Owning a dealership wasn’t Eric Ellenberger’s first career choice. He enjoyed his job working as a district manager for Radio Shack in Peoria, IL, but he could see the electronics chain was in trouble, Ellenberger tells Automotive Buy Sell Report. “The only other thing I ever liked was cars,” he says.
So, Ellenberger left his job with Radio Shack and approached a nearby Ford dealership, where he was offered a sales job the same day. It was his first step on the path to becoming the dealer principal at Motor City Chevrolet Buick GMC.
“It has been something I have been thinking about and dreaming about for a long time,” says Ellenberger. “It took quite a while for the stars to align perfectly.”
Landing the ownership of a new car franchise is not easy, to be sure. Ellenberger’s story proves it is possible with hard work and perseverance.
Working at the Peoria Ford store was “a learning curve,” says Ellenberger. But he leapt at the opportunity to get to know the dealership business. Even then, “I knew I wanted to have my own place someday,” he says.
Next, he spent three years as the manager at a Ford dealership in Kewanee, IL. That gave him experience going to used car auctions, desking deals, hiring, firing, and training. “But I could see purchasing that store was not going to happen,” says Ellenberger.
He left that job to open a pre-owned dealership in Kewanee and had “great success” with it for eight years, says Ellenberger. But his desire to own a new car franchise was still strong. He met with representatives from Chrysler, who told him he would be an ideal dealer principal.
But getting the financing together took time. Ellenberger sold his used car business to its employees to finance the down payment, but by then the Chrysler store had already been sold. The owners needed the money for some health issues, says Ellenberger. “No hard feelings,” he says.
At loose ends, Ellenberger listened to his wife, who advised he open another used car operation because “that’s what I love doing.” That store, Motor City Kewanee, was successful right away and is still in business.
He also opened Motor City Auto Service Center nearby.
From spare parts to dealer principal
A few years ago, Ellenberger dropped by D&D Chevrolet Buick GMC in Kewanee to buys some spare parts. He chatted with the owner, asking if he had thought of selling. The answer was no.
In January of this year, Ellenberger got a call from the owner asking if he was serious about buying the store.
He was, and the two started to talk.
“We negotiated back and forth for about a month, had many talks with my local banker, and came up with a final agreement and decided to move forward with it,” says Ellenberger.
After about six months of number crunching, Ellenberger was able to work with a local bank to get the deal funded. “I had to sell just about everything but my first born to make it happen,” he jokes.
Ellenberger praises the General Motors corporate team as very easy to work with. “Manufacturers say they are going to partner with you, but to actually do that has been surprising and wonderful,” he says.
Ellenberger has made the new car dealership the main point of contact for all his service customers including those from the pre-owned store. Customers for any repair drop off and pick up their vehicle at the new car dealership.
“They get that white glove service, and also are looking at shiny brand-new vehicles,” says Ellenberger. “There are a lot of opportunities to switch folks over to a different brand or different type of vehicle.”
All his repair orders are now run through the GM system. “It simplified the process,” he says.
There are other advantages. Using one system saves a couple of thousand dollars a month, says Ellenberger. And it will make the numbers at the new car dealership look good, he adds.
Routing all the service traffic through one location — which increased traffic flow though the new car service center by up to 40 percent — “definitely created some process challenges,” says Ellenberger. “We don’t want employees to get frustrated or burnt out” because of the increased work load, he says.
He has added a part-time service writer and looks for other time-saving changes that can make the service techs jobs easier, says Ellenberger. He also is improving the communication process between the service manager and customers, and even between Ellenberger himself and customers.
Close to 80 percent of his customers prefer to be contacted via text message. Ellenberger gives out his personal number. “People text me,” he says. “I have sold cars that way.”
It all goes to establishing a relationship with customers and building customer loyalty, he says.