How customer satisfaction and employee empowerment drove 170% EBIDTA growth in three years
In eight short years, Summit Automotive has experienced runaway success, growing its network of dealerships well beyond its Denver, Colorado headquarters and posting 170% EBITDA growth over the past three years. Today, Summit’s operations span 22 franchises selling multiple brands to drivers in Colorado as well as Nashville, Tennessee and throughout northern New England. This year alone, the group expects to sell more than 30,000 vehicles to the tune of one billion dollars in revenue. But in sizing up how far Summit has come so quickly, CEO Bill Carmichael remains humble and understated: “It’s been a nice success story for us.”
Carmichael founded Summit in 2007, with a small group that included George N. Gillett, Jr., a businessman who has owned more than 200 companies in a wide range of industries, from sports teams to ski resorts. Unsurprisingly, an entrepreneurial spirit has always been part of Summit’s DNA and much of its success can be attributed to an acquisition-fueled growth strategy, in which operations at under-performing dealerships are streamlined and refined. But the reason that Summit has been able to sustain this level of growth — and what makes the company truly different from others in the industry — isn’t apparent in the numbers. Carmichael and Gillett’s shared vision for Summit was to deliver an experience for customers completely unlike the confrontational, high-pressure sales tactics that stigmatize car sales. Instead, they urge their employees to think of themselves as stewards, upholding the company’s values of honesty, integrity, and full disclosure.
“Honesty may sound like a small thing,” Carmichael begins. “But people are always looking for clues to determine if you are what you say you are. Living out our values in every interaction we have with customers is the best way to earn their trust.”
This cultural emphasis on transparency is a response to what Summit has heard, time and again, from customers and the company has translated that feedback into a guiding philosophy of “Value Added Benefits.” These benefits formalize a promise to customers that the transaction will be simple and straightforward, the vehicles are competitively priced, Summit Certified will fix any issues that crop up in two months or 2,000 miles, and they’ll even let customers return a vehicle — no questions asked — if they have a change of heart. “We want every customer to be completely satisfied,” says Carmichael. “Our record of problem resolution is testament to that. We will side, every time, with customer satisfaction — even over fairness.”
At Summit, this positive, can-do philosophy has been boiled down to two words that, more than any others, define the company’s customer-centric culture: “yes” and “easy.” “We believe in the power of ‘yes,’” Carmichael explains. “If we can’t say yes to something a customer wants, we’ll work with them to offer alternatives. We’ll never say ‘no.’” “Easy,” then, describes what customers can expect when they buy a car from Summit: easygoing sales associates, a smooth and hassle-free shopping experience, and no hard sells.
But this approach of empowering customers through an easy car-buying experience isn’t the only secret to Summit’s success. The company strives to empower its employees in a similar way, giving them a degree of autonomy that Carmichael repeatedly sees inspire increased ambition and productivity. “We’ve worked to create a culture with values that our employees want to be a part of, because they see it’s the right way to do business,” he says. “People often say that, but they betray it in their management style and end up with employees who are resentful and lack passion. We want to be the opposite of that.”
One sign that Summit has, in fact, been the opposite of that is the 90% retention rate they’ve enjoyed following acquisitions in new markets — an impressive statistic given how disruptive the transition can be for employees. “When we acquire a new dealership, we’re on the ground, telling employees what to expect and trying to provide the same level of transparency we deliver to customers,” says Carmichael. “That way, they know where we stand, as a company, on certain things. They understand that we’re committed to both competency and character, which means we expect them to make the right decision and do the right thing, even when it’s hard.”
That combination of an empowered team of employees and a focus on exceeding their customers’ expectations has led Summit to be on the lookout for new ways to enhance the customer experience it delivers. So as it expects to acquire and optimize more existing dealerships in the coming year and possibly break ground on new ones, the company is also paying close attention to the ways technology is changing how consumers shop for cars. Carmichael is confident the company will continue to innovate in an evolving marketplace through its digital experience, automation, and relevant customer experience. “Consumer behavior and preferences are changing very quickly,” he says. “They want to be in control of search and selection. They want lots of information about costs, payment, and the vehicle itself. So we’re going to automate more and more to provide customers with the ability to access that information.”
This move, which gives customers online access to the same kind of transparency they’ll find on a dealership lot, is just the latest expression of Summit’s guiding philosophy of customer satisfaction and employee empowerment. “We stand for something and we expect all our employees to embrace the brand — really live the brand — because that’s what makes us unique,” Carmichael explains. “On top of that, we believe that giving highly engaged leaders the autonomy, inside our guidelines, to run their businesses and create high-performance teams, is really essential to the success of our business model.”
But ultimately, Carmichael knows that Summit’s success hinges on an emotional investment: how car-buyers actually feel when they interact with Summit employees. “We sell 22 different brands. It’s someone else’s product, so we can’t make a better Toyota or Nissan,” he says. “Our product is customer experience. And we understand that if we want to be superior in this industry, that’s where we have to excel.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Summit Automotive Partners
WHAT: An automobile management group
WHERE: Headquarters in Denver, Colorado
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