grand Touring Automobiles in Toronto, said the collaboration between automakers and retailers is intensify- ing.
“We’re working closer...together all the time, so I do think the migration of [heads of auto- makers] going to retail is going to happen more and more,” said Cummings, whose dealership group sells luxury brands, including Jaguar and Lamborghini.
“One reason is because we do need to work together, but it’s also the high cost of entry as far as a business is concerned. Capital investments by dealers are getting higher ... all the time, so they are looking for a business model and a businessperson to help them lead that charge.”
Joe Zanchin, owner of the Zanchin group, said Fulton’s experience as a CEO made him an ideal choice for the job that also gives him a stake in the Mercedes-Benz dealership.
“I did not discover [his talent]. Mercedes-Benz did. He went from being the [head of] finance to the CEO. That tells me that the man has a lot of [talent]. He’s got the people skills, and he’s got the knowledge to represent what he’s selling.”
It marks the first time in Fulton’s 35-year automotive career, most of it spent with Mercedes-Benz, that he is operating from the sales floor.
TO THE FRONT LINE FROM THE HEAD OFFICE
“Running a company like Mercedes-Benz, you had all the private dealers; they were the franchi- sees running the business front-face with a cus- tomer,” said Fulton. “Now I get that opportuni- ty ... it’s executing a lot of different programs we conceived and put in place in the dealer network. Now it’s my responsibility to execute on those, being on the front line, which is great.”
The 58-year-old Toronto native became the first Canadian president of Mercedes-Benz since the automaker arrived in 1955. His five-year term ended in January 2020, but Fulton said he stayed on through July because of COVID-19.
While he was offered a post with Mercedes- Benz overseas, Fulton didn’t want to relocate again after having done it 11 times in his 26 years with the company. He wasn’t ready to retire, either, and Zanchin’s offer “checked off all the boxes,” notably the chance to remain in Toronto.
“I happen to be in my hometown, wanted to stay with the brand, and retail excited me,” Fulton said. “The chance to be an owner with Joe [Zanchin] in a Mercedes franchise, I would say that’s an opportunity that doesn’t get afforded to many manufacturer CEOs.”
Fulton said the Zanchin group plans to pur- chase land in Newmarket to build a “new state- of-the-art dealership” that would open in the next five years. The dealership will replace the Newmarket store being managed by Fulton.
BENEFITS BOTH WAYS
Cummings said Fulton will add “huge value” because of his knowledge of Mercedes-Benz.
As well, he said, Fulton’s new role provides valuable customer feedback for the brand.
“Getting it from a dealer who has had man- ufacturer experience and also understands the investments made by manufacturers, and man- ufacturers understanding the investments made by dealers, is actually developing into a great relationship by the two entities.
“I think you’re going to see more of it, but I must admit it was the greatest combination I’ve ever pursued personally, no question.”
Don Romano, CEO of Hyundai Canada, said it is not surprising to see automaker executives move over to the dealer side.
Fulton isn’t the first Mercedes-Benz Canada CEO to join the ranks of dealership executives. His predecessor, Tim Reuss, worked for the Dilawri Group of Cos. as president for one year after his four-and-a-half-year term at Mercedes-Benz Canada ended in December 2015.
Reuss subsequently went into consulting in the automotive industry before being hired as CEO of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association in 2019.
“Once you’ve done these jobs at this level, you’re so involved with the entire process from end to end and you become familiar with the markets, which ones are doing what and which dealers need what improvements,” he said. “It kind of makes sense. It worked well for Paul Cummings.”
But Romano doesn’t see himself making a sim- ilar career move.
“It requires a different skill set than I have. My whole life has been working in a factory capacity. My whole career has just been develop- ing larger strategies than you would in a dealer- ship. That’s not to belittle it at all. I’m more book smart. I think they’re more street smart.”