To Flow Automotive owner Don Flow, the dealer-customer relationship is a covenant, not a transaction.
That is the foremost guiding principle at the storied auto dealer, which was founded in 1957 and now maintains 39 franchises in nine cities across the southeastern U.S. Disruptors live in every industry, and companies that don’t adapt to the change overtaking their industry are at risk. In the auto-dealer industry, the internet democratized the car buying process and drastically altered the customer journey.
Redefining Value Within a Changing Customer Journey
Car dealerships historically created value for customers by acting as the gatekeepers of information and inventory for auto sales. People would walk into a showroom simply to find the information they needed to start the car buying or selling process. Now they walk into a showroom with at least 60% of the journey already in the rearview mirror, completed almost entirely online.1
Flow acknowledges that things had to change. “As dealers, we have to be looking at how we create value in new ways and think about this in much more creative terms than we had to in the past,” he says.
Shoppers report they would buy from a dealer with a better retail experience over one that offers a better price on a vehicle.2 To create that kind of valuable experience, Flow developed a set of principles that would drive every decision about processes in the company. The company’s commitment to the five core values of trust, respect, fun, convenience, and choice driving everything they do means that sales process must be transparent, fast, easy, frictionless and enjoyable.
SunTrust was ready and able to support Flow’s innovative approach.
“It’s extremely important that we have financial relationships that help us develop distinctive and innovative products that address specific desires of customers,” Flow says. “That means being thoughtful about the interaction of terms, advances, and risk in a way that’s quick and easy to do, with an immediate response time. SunTrust has done a great job being a leader with new programs and being innovative in coming to market and crafting solutions.”
Crafting a Strategic Plan Through SunTrust’s OneTeam Approach®
Customer-facing products and solutions are just a small part of Flow’s relationship with SunTrust. Through the SunTrust OneTeam Approach®, Flow relies on an assembled team of SunTrust specialists who focus on planning, portfolio management, capital management and insights into the automotive dealership industry to deeply understand his business, the industry landscape and how to structure growth in the right way.
“We are committed to staying in the business for the long term and growing our company,” Flow says. “We need a financial partner that sees the world the same way, wants to invest in our growth, and understands the dynamics of the associated capital that’s required for this growth.”
Through the OneTeam Approach, Flow can have a single conversation with individuals who offer a range of expertise to determine what needs to happen and the role that SunTrust will play. He also receives input on innovative ways that his business can create new revenue streams or maximize existing investments.
“It’s a very holistic approach for us, looking at the overall business. We’re looking at real estate acquisitions, dealership acquisitions, indirect financing programs, new innovative programs ... all those efforts help us have a real partnership with SunTrust,” Flow says. “Additionally, their long-term view of the business enables us to say, ‘Okay, what about 10 years from now? What does it look like for us to envision the future? What might we do to go from here to there?’”
Supporting Flow Automotive and Its Employee Leaders
For Flow, business growth must be deliberate, even as the industry consolidates and new opportunities arise. The pace must be sustainable internally, as it relates to the company’s culture and ability to form leaders who can operate the businesses in a way that’s consistent with the organization’s core values.
That means significant investment in Flow’s employees as future leaders. For example, Flow Automotive has two nurses and a counselor on staff to help with his employees’ medical and emotional needs. The company also pays for the college education of its employees’ children and has done so for 20 years, sending hundreds of kids to college.
“We look at employees’ investment in our company as something that we must steward,” Flow says. “We have a deep responsibility to ensure that if they invest their scarce labor capital into our company, we offer a fantastic return.”
As part of that commitment, Flow wanted his employees to have advanced financial literacy. “We wanted to be able to help our employees with personal issues like choosing insurance, buying a home, setting aside money for retirement and many of the things associated with navigating the world today,” Flow says. “Information that’s required for helping folks learn how to flourish in today’s world.”
His team studied a number of workplace financial wellness programs and ultimately selected SunTrust’s Momentum onUp program, a values-based financial education curriculum. He offers employees a $250 contribution into their 401(K) for completing the program, and it has proven widely successful, both in terms of adoption and impact. “Giving folks the framework they need to make wise decisions is an important part of our responsibility as a company,” Flow says.
Financial Partnership for the Future, Whatever It Holds
SunTrust’s top-to-bottom support of Flow Automotive allows the relationship to pivot exactly as Flow needs it to. As new business models eclipse the old within the industry, SunTrust is ready to use its deep industrial and financial knowledge to assess and advise, so Flow can react quickly to changes and position the company for future success.
“At the end of the day, we will be in the customer management business, managing customers’ experiences and matching the transportation requirements to those, which we think opens the door to thinking about us as transportation service centers,” Flow says.
That means engaging with customers to fill a wide range of transportation needs well beyond the traditional financing and leasing of vehicles. It will involve developing new innovative and flexible leasing programs, subscription services that offer a wide range of offerings, rental cars to address specific needs short term needs and concierge services. This will require a new level of investment in technology for both customer engagement and asset management.
“The best automobile dealer groups will be able to provide all of those transportation services for their customers,” Flow says. “And they will need a financial partner like SunTrust to be able to do that.”