by Michael Dickens
“It’s easier to spend the boss’s money,” said Ernie Voss in a recent interview with me.
Ernie Voss is a retired Chrysler Corporation employee, most recently the Dealer Placement Manager for the Milwaukee Zone (now part of the Chicago Zone). His responsibilities included locating and qualifying dealership candidates for Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, and Jeep dealerships. When he talks about spending the boss’s money, he’s talking about people moving from being an employee at another dealership to owning their own. Now that he (and it usually is “he” and not “she”) is the boss at his own dealership, he is no longer spending “his boss’s money;” he is now spending “his money.”
Voss says that not all newly appointed dealers find the transition to becoming the number one guy to their liking. Some have a hard time bearing the responsibility for the “money flow” and the ultimate responsibility for success or failure. Dealers always need to be concerned about such things as their employees’ salaries, work attitudes, and attendance, as well as advertising and promotion costs, new and used car inventory, and countless other things. Above all, to be successful and profitable, dealerships have to make a satisfactory return on the owner’s investment. In other words, as one dealer told him, “is the money bigger than the headaches?”
You can tell in his voice that Voss has an affinity and liking for not only Chrysler’s own dealers, but also of the competition’s dealers.
Ernie experienced both good and bad times (as did most other Chrysler employees). He shared some of his experiences during a recent interview. Ernie remains nostalgic for a time when people opened Chrysler dealerships because they wanted to sell Chrysler products. He said that too many of today’s dealers have little loyalty to the manufacturer(s) of the vehicles they sell, and are solely interested their own profits. They don’t really care what brand they sell just so they sell.
A little background is needed here:
In 1956, 19-year-old Ernie Voss worked for a 40-employee manufacturing company in Warren, Michigan. He was responsible for the payroll and its materials inventory. The company’s head bookkeeper told him that her husband worked at the Dodge truck plant, and that his department had an opening. Ernie interviewed for the position and was hired as an Assistance Desk Head, processing dealer paper truck orders for production under the guidance of a Desk Head. He says that in those days there was little concern by employers as to their employee’s job titles.
Ernie said that he was surprised to be hired since he was only nineteen and that everyone who interviewed him was into their fifties or older. He thinks that his going to college part time while working full time may have been a factor.
Voss helped handle phone calls, and when the dealer truck orders came into the distribution department, he and his associates reviewed them for accuracy and then sent them to the computer department for processing. He laughingly remembered when some of the guys in his department wanted to go union; there was a vote and the department voted to unionize. When the vote results were announced, the emotions were so high that the vote led to a fist fight in the office. The after-effects lasted some time.
This was the beginning of Voss’s 44 year career at Chrysler. It was a great experience for Voss. He wasn’t even 20 years old at the time he started. He said several times, “It would never happen today.”
After a while Voss was moved to the Truck Bid Department. That was when he started to understand what a dealer really does. There, they quoted bids to dealers who wanted to get financial assistance from Dodge to pass on to cities and states.
Two years went by and Voss asked to work in the Car Bid Group in Center Line. Voss says that this is when he found out that compared to trucks, cars were absolutely boring (at least from a bidding perspective). Trucks were more of a challenge because Dodge was not just in the pick-up business, but also the A-100 series vans, medium sized dump trucks, and sixteen wheelers. Voss went back into the Truck Bid Department.
In 1964, Voss received a phone call from Dodge Main, regarding a position in the Dodge Division’s Dealer Placement Dept. The interviewer already knew him and the interview was just a formality. That’s how he received his first management position. Voss repeated, “It would never happen today.”
While in the placement department, Voss decided that he no longer wanted to be confined to four office walls and that he would attempt to be assigned to the Sales and Service field force and work with the dealer body. In 1966, he was sent to the Cincinnati Zone where he became the Louisville District Manager. He then moved to Cincinnati and handled several assignments, the last being one of two Dealer Placement Managers in Cincinnati. Voss noted that during his early years in Cincinnati he would regularly receive telephone calls from people in Detroit asking him to come back, but he said no because he really liked Cincinnati and he enjoyed calling on dealers.
In mid-1986, Ernie Voss was called into the boss’s office and was told that he was being transferred to the soon-to-be Charlotte Zone, where he would be responsible for all of the new Zone’s Dealer Placement activities.
To Ernie, this was good news. As he was making plans to go to Charlotte, North Carolina, he began to think about possibly buying a Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge/Jeep dealership somewhere in the state. After all, he would have the opportunity to meet a lot of dealers and choose where he would like to have a dealership. He already had a financial backer. With his corporate background, he thought he could buy and operate a small to moderate size dealership.
But two weeks before he was going to leave for Charlotte he was told that a change had been made and that Chrysler was going to send him to Milwaukee. Voss said that he “about fell through the floor.” The company told him he would be in Milwaukee for only two years.
While Voss said that making money is the point of being in business, he says it’s not quite that simple. A story Ernie told helps to illustrate the principle:
Most states have laws about what you can say to a dealer and how you can say it. Voss says that whenever there was a problem with a dealer regarding new vehicle sales performance, service scores or facilities, or any matter of sub-performance his technique was to address the issues calmly and rationally and if the dealer lost his temper, so be it.
The Zone had a major dealership which was not meeting its new vehicle sales responsibilities. As a result of the poor performance, as compared to other same size dealerships, the Zone people would regularly meet with the dealer to discuss his performance. Their point was to put the dealer on defense as they discussed his performance. The particular dealer was of the belief that the corporation set his dealership’s new vehicle sales objectives too high.
During one of Ernie’s visits, the dealer became so frustrated that he threatened to hire a new vehicle sales manager just to prove that Voss was wrong. Ernie took him up on his challenge. Well, he eventually hired someone and the new man came in and dramatically improved new vehicle sales. As a result, the dealership experienced it largest profit in years and the new man received a large bonus as outlined in his employment agreement. However, as the dealer paid the bonus he told the new man that he was being discharged because no one was worth that kind of bonus. The dealership had enjoyed its highest profit level in years — much more than the bonus; and within a year, the dealership returned to its prior status of poor new vehicle sales and modest earnings.
Ernie has a philosophy he shared with dealers:
Some of Voss’s other maxims include:
Today, a retired Ernie Voss and his wife Mary live in Charleston, South Carolina. He enjoys life and looks back fondly on his 44 year career, one that allowed him to mostly set his own hours, and his own goals. He says “I either did it, or I didn’t do it. I knew exactly where I was.”
In all those 44 years, he leased and drove literally hundreds of company field cars. His favorites were the early Challengers and the “L’il Red Truck.”
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