On All Cylinders
TommyCar Auto Group Expands with Two New DealershipsCarla Cosenzi is all about numbers … and customers.
The numbers come in the form of monthly markdown specials, which attract customers … and more customers mean growth. A trip down Northampton’s King Street is proof of the significant growth that Cosenzi and her brother, Tommy Cosenzi — president and vice president, respectively, of TommyCar Auto Group — have experienced since formally taking the reins of the company when their father, Thomas E. Cosenzi, succumbed to brain cancer in 2009.
Reflecting that growth are $13 million and 36,000 square feet of new commercial construction on King Street in Northampton, for two brand new state-of-the-art dealerships: one for the former Northampton Volkswagen, which TommyCar purchased and moved from Damon Road, and the other for Country Hyundai, recently relocated from Greenfield. They join two other dealerships in the family chain, Country Nissan on Route 9 in Hadley and Patriot Buick GMC in Charlton.
Carla, who has long been the face of all the TommyCar brands, uses numbers to her advantage in her quirky, sometimes edgy, always model-specific TV, radio, and Internet commercials. She’s currently promoting the move of Country Hyundai to its 347 King St. address with a deal for a brand-new Hyundai Accent for only $11,347 — the 347 a reminder of the new address — and spicing up the offer with 0% down, no trade required.
Proclaiming that “our move is done and it’s time for fun,” Cosenzi, her brother, and the TommyCar team — which has grown by 30 more employees between the two new showrooms and expanded services bays — officially opened the doors on Jan. 13, with Northampton Volkswagen expected to open Feb. 14, followed by a month-long grand-opening celebration starting March 1 for both new showrooms.
The barrage of advertising that has already begun will make clever use of wordplay and specific car-sale numbers, all to grab viewers’ and listeners’ attention, Cosenzi said — a function of the TommyCar business plan that has served it well, even through the toughest of times.
“You saw a lot of people in the [automobile] industry completely cut back advertising, where we stayed aggressive to that,” she said. “We stayed very true to our beliefs, our own business plan, and kept our name out there, and I think that helped us.”
With Carla handling spokesperson duties and the customer sales side, and Tommy working as the automobile buyer, they’re forecasting 2014 to be the best year since 2006. For this issue’s focus on auto sales, BusinessWest visited the Cosenzi team’s brand-new Hyundai and VW dealerships in Northampton to see what state-of-the-art looks like when coupled with the team’s focus on customer service — and a few unique new perks.
While some industries — including auto sales — struggled with ups and downs between 2009 and 2013, Cosenzi said unrelenting advertising and partnerships with strong manufacturers helped TommyCar weather the tough times, but a physical move in 2007 of the Nissan store from Greenfield to Hadley, followed by the 2012 acquisition of Northampton Volkswagen, really made a difference. But the process to acquire the VW dealership was one neither sibling expected to be so comprehensive.
Cosenzi told BusinessWest that she and her brother understand the Western Mass. market and believed in the VW brand, so they attempted to purchase the struggling dealership from the owners. When that didn’t work out, they reached out to Volkswagen to secure the franchise. Under the microscope for more than six months — including a thorough dissection of all their books — they were finally offered a visit to the New Jersey headquarters of VW, where they were interviewed.
“There were a lot of people in this area that wanted that franchise, so we were competing with local dealers,” Cosenzi added. “And I have to say, they believed in our enthusiasm, in Tommy and I as a team, and what we foresaw for growth of that franchise in this market.”
Just two years later, Cosenzi said, Volkswagen management is “ecstatic” with VW’s growth under the TommyCar name. Part of the promise in that interview process was that TommyCar would not only exceed sales goals, but build a brand-new facility. To accomplish that, they purchased the five-acre Kollmorgen property for $1.8 million — $2.2 million less than the asking price, due to demolition and possible remediation needs.
“We knew it was the right property for us, but it doesn’t support just one manufacturer, so we spoke with Hyundai, because our dealership was in Greenfield. They also believed in our business plan and agreed in letting us move,” she said.
The move of the Nissan store from Greenfield to Hadley in 2007 wasn’t difficult for the siblings because Hyundai remained, but moving Hyundai to Northampton this year was bittersweet, Cosenzi said. “We’ve had a presence in Greenfield since my grandfather [Thomas A. Cosenzi] was there, long before I ever got into the business. But the opportunity for us to build this type of facility on King Street was too great,” she explained, adding that it fell into their five-year growth plan.
