We had the pleasure of sitting down with Jim Gee, Dealer Principal and General Manager of RK Auto Group in Vineland, N.J., and John Luciano, GSM of the group's Chevrolet, Kia, and Subaru store.
RK Auto Group includes Chevrolet, Kia, and Subaru. The stores are all under the Burns-Kull Automotive Group umbrella, which Jim's father-in-law started with his partner, Ed Burns. Today, the Burns-Kull Automotive Group has nine manufacturers within the dealership group under that umbrella, operating in a unique family structure with all stores individually owned and operated.
Jim Gee learned various aspects of the business and worked in accounting, sales, service, and parts before taking on the General Manager role and leadership positions. The well-rounded experience he gained, along with the excellent advice from his father-in-law, set him on the path to success. Supporting others and becoming ingrained in the community have been the backbone of his business. Jim's desire to give back, help people and the community, and participate in Making Strides Against Breast Cancer in honor of his wife and others, drives his continued efforts to raise funds and awareness. But he doesn't do it alone; RK Auto Group employees, their customers, vendors, and more, come together to support important causes and initiatives. Working together and for the goodwill of others has become ingrained into the DNA of RK Auto's culture.
In the following interview, Jim and John discuss community, leadership and teamwork, talent recruitment, retention, customer satisfaction, what's working in sales and service, and more.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Thank you for speaking with us today. Can
you provide an overview of RK Auto Group, including brands and locations?
JIM: RK has multiple stores in Vineland, and we're one complex. RK is Chevrolet, Kia, and Subaru. As far as the year established, RK Chevrolet was in 1982, Subaru in '92, and Kia in '95. And then there's one dealership, on the complex, that my partner Bob McCormick runs, Toyota of Vineland. So, there are two other partners, Bob McCormick and Jim Gruccio (the group's CFO) now, and we have ownership in all four stores. But I run RK Chevrolet, Kia, and Subaru in the complex.
We're part of Burns-Kull Automotive Group, started by my father-in-law,
Richard Kull, and Ed Burns. So, in Marlton, N.J., they have Burns Honda, Burns
Hyundai, Burns Genesis, and Burns Buick GMC. So that's about an hour from us
here in Vineland. And then we have a dealership in Avalon, N.J., down by the
shore, Avalon Honda. Even though we're under that umbrella, the stores are all
individually owned and operated within a family structure. So we do things on
our own a lot, but we also do things collaboratively to get some buying power,
get some good training, and share ideas.
Magazine: And what about your background? When did you first start in automotive?
JIM: I started in 1991 with the company on the audit staff and then moved into
a controller's position here at RK Chevrolet, as ironic as that is. After that,
I was promoted to our Burns Honda store in Marlton and started moving around
different departments. I worked in accounting, sales, service, and parts. Then,
in 1999, I was offered the general manager's position, and in 2002, I was
offered an opportunity to buy some stock in the dealership, and grown since. Now, I'm the majority
shareholder here at this Chevy Kia superstore.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What makes RK Auto unique? How do you stand
out and differentiate your business from other stores?
JIM: Well, I'll say this - my father-in-law gave excellent advice. And, maybe
at the time, I didn't realize it, not until later when I sat back and thought,
wow, that was great advice he gave. We were living in Marlton, N.J., by the stores up there, about an hour away, when he
said to run a profitable business - a good business, you have to be based in
the community. He said you are required to live in the community.
We didn't want to move. But once we moved down here, we got involved in
the community. Whether it was baseball within the kid's schools, committees, or
different charities in the area, you met people and became ingrained in the
community. It was such good advice he gave. It took my wife maybe six months
until she was like this was one of the best moves. It really was.
And so, we're community-based. We do a lot of work in the community.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Can you share more about the incredible
work you do in the community and the causes you support?
