News Column

Champion Chrysler Lives Up to its Name, Even in Slow Economy

November/December Issue

Jeremy Nisen--Online Editor

Fernando Falcon

When Fernando Falcon finally gave into his "entrepreneur bug" in 2003, he opened a Chrysler dealership – Champion Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Indianapolis, Ind. While he readily acknowledges that it's a very demanding job, not much took Mr. Falcon by surprise.

Indeed, 16 years as a sales executive for Chrysler Corp. itself had prepared him well for the position. He knew there would be excessively long hours. He knew his people skills would be tested, as a salesman and as a manager.

And he knew he could handle it. "Having familiarity with the corporation and the players, being able to call them and find answers to questions and concerns and receive support was extremely helpful," said Mr. Falcon.

Champion Chrysler quickly earned the distinction of selling more than 100 new vehicles per month. But during the past few years, that number has taken a hit. Champion is still in the top 10 percent of dealers nationwide in terms of sales volume, but, as Mr. Falcon told HispanicBusiness Magazine: "You can be in the top 10 percent and not sell 100 new cars a month – that's the current economy for you. 2008 was a very challenging year."

Next year looks promising. The Chrysler Town and Country minivan is the dealership's No.1 selling vehicle. Falcon has high hopes for the new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee coming out this spring. He's also excited about the new Chrysler 300 coming out in the first quarter of 2011.

Despite the challenges faced in the automotive industry during the past several years, Mr. Falcon maintains opening the dealership is the best decision he's ever made. His positive, hard-driving attitude is infectious, and clearly shows how he ably led Champion out of the gate and is deft ly steering his company over the industry's currently bumpy road.

"I love it," he says. "I love everything that goes along with being a business owner. The creativity, being able to lead people, having a vision — being able to pursue that vision with your employees is exciting."

The laundry list of industry challenges is well read at this point, and Mr. Falcon is weathering them all. Moderated support from Chrysler itself is one factor that Mr. Falcon understands, saying that he's had to exercise tight controls over expenses as well.

Reduced credit opportunities seem to hit his potential Hispanic customer base particularly hard. While he estimates that about 7-to-8 percent of his customer base is Hispanic, he regrets that many have trouble qualifying for credit on certain vehicles within the current credit freeze.

Even with that challenge, Mr. Falcon has "made substantial strides" in trying to increase Champion's percentage of Hispanic-based business. Th ose customers, he says, tend to focus on minivans, Ram trucks, and Grand Cherokees.

"I am a hands-on dealer," Mr. Falcon said. "The Hispanic community is one that is very loyal, and, being bilingual myself, I like to handle them personally."

While he hasn't strayed from that handson approach, Champion has had to change other aspects of how it goes about its business. "You can't do the sam e things you did in 2009 as 2008," Mr. Falcon said. "It's a diff erent market; you need to reinvent yourself. 2009 has been a better year, but still nowhere near where we were in 2005, 2006, and 2007. We're really fighting for everything we have this year." Mr. Falcon's organization has been fortunate where many others have not. As an active member of the Chrysler Minority Dealers Association, he has a better perspective of how daunting it has been for other minority Chrysler dealers.

"We lost 50 percent of our members in the past year," he stated of the CMDA. One of the reasons that many minority dealerships aren't able to ride out the tough times, he says, is the lack of legacy minority dealerships. "I can tell you that with minority dealers in general – Hispanic, African American, Asian – the challenge is that the majority of us are first-generation businesses. Th at's a disadvantage when you have an economy that's really tasking you. You may not own your property or your building; your expenses of conducting business are a little bit higher. You can't dig into those coff ers . . . you don't have them."

One of the most difficult parts of watching his peers go out of business is seeing the negative impact on their communities.

"That's what many people may not understand," Mr. Falcon said. "All over country, it's the car dealers that have been such an integral part of communities through charity. Support for the Susan G. Komen foundation, for abused mothers, for soup kitchens, hockey teams, providing vehicles for parades held by fire departments . . .

"I know what dealers do for their communities when it comes to charitable donations, and it's far beyond what many other industries do collectively. And who will replace them?"

Mr. Falcon does have some optimism for sales concerning upcoming vehicles. He specifically points to the 2010 Heavy Duty Ram trucks. "The reason being," he expounds, "with the diesel engine, it's a phenomenal work truck for small business owners. It's ideal for landscape, cement, carpentry, hauling trailers . . . it's one vehicle a lot of small business owners are waiting patiently for." He also has optimism for the future in general – again, back to that energy-filled, infectious attitude.

"It doesn't cost anything to have a positive attitude; from a management perspective or a leadership perspective. It doesn't cost anything to provide customers with positive experience."

Mr. Falcon believes in himself and the people he's tapped to keep his business on top.

"What you can truly invest in your people is the right attitude," he says. "With it, you can fight through anything, I think we'll be perfectly fine."

For more coverage on the automotive industry, please see HispanicBusiness' Auto Channel

Source: (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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