Monday, Jun. 05, 2006, 08:00 PM UPDATED 11:59 AMBy Nick Zulovich
LAS VEGAS (June 6, 2006) -- Sharing his story prior to taking office as the next president of National Independent Automobile Dealers Association's at this week's annual convention in Las Vegas, Randle Smith said he learned one of life's hardest lessons by a young age -- if you fail, pick yourself up and try again. At age 12, Smith said he had broken down his first engine, and soon learned the car would never run again. "My father had a car lot when I was small, and I always knew I would be a used car dealer just like my dad," Smith explained. "I guess you could say it's in the blood. My father always kept a couple cars for parts, and he'd let me 'piddle' on them." By 14, Smith decided to take a job at a filling station on Interstate 75 in Georgia, near Dalton, which was where he got his first taste of buying and selling cars. "One day, this guy exited off I-75 and pulled in at the pumps," Smith recalled. "His old '49 Chevy he was driving was knocking like crazy. He needed to get to Florida, which was more than 300 miles. I told him, 'I don't think your car's going to make it.' He mentioned that it had been knocking since Chattanooga. One thing led to another, and I bought the '49 Chevy for $10, the cost of his Greyhound bus ticket to Florida. After purchasing the car, Smith said his boss, Jerry Dotson, saw the old Chevy had two new Atlas tires on the front and offered to purchase them for $35 and hand over two older tires. "I figured I had better take him up on his offer because the old Chevy had seen better days," Smith explained. "Jerry didn't think it was the rod knocking and said, 'Let's pull her in and take a look.' When I got to the timing gear, there it was! It had three teeth missing. That was the sweetest-running Chevy in the country." Making out like a bandit, Smith said the deal with his boss wasn't the only fortune the vehicle brought to him. "As I was cleaning it up, I found $15 in change, two boxes of .22 rifle shells and two six packs of beer," Smith remembered. Despite enjoying the vehicle, Smith said he didn't own it for long. "I had the '49 Chevy sitting out front of the station on Saturday and this guy just had to have it. He knew my father and said, 'I'll have to talk to Big John before we trade.' I got $70 and a Morris Minor (a classic British car). I sold the Morris Minor for $60, and was hooked from that point forward." After that, Smith said he truly began to focus on a career as an independent dealer. "My father was a tough guy to work for, so I went outside his territory," Smith explained. "By the time I decided to get my licenses to sell cars, I had about five cars that I had traded around. I spoke to my father a couple of times about backing me. He always said, 'You're not ready.'" Having faith in himself, Smith said he was determined to break into the car business, so he found backing through his brother-in-law's mother. According to Smith, he would pay her $35 per car and $25 on trades. "Mrs. Ketchem built a 10-foot by 12-foot building just for me," Smith explained. "I needed more cars, so I sold my wife's car for some more capital. I worked night auctions back then so I could stay at my lot during the day. With my overhead low and my wife working, I was able to put every penny back into my lot. I built a 40-foot by 40-foot shop at my house so I could do the work that was needed. I could rebuild engines and refinish them. I really got into the painting part, so I started taking in outside work." With his sales not coming in quite as he'd hoped, Smith said it didn't take too long until he picked up shop and moved closer to town. "I worked out a similar deal for backing with J.B. Hicks Jr., who I knew from my filling station days," he said. "A couple of years went by and J.B. and I decided to invest $1,500 each into a buy-here, pay-here operation. You see, his landlord went up on the rent, so he decided to quit his current business and go into business with me. I knew that if I was going to have to pay rent every month that I'd move to 'car boulevard,' which is Glenwood Avenue in Dalton. After setting up a location on Glenwood Avenue, Smith said he finally began to realize success. "With a good supply of income being generated, we purchased our current location and built a new store in 1990 and moved into our current home in 1991," Smith said. Today, Smith said Randle Smith Auto supports five full-time employees, as well as his 2-year-old grandson Preston, who he calls his No. 1 salesperson. "Since Preston has been here on a daily basis, it kind of looks like a daycare around here," Smith said with a grin. "We didn't have that many kids coming in before, but now the store is like a magnet for them. I've never seen so many little ones running around. I should have had him here from the beginning." Discussing his dealership's atmosphere, Smith said, "It is very friendly on Saturdays. I started cooking lunch, but it got so big that it was all I was doing and we had to begin getting it catered. We are very relaxed, with no-push sales and work ethics. We all get busy when it's time." The Link Between Business and Community Dalton witnessed a "massive increase" in the Latino population over the last 10 years, and soccer has become very popular in the community. In response, Smith's dealership staff can often be found at such community events. "I have cooked a lot of steaks at our local high school trying to do my part," Smith noted, saying community involvement in an important part of his business. "We help by participating in calendars for each local club, like softball, baseball, football and soccer." Further explaining, he said, "I drove a race car for about 10 years, and we used it as a billboard. We took it to a lot of functions in the off-season like church events, car shows and Christmas parades. We could park it anywhere and draw a crowd." With a smile, Smith said he now sells cars to those "sweaty guys" he used to cook for at the high school. "Yes, I am selling cars to the soccer players for whom we sponsored uniforms. The best part about the whole thing is we are having fun." In addition to his involvement in the community, Smith said his dealership stands out because his staff is successful by "doing what others either do not do, or do and fail." "Customer retention is the key to our business," he continued. "We have a 