JIM: We put a lot of effort and donate a lot of our time into Making Strides Against Breast Cancer and other causes in affiliation with Chevrolet. Of course, there are many charities we work with in town here, but in taking in the big picture of what we do, it's the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. That is what has been our foundation and what has helped build our team here when it comes to that. Tomorrow, we have our first committee meeting for the October event. So, yeah, we start that far ahead of the walk.
I told John I'm sort of embarrassed when talking about things like this because it's not about me. It's about the team and how much effort everybody puts in, and my wife's memory, to make us the number one Chevy dealership in the country to raise this money. It's just amazing what everybody does and what they do quietly. They aren't doing it to say oh, I did this, or I did that, you know? Everybody works as part of a team and for the foundation, raising money to find a cure.
JOHN: It's just fun to watch, seeing it all come together at the walks in Ocean
City, N.J. It's like the pinnacle of all the hard work. We have 200 or 250 - family, friends, employees, and customers - that will come out! We have incredible
support from our customers, employees, vendor partners, family, and friends.
Even customers that bought a car 10 years ago still come out. The salespeople,
and everybody else, are starting to talk about the October walk right now. It
just makes them feel good. It gives them something to fight for.
DEALER MAGAZINE: When was the first walk you participated
in? Can you tell us about your involvement, from the first to the many since?
JIM: Sandy was with us on the
first walk. She did not make it to the next walk. But before she passed, she
said, Jimmy, you have to stay involved and help find a cure. So, we do this
obviously to find a cure but in her memory. And everybody takes that on and knows
that it's RK Chevrolet, but it's RK Chevrolet Team Sandy. We ask our customers,
vendors, and everyone to donate, which can be any amount, whether $5 or $5,000
or what have you. Everybody is amazing, and I can't say that enough.
Last year made our 11th year, and we
raised the most money we have ever raised. Being in the car business, we're all
competitive, so we always want to beat last year's number in terms of money we could donate to the American Cancer Society. Last year, we raised $104,000.
Our running total is up to $566,500.
One of our managers, our e-commerce
manager, handling our website, social media, and video, calculates all this
out. His name is Tom Kennedy, and he does a great job. And so, the American
Cancer Society had a gala to recognize us. I was out of town, so Tom went, and
he came back really charged up and said, "You know if we raised $175,000
this year, they'll name a medical trial after our team and after Sandy!"
He then asked, "So, how are we going to hit that?" So, they put
those things out there and get us all charged up about hitting that year's
We did an event here last year right before the walk, and Tom set up the
mammogram van for the event at the
dealership. We had a car show, dunk tanks, and the community involved,
including the fire department and the mayor. But all of that was because of the
employees here. They handled everything. And so, it warms your heart, all the
effort everybody puts into it. Because somebody always knows someone who
has or is dealing with it or has experienced loss because of it, it pulls everybody together.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Thank you for sharing all
of that and for the work you're doing. Now, switching gears a bit, what is one
thing you do or have in place that has helped you to drive business?
JIM: Our BDC handles all of our leads
that come in, and it's been great, so we're working on adding a service BDC
too. But one thing that comes up in our sales BDC is that you get someone on
the phone like, "Okay, but why are you different? Why should we buy a
Chevy Equinox from you versus the Chevy dealership 15 miles away?" So, we
have a value package that we talk about. We talk about what comes with the car,
what we do, and our involvement in Making Strides Against Breast Cancer along
with our other charities that we deal with here in town, we are a big supporter
of the little leagues, the football, the soccer, the high schools, and so on,
and that's part of our value package.
