The Pion Family Has Long Been a Driving Force in the Industry
Don Pion has been around cars and car dealerships for pretty much all of his 52 years.
He has fond memories of cleaning snow off rows of vehicles at a Chevrolet dealership his father worked at in the mid-’60s, and lasting recollections of those intrigue-filled days each fall when the new models would be rolled out.
“The cars would come covered, and the windows to the dealership would be papered over so people couldn’t see inside,” he told BusinessWest, adding that car makers would use such tactics to build curiosity and essentially compel people to visit the dealerships.
Today, of course, there is somewhat less fanfare and much less mystery involved with new models — people can see and read all about them on the Internet, for example — but the basic challenge facing dealers is the same today as it was 35 or 75 years ago, when Pion’s grandfather was selling Mercuries on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield: simply getting people into the showrooms.
And that’s especially true for today’s domestic dealers, said Pion, who is one of them, as the name of the venture that still bears his father’s name — Bob Pion Pontiac, Buick, GMAC — clearly indicates. That’s because those Detroit-based makers, like others, have lost considerable ground to foreign manufacturers in recent years, in large part because they didn’t make cars that could readily capture the attention of increasingly savvy and demanding consumers.
Pion is careful to use the past tense as he makes such comments. Indeed, he believes domestic makers, including Buick and Pontiac, are taking back some of that lost market share through better cars, better warranties, effective marketing, some incentives (0% financing is still available), and especially hard, often fruitful work to simply convince motorists to give domestic nameplates a good look.
Tiger Woods has helped. The sports world’s biggest superstar and perhaps its most prolific pitchman has been associated with Buick for nearly a decade, and he’s succeeded, said Pion, in making a noticeable dent in the long-held perception that Buick is an older person’s car.
“He’s having an impact — people come in and say, ‘I want to see the car that Tiger’s touting,’” said Pion, noting quickly that old perceptions die hard, and it’s still a challenge to get younger audiences to consider Buick.
Meanwhile, Pontiac has come out with some new nameplates like the Solstice (a roadster) and G6, a convertible, that are helping turn back the clock to the ’60s and ’70s, said Pion, when the company made some of the sportiest, most unique, and most popular models on the road — like the GTO, Firebird, and Lemans.
“General Motors is trying to give each franchise its own individual flavor,” he explained, noting that for too long, domestics makers, especially the various lines in the GM stable, mirrored each other’s offerings, creating confusion as well as boredom, which prompted many to consider and then purchase foreign options. “If we can get people into our dealership and they try the products we have — then we’re in the game.”
The task of managing all the change and challenge in auto sales today is now the work of three generations of the Pion family. Bob, now 80, comes to the dealership several days each week. He handles some banking chores, still conducts a sale or two, especially to long-time clients (he recently completed another transaction with a customer he’s been serving since the ’50s), and he remains the face of the company.
Two of Don’s sons (who both call Bob “Gramps”) have leadership roles: Rob is general manager, and Tom is Internet manager/used car manager, and works to ensure that the company’s Web site is accessible, informative, and effective.
In this issue, BusinessWest looks at how the Pion family name has endured for more than eight decades, and why it will be a fixture for years to come. This glimpse into a successful family venture provides an indepth look into the challenges facing all dealers today, and especially those selling domestic models.
As he traced the history of the family’s involvement in the auto business — with some help from his father — Don Pion put his memory to the test, recalling the names and locations of many former dealerships, while also tracing family trees and listing a number of makes and models that have vanished from the landscape.
It all started with Bob’s father, Francis X. Pion, who was a partner in a venture called Pynchon Motors, which sold Ford, Mercury, and Zepher models. Francis Pion died when Bob was only 10, but the latter had already acquired a taste for the business (he handled a number of chores around the dealership, much as Don did a generation later) and would eventually make it his career.
Starting in the early ’50s, he sold a number of nameplates, from Chevrolet to Subaru, from GM to MG. In the late ’60s, Pion partnered with Joe Gentile in a venture called Allan Imports in Springfield, which sold MG, Renault, and Subaru. They later sold that venture and eventually opened Hampden Dodge on State Street in Springfield.
In 1977, the partnership dissolved, with Gentile keeping Hampden Dodge and Pion acquiring a struggling Pontiac dealership on Front Street in Chicopee and putting his name on the sign outside. In 1985, he acquired a GMC Truck dealership in Springfield, and eventually took that larger venture to the current location on the corner of Fuller Road and Memorial Drive. In 1995, the business acquired Mathis Olds Buick, and brought the Pontiac, GMC, and Buick franchises under one roof, a channeling method preferred by GM.
Bob Pion, who first sold cars at Hampden Dodge and joined his father at the Front Street location in the late ’70s, later went on to be the dealer at Suburban Chevrolet in Southwick in the late ’80s before selling that venture and rejoining the family business in 1989 and becoming dealer in 1992, not long after it relocated.
The company has put down firm roots on Memorial Drive, which may not be in the same category as Riverdale Road in West Springfield as an ‘auto mile,’ or car shopper’s destination, but is an attractive, accessible location, said Pion, that has seen a wave of development over the past several years, with more on the way.