Abatement of asbestos and PCBs on the former defense manufacturer’s site set the complex construction project back just a few weeks.
“You don’t realize how much work it is, especially when you’re as involved as Tommy and I are,” Cosenzi recalled. “We wanted to make this building really efficient, customer-friendly, and a great work environment for our employees, so we paid attention to every single detail.”
The service areas in both dealerships expanded significantly, and the typical comfortable couches and large-screen TV in most dealerships are present in both lounges, along with free coffee and light snacks, and they’ve also added ‘Internet bars’ for customers who want to work or surf as they wait.
Meanwhile, close proximity to the amenities of Northampton is another way the Hyundai, Volkswagen, and nearby Nissan dealerships benefit customers.
For instance, Cosenzi noted, the Norwottuck Rail Trail bike path passes directly in back of the Hadley Nissan dealership and very near the King Street stores, so the auto group installed bike racks and will offer free bicycles for pleasure riding during the warmer months while customers are waiting for service. In addition, a year-round shuttle service between the three stores will transport those same customers to Northampton’s highly regarded restaurants; later, a call or text will let them know their vehicle is ready, followed by a shuttle pickup.
“We spend all this money on advertising to get customers to come through the door,” she said. “Now we need to treat them right and take care of them — not only when they buy the car, but when they service it. It’s a life cycle.”
The two new brands on King Street, Cosenzi said, are helping transform the stretch into an ‘auto row’ that now includes five large, competing dealerships. But “competition is great for us,” she added.
As she was speaking with BusinessWest, a gong echoed through the brand-new building to signal another happy customer. “Someone sold a car,” Cosenzi said, smiling, just as a customer looked suddenly surprised to see her behind the counter — which is typical.
“People are shocked when they come in and I’m standing there,” she said, laughing. “It’s what sets us apart from a lot of our competitors. We have really aggressive advertising, and when the customers come in the dealership, the owners are approachable.”
For those who are new to Cosenzi’s style of advertising, the ‘I’m teasing’ wink, the metaphors regarding topical news, and the smart use of social media and contests to involve customers have produced a legion of new fans, many of whom competed in a popular jingle contest a few years ago, and, more recently, a commercial contest that garnered each winner a new car.
“Sometimes, I think advertising is taking over my life,” she said as she slumped her head into her hands — especially since manufacturers don’t announce each month’s incentives, rebates, and other programs until the first of the month. Then the rush is on to get scripts written — sometimes based on the season, current news, or whatever’s in Cosenzi’s head at the time — and get into the studio to record the ads and disseminate them to local TV and radio stations. The publication goal is always the fifth of the month, or the first weekend.
“A lot of other dealers will be out there just branding themselves with a generic message and leave the message on for two or three months, and you’ll see their prices aren’t as aggressive as ours because they don’t update them every month,” she explained. “But we go in every single month with a fresh idea and fresh prices on a specific car.”
While other dealerships might scoff at the price customers say they’ve heard Northampton Volkswagen advertise, claiming TommyCar will never honor that price, Cosenzi and her team do. She knows her advertising push for a certain Volkswagen model helps other Volkswagen dealers — a fact she confirms in shared monthly reports — but said her dealership definitely shows the largest spike in sales for that model. It’s a good feeling, but short-lived.
“We work so hard all month, and then you’re cut off, and you start back at zero the next month; it’s a constant struggle, and it rules my life,” she said. To be successful in auto sales today, she went on, her team has to understand customer service — and the rise of the online shopper who often knows the exact price a dealer paid for a car. “So it all goes back to customer service, because we all pretty much have the same cars.”
Investment in customer service and giving back to each dealership’s local community is all part of the TommyCar business plan. Annually, TommyCar Auto Group holds the Thomas E. Cosenzi “Driving for the Cure” charity golf tournament, now in its fifth year, which helps to underwrite brain-tumor research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in their father’s name, and has raised more than $400,000 since 2009.
The Cosenzi family also gives to many other charitable and civic organizations, and for the past three years, it has aided talented numerous high-school seniors with the $1,000 Tom Cosenzi Scholarship.
Considering all of that, Cosenzi is satisfied with where she and her brother have taken the TommyCar business.
“We’re not looking to be a mega dealer and grow too fast and lose what we have now,” she said as she gestured to her sparkling new surroundings. “This is our growth.”
Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]