But we have to be very careful because there's a fine line. John and I
talk about this all the time. I am very sensitive about somebody viewing us
speaking about what we're doing for the community and taking that as
boastfulness or thinking it's just because we want them to buy a car or come in
for service. So if we do anything or put a message
out there, we never mention buying a car, service, or body shop. It's just all
about the community. Because you may lose a little bit of our credibility if
you're boastful, and I don't want to come across that way. I wouldn't want
anyone to think that our efforts aren't genuine.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What is your approach to customer
JIM: It's treating the customers the right way. I always say if I talk to a
customer and ask them to buy a product or something, I view and approach them
as if they were a family member asking what they need. And, of course, we always try to be right 100% of the time. But at times, we
do fall short, but we always seem to
make it right. We try to treat people the right way, and if there is a problem,
we handle it because we want them to be customers for a long time. We wouldn't
be in business this long otherwise. We are the longest-tenured dealership in
town! So again, I think it's just treating the customers the right way. It's
an extension of our employees. And this may sound cliche, but happy employees
make our customers happy.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What channels do you use to find employees,
and can you share what’s been effective?
JIM: We use all the usual channels that are out there, word-of-mouth, and so
on. But I'll tell you one thing that John installed here. What John will do is,
he'll say to employees, okay, you have to bring people in too. But then he has
them interview the person. So, for example, a salesperson here will come in,
and we'll have them interview another salesperson even though they aren't a
JOHN: The thought process with this is that a lot of the training is from
employee to employee. They will bring on people with similar values and people
they want to hang with. And if the employee likes them, they will want them to
succeed. And also, because they train them, they want them to succeed for
obvious reasons. There's no animosity between them. When they're all trained
and ready to go, they all help each other out.
So I will typically give the employees in the department two weeks to hire
someone, and then it's full-court press because, if you haven't hired someone
after the two weeks is up, I'm going to, and you know, you may not necessarily
like them. But I very rarely make it to two weeks. And so, we've been very
successful with that strategy so far.
DEALER MAGAZINE: When you’re hiring, what do you look for?
JOHN: When we hire employees, what we have tried to do over the past 10 years is
to not necessarily look at what their skills are for their talent level in any
specific department. We've been focusing on hiring good people and training
them to do the job we're hiring them for. So, most of our managers have started
as regular employees and moved their way up. We have a lot of successful
people in different departments of the dealership that we just hired because
they were just good people. So we’ve hired schoolteachers, bartenders, etc.,
that did not have dealership experience.
JIM: I will say this, in sales, it's not that we won't hire somebody that
worked at another dealership, but we try not to so we can train them to our
culture and process. But we have had people come in, managers or
salespeople, and work at the store, and they have said, "What? I've never worked at a dealership
where the sales department works together!" They are surprised to have
salespeople that help each other out where for example, if they're off and
their customer comes in, they'll handle that customer and not expect anything.
"That's not how it was in the last place I worked." We hear that
It's through the culture here. Because we let everybody know, look, you're going to get stuck at one time or
another, whether it's when you're sick, on vacation, dealing with a family
crisis, or whatever it is. So, there will be times when you're out, and you
will want someone to take care of your customer. And that gets reciprocated.
DEALER MAGAZINE: After hiring someone, if they aren't
succeeding in that role, what is your approach? How do you help to set them up
JIM: So, one of the things that I talk about often is not every position will
suit everyone. But if the person suits the dealership, we'll find the right
spot for that individual. We may put someone in a position, and they may not be
succeeding from the standpoint of what we need from that role, but John and I
will then always ask each other, do we want them on the team? And if it's like,
yeah– they're one of the one of us, you know, meaning they're good people, then
we'll find a spot for them. We don't want to lose those people because you
can't have enough good people.
DEALER MAGAZINE: So, do you have a lot of employees there
now that have been with the business for a long time? And what are some ways
that you keep employees engaged?
JIM: Yes, we do have employees that have been with us a very long time. One of
those is our body shop manager. Unfortunately for us, but fortunate for him, he
is retiring on July 15 after being with the company for more than 40 years. Luckily,
my son-in-law, Tom McGarvery, has been training to be our manager’s replacement
for the last 10 years.
We offer tenure bonuses. Every five years, it goes up in
increments based on the length of time you've worked here. We gave out more than $60,000 or so right around
Christmas in tenure bonuses.