The former Fairfield Mall site, located directly across the off ramp of Turnpike exit 5, has been retrofitted into a home for Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and other retail giants, and there are signs (literally — a large one recently went up on the property) of additional development on a large open tract adjacent to the Parwick Center.
But vehicle traffic is only part of the success formula for dealers, said Pion, adding quickly that facilities must have the cars that consumers want. This is Auto Sales 101, and the reason why domestic makers lost considerable ground to foreign manufactures, from Audi to Toyota; BMW to Volkswagen, over the past 20 years or so.
“GM got into such bland cars,” Pion said of a trend that began in the late ’80s and prevailed, by and large, until recently. “They did everything by consumer groups; they tried to come up with cars that would appeal to the largest numbers of people, but instead they often ended up with cars that didn’t appeal to anyone.”
General Motors is gaining some of that ground back by focusing on quality as well as style, said Pion, and restoring a unique identity to each of the franchises. In the case of Buick, it has reduced the number of nameplates to just three — the Enclave (a crossover SUV), and two sedans, the LaCrosse and Lucerne. The shift from quantity to quality and making cars that can cross generational gaps is making a difference, he said, adding that Buick, makers of what are considered “low-profile luxury cars,” is attracting looks from some who have been driving foreign models.
The same is true for Pontiac, a nameplate steeped in innovation that is returning to those roots with the Solstice, G6, and a G8 model that is in the pipleline.
“I think the pendulum is swinging back the other way,” Pion said of the apparent momentum achieved by some domestic makers. “We are seeing more people driving into the lot in imports who are looking at what we have.”
And this looking is critical, he said, because not too long ago, many people were far less inclined to look because of the gap in quality between imports and domestics. That gap was real for many years, and it is still perceived by many, said Bob Pion.
“Once you lose people to imports, it’s hard to win them back,” he told BusinessWest. “You can’t just tell them your product is as good or better than the others; you have to prove it to them.”
As he talked about auto sales in the 21st century, Pion began with a discourse on the Internet and what it has — and hasn’t — done.
Specifically, it hasn’t spelled doom for individual dealers, as many predicted it would by putting so much information in consumers’ hands, because most people still want to see and drive a car before they buy it, he said.
But it has made consumers more knowledgeable when they walk in the doors, he continued, noting that most people know essentially what they want and how much they should be expected to pay when they get to the dealership. This phenomenon, coupled with reduced flexibility on price and, recently at least, less to differentiate models on the market, leaves dealers forced to find new ways to stand out.
In general, it comes down to making the buying or leasing experience as simple and painless as possible.
“There are no real lemons out there anymore that are just horrible cars; for manufacturers to be in business today, they have to build something that’s competitive in the marketplace, or they have no shot,” he said, noting that this phenomenon has changed the landscape for all dealers. “Today, so much of it comes down to the experience; we have to make it as non-stressful and as enjoyable for the customer as we can make it.
“Most people equate it to going to the dentist,” he said of the car-shopping experience. “They just don’t like to do it. And it shouldn’t be that way; it should be a fun thing to go pick out a new car. It’s exciting, you’re going to spend a lot of money … you should get something you like.”
Efforts at Pion to make visits to the dealership less painful and stressful center on a team effort, he continued, adding that it starts with the initial contact in the showroom and continues long after the purchase is completed, through interaction with those in service, parts, and other departments.
“People are the biggest thing in any business, but certainly in the automobile business — it truly is a people business,” he explained. “You can have a good product and be in a good location, but if the person you come into contact with when you first walk into the dealership turns you off, everything we’ve done to get you here has gone away; it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Meanwhile, dealers must make maximum use of the Internet, he said, noting that this means making sites as accessible, informative, and user-friendly as possible. To that end, the company is constantly updating its site, adding new features, and linking with online entities such as Vehix and AutoTrader.
Looking back at 2007 and ahead to the balance of 2008, Pion said the former was a good year (better than ’06) and for all those reasons listed above. Maintaining such momentum will be challenging, in part because of the economy but also non-stop press coverage, much of it speculative in nature, that is sowing doubt and caution among consumers.
“Industry-wide, as far as our manufacturers are concerned, the product is better, and if all things were equal, we’d see an uptick in business,” he said, “but the big concern is the economy.
“You can’t turn on the TV or open the newspaper without reading about whether we’re in a recession or whether we’re heading toward a recession, and all that takes a toll,” he said, noting that talk of a downturn often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “We’re in an area where unemployment is still good, and conditions are better than they are in many other areas. Still, our business is one where people have to feel comfortable about today and the future, because they’re paying over time. And many don’t feel as comfortable as they once did.”
Standing in his showroom amidst SUVs, hard-top convertibles, and sales desks dominated by computers, Don Pion noted that much has changed in this industry since he started selling cars — not to mention when his father and grandfather began their careers.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same, he said, noting that it’s still all about getting people into the showroom, be it through paper over the windows, the time-honored newspaper ad, an engaging Web site, or a TV ad featuring Tiger Woods.
After that, it comes down to the art and science of the sale — an experience that has driven four generations of the Pion family to succeed.v
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]