35-percent customer retention rate or higher. To achieve this, we make things much more personal between the customer and ourselves. This requires a low turnover rate in our employment. Most of our staff has personal involvement in local churches and schools. Our dealership commits to as many fundraisers as possible. When it is all said and done, we are just normal people like everyone else." On the few occasions he's had to hire someone new to his team, Smith said he looks for people who take pride in their appearance and present themselves as a self-starter with good communication skills, high self-esteem and a good self image. "A person needs to be honest and have integrity, and sometimes these things are hard to find until you work with them," he pointed out. "A good salesperson is an experienced rookie. An old piano tuner used to drop by my dealership when I first got into the business. He told me to always keep money in my pocket because a beggar doesn't make a good salesperson. "He also believed that being in sales is an ongoing learning experience," Smith added. "He told me to be honest, not to lie, because if word got out that I would do anything to make a sale, that person would tell 10 people, and those 10 would each tell 10 more. Eventually there would be no one left to buy a vehicle. Selling is a 24-hour job. Everywhere you go, someone is looking for a solution to their transportation needs. "Due to my tenure for president of NIADA, I had to move a lot of things around so I could free up some space," Smith explained. "All repossessions, mechanic work and clean-up are farmed out. I have a friend who does my inventory purchasing. Sales grew 25-percent since he's been buying. Ties to State and National Independent Associations Given the complexity of the business and legal compliance requirements, Smith said he signed up for the Georgia Independent Automobile Dealers Association in the early 1980s to stay current on these issues. "Our state is changing its title laws continuously, and I get my money?s worth just in that service alone from the GIADA," Smith pointed out. "If I have a problem, I just call the GIADA office; they will find the answers. In addition to his membership in the GIADA, Smith also signed up with the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association. "NIADA and GIADA both have a part in keeping their dealers informed," he explained. "Both of them have had their hands full these past five years. I have not seen so many changes being made. If a dealer is not active in their state and national associations, I don't think they can stay compliant. Since I have become active, I stay ahead of my competition on the legal issues and regulation. If I have a problem, I know who to call. If it's someone from the DMV or state board, I know them personally. Our state and national associations both strive to keep our dealers better informed, and this is an ongoing process. "It's been more than 20 years since I joined the GIADA and NIADA," he continued, recalling when he first began contributing his time to the organizations. "Arlin Conners was the dealer that signed us up. I took the job of district 5 representative, and received help in setting up my meetings from the state executive director. The state executive kept asking me when I was going to attend one of their conventions. I remember asking him to give me all the information. I think that was in 1993 or 1994 that I attended my first convention. I came back to the dealership primed and ready with all the information I had received." After that, there was no looking back, he said. Smith just became more and more involved with the associations to assist his own staff as well as others in the industry. "I became president of the GIADA in the 1999-2000 term," he stated. "It was a custom for the president to attend the NIADA convention. In 1999, I attended when it was in Atlanta. Boy, do those guys know how to put a show on. I was hooked with all the information, the networking and friendly atmosphere. I came home pumped and ready. The first thing I enrolled in was NIADA Dynamic Leadership Training in Dallas. Kerry Rogers was our incoming GIADA president; I told her she needed the info with her coming in as president. "When we left Dallas, we were dynamic leaders," he continued. "In 2000, I was elected to NIADA chairman of the State President Council, which gave me the privilege to sit in on the NIADA Executive Committee. In 2001, I was elected NIADA region 2 vice president. This was the first year I could really vote on the issues with NIADA. In 2001, I was appointed by the NIADA Executive Board to sit on the NIADA Services Board." When it comes to educating his staff, Smith said he relies on NIADA.TV. "NIADA.TV has all the buttons and whistles," he said. "We can watch it anytime, 24 hours a day. If a salesman needs some closing skills or motivation, NIADA.TV has it. If my salesperson needs phone skills, they can go to NIADA.TV. Legal issues? NIADA.TV has it." Smith also said he stays tuned to a variety of trade publications to keep up on the latest techniques and offerings to enhance his business. "I read a lot," he noted. "If it has an auto on it, I read it. My library consumes a lot of space. If a magazine has a good article, I index the article so that I can come back later to retrieve the information. If the magazine has no substance that I can use, I file it in the trash bin." As the new NIADA president, Smith said he will continue supporting the ongoing goals of the organization. "We will continue with our planning session that we started in 1999 (since Mike Linn came on board. Linn is the association's president and chief executive officer)," he explained. "We will prioritize our goals, and then we will assist each other in achieving them. This approach works well since everyone will be in on the decision-making process. I am only one person, so I would be narrow-minded to think I had all the answers." With more than 30 years as an independent dealer under his belt, Smith said his advice to other dealers is, "Be active in your state and national associations. The knowledge is just sitting there, waiting for someone to come by and pick it up. During my 30 years in the business, no one has walked into my dealership and given me the knowledge that I have received from my association partners. It has been the experience of a lifetime."