In the sales department, they'll
have a night out with everybody, and we also have tickets to sporting events
that we try to distribute out amongst the employees. The team has gone axe throwing and, last month,
bowling. We're in a competitive business, and I could not attend the bowling,
but I understand it got pretty competitive amongst the brands! The different
showrooms team up and get competitive against each other. It brings them all
together and is excellent for team building. Everybody likes everybody, and
they enjoy hanging out with each other. So, it's not one of those where they
say I can't go because I don't get along with this person or that person.
JOHN: We try to do that night out together at least once a quarter because the
team building is big. I think it has gone away in a lot of other dealerships.
But you know, things have changed. It's different from when Jim and I started
selling cars! Years ago, everything was money-driven. Time is much more
valuable to this current generation.
Another thing we do is we give rewards out to the salesperson of the
month, including monetary ones. So, we give them money, but what they like even
more is they get to pick a Saturday off. And I swear to you, if I asked them if
one had to go, I can assure you it would be the money. They love the Saturday
off because, in the sales department, Saturday is the day everybody works. So
stuff like that, and the team building, they love all that.
DEALER MAGAZINE: As time becomes increasingly important, how
do you help support work-life balance?
JIM: There's another thing with time off that we stumbled into with the COVID
pandemic. Before COVID, we would do the 'bell to bell,' the 'nine to nine.' We
felt we had to stay open late; we didn't want to lose a deal to a dealer down
the street. But with COVID, in our state, we were closed, and then we were open
till five, six, and seven. We still close at seven p.m. - and I can't ever
see our sales department going back to being open until nine at night and not
getting out of here till 10 and then having to drive home and be back here for
the following day.
So, every weeknight, we close at seven in sales, and everyone can get
home for dinner. Saturday, it's six, and Sunday, we're closed. Also, we're very
flexible if your child has something, if you have to drive them somewhere or
want to see them play soccer, or whatever it may be. But that seven o'clock -
it just took so much pressure off everybody. And again, quite honestly, we
stumbled into it. I was talking to someone the other day about how there were
some positives coming out of COVID. One was that we had more family dinners at
our house. Another positive was that we found out that we could still do the
same amount of business in fewer hours.
MAGAZINE: Are there any tools you've integrated into your process in sales or
service that have helped business?
JIM: Digitally, there are tools that we use within the sales department that
years ago we would never have. It would always be the manager going out and
doing the walkaround and the trade appraisal. We had the carbon copies that
you pulled apart. Well, now we have digital tools, so we can just scan a VIN, and it pulls and
Our equity mining department itself, and putting somebody in that equity
mining manager position, has been enormous growth for us. Our equity mining
manager handles nothing except for those customers through the tool we have. We didn’t have all that 10 years ago. Back then, we would just email our
owner-base in hopes that they would come back and buy a car.
In the service department, what we're seeing with them is more technical
amongst the departments talking to each other. We have Xtime, a Cox Automotive
solution that we use. The service advisor writes up the customer; we have
computers in the tech’s bay, computers
in parts, and everybody talks to each other through the chat on that ROI. So
okay, here's what the customer's car needs, and here is the pricing on parts,
and they send it back to the advisor, they text it back to the customer, and we
go from there. The texting side of things has really helped our fixed
operations. Instead of trying to call customers at work and tell them
what their car needs, we can text customers their estimates. We're finding that
our response rate is much, much better with texting.
Technology just makes everything easier. It's easier to get insights about
the customer. When a customer walks into service now, you know so much. You
know how much their car's worth, and we can pull up their history between the
cars they bought, their services, and work done in the body shop. We see where
customers are now at a fingertip, and so much growth has happened digitally
within the last 10 years.
So yeah, we're adapting, but we're still learning. We just came back from
Digital Dealer, where we were finding out the new and latest ingredients, and
wow. It blows you away what's coming down the road and what's happening.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Thank you, by the way, for attending!
JIM: I always say I get more out of Digital Dealer than other shows.
JOHN: We've been saying that for years.
JIM: You have the opportunity to meet vendors there, but what we also love is
that balance, and the conference is workshop-driven. I love that. Whereas other
events it's more of just shaking hands and reconnecting relationships with the
factory for us. But with Digital Dealer, you get problem everyday problem-solving knowledge.
DEALER MAGAZINE: It's great to hear you got a lot out of
attending. In terms of technology, is there a particular solution or something you
could not live without in the dealership?
JIM: That's a good question. If we were to go backward and not have the
internet or our BDC, I would be scared to death. We couldn't not have a BDC, so
that is number one for us. And number two is equity mining. We'd be lost
without both of those.
We're in a growth stage. We just had a meeting today about adding our
service BDC. We're starting a service BDC because of how many phone calls come
in, and we need to get customers handled the right way. My son Andrew is going
to be a crucial piece to this. Andrew
has spent a few years in the sales department and now has been spending time in
service at each dealership. So, he will be working with our sales BDC director
to help launch our service BDC. We may
be a little late to the party on a service BDC, but we know it's needed, and
that's where we're going. But if someone told me, look, you have to cut
expenses and do away with something, I'd say, well, no one's touching the BDC-
I can tell you that right now! So we're staying invested in that.
It was a struggle to do the sales BDC
at first, but we've done a lot since then, and it's been very successful. We
couldn't have gotten to the point where we are now with that without Sean
Bradley from Dealer Synergy. About 10 years ago, we met Sean at a 20-group when
he came in to speak. We thought we were about to learn about video on Google. He
came in and gave this presentation on
how to be a turnkey BDC. It really
opened my eyes, and right after, I told John we have to get on this with
him. His processes are second to none, and I mean second to none. He and his
wife Karen also attend all of the making strides walks in Ocean City, N.J.,
donate to the walk, and are very big in giving back to good causes.
We're fortunate to have one of his
daughters, Kalina, working at the dealership. Kalina started working with us on
the sales floor about two years ago and then went into our equity mining
position that we talked about. She came in one day and said, "You know
what, I think I need a little break from the sales department. Can I go into
that equity mining position?" And she took it to the next level and just
knocked it out of the park. Everybody loves Kalina. She's just a wonderful
person. I know Sean's other daughter was in the business before working for him
DEALER MAGAZINE: Is there a product/solution that doesn't
exist that you wish did?
JIM: Info about the vehicle’s equipment from the VIN.
DEALER MAGAZINE: With new car inventory availability
improving, do you see the market shifting, and how does that affect your
JIM: Well, we'll
always have a focus on used cars. And when we were going through the pandemic
and couldn't get new cars, we had to worry about used vehicles. And we would
talk every day. If it wasn't every day, it was every other day. We got to worry about our aging, the markets
going to change, it's coming, the
manufacturers are going to open up the
floodgates to new inventory, and now what are we going to do with these used
vehicles. Thankfully, we stayed on top
of our used car inventory to the point where we went to our 20 group, and we were
asked, "What are you doing? You have no cars over 60 days." We have
been worried and discussing the values of the cars at the auctions and
out on the street, about as far as putting too much money in vehicles and keeping them for too long.
And we see it still in our market. Some
dealers weren't proactive and have a big problem sitting on their used
car lots right now. I don't know how they will get out of it because the new
car inventories are increasing.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Are there any top strategies for used
JOHN: We get most of our cars through our data mining department. We do buy
cars on the street, but focusing on being 60 days clean is our strategy. And
we're lucky that we did it. Acquiring most of our used car inventories through
trade is not by luck. All the managers know the strategy and that if you have
to pay more for a car than you want to, you want to do it at the door during the
trade process. So we strategize and make sure we do that.
JIM: John really has talked a lot about
that strategy because if you’re going to put more money in a used car trade-in,
you better sell it in that market because if you let that market change,
you’re in real trouble.
JOHN: And it shifted. It shifts weekly, almost daily now. I'm on the Black Book
market report daily, looking at where the market is to see if the last few days
were up or down.
But there are stores that are low on inventory because they never really
focused on getting a data mining or customer mining system in place, and
they're paying. We're lucky that we have focused on it. Last month, 20% of our
sales came in from one person in our data mining department. I looked at it the
other day, and she sold 32 cars - and on those 32 cars, there were 31 trades.
So out of those 32, there were 31 trades, and the only one that wasn't was a
customer who bought their own lease.
JIM: Yeah, so you don't have to go to the market and overpay at the time. And
so many positives come out of that: retention, getting the reconditioning
process going right away, and nobody wasting time trying to buy cars on
the auction, whether in-store or out-of-store, transportation, and lining up
everything like that.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Any areas you're focusing on or pain points
you’re working to alleviate?
JIM: Well, if I go to fixed operators, I think everyone's battling the
technician issue. When I say technician, I’m not talking about the techs who can do oil changes, brakes, and maybe
alignments. I’m talking about techs that can do engine, transmission, diesel work;
they're just not out there. So there is that lull, perhaps the trade itself got
ignored within our community. It seems like people are not getting into
becoming auto technicians.
Everyone's pushing now because everybody sees the problem within the
industry. Not only locally but nationally. You go to a dealer meeting, and
that's all everybody talks about. RK Auto is involved in the tech program in town here, the automotive tech
program at the high school, and the
local tech school.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Regarding EVs, has or is your dealership
making any changes to prepare to sell and service EVs?
JIM: Yeah, so, we just built a new Subaru store a year and a half ago, and in
the process of building the building, I
met with one vendor that sort of woke me up. He stated, "Okay, so
you'll go with in-ground lifts. What are you going to do with
EVs?" I replied, "Well, what do you mean?" He then said, "Well,
your current lifts aren't wide enough." I never thought about that! So we put all EV
lifts at the new Subaru building. And I call them EV lifts because they're wide
enough to handle electric vehicles, but they can still handle a traditional vehicle.
In our Chevy store, we had to do a lot of work with our electric company. Our
town has its own electric company, so we had to have them come out, add
service, add a transformer, and then add lifts to be able to handle it. Our
traditional lifts are not capable of servicing an EV vehicle. And
then, we had to add additional charging stations. We are now prepared at all
three stores for the EV push. It's just whether or not it will sustain
itself long-term because there are still so many infrastructure problems in the
area here, so we'll have to see how that plays out.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JIM: Just that in this business, the only constant is
change. I never wake up thinking, man, I have to go to work today. I don't look
at it that way. Sure, you have the bad days and some frustrating days and
times. And then when you think you've seen it all, something happens where
you're like, wow, I thought I'd seen everything in my 30-some years in this
business, but that was new. That is part of what brings us together. There will
always be challenges you take on and have to figure out. If we're lacking in
one department or aren't doing well in something, we go, okay, let's fix it. We
fix problems. So it's definitely interesting when you work in a car dealership
and not boring, that's for sure.
MAGAZINE: Anything you’d like to say to those that may be just starting their
career in automotive?
JIM: It's a rewarding business. I was playing golf one day and met up with one
of my son's friends, and we started talking about his plans. He is 18, so I
asked if he was going to school or, if not, what he was doing. He said,
"No, and I'm not working right now. I was working for a solar panel
company. I went through training, and it wasn't what they promised." So
then, I asked if he ever thought about selling cars. He hadn't, but he came in
and works for us now, and all the managers love him. Our salesperson just
trained him, so he's just now on the floor, and I think he's up to nine cars in
his first week, and he's like, “I love this business!”
Everybody can get something out of the car business, and you don't have to
be a college graduate. But you get out of it what you put into it. It probably
sounds cliche, but it's the truth in this business. Effort equals result. It can provide a great living for everyone.