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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Fast-growing auto dealership owner Kristin Dillard pledges a gentler approach

Having grown Team Automotive Group from one dealership in Salisbury in 2017 to six across the state and one in South Carolina, owner Kristin Dillard says the differentiator isn’t standard auto-industry chatter.

“Our coat of arms is that we lead with love. That means building relationships with employees and clients,” she says. “It’s a little different spin than the rough-and-tumble atmosphere you see at other stores, and it doesn’t mean we’re afraid to have tough conversations. If you are leading with love, you love them enough to have those conversations.”

Kristin Dillard

And, she adds, “We’re still here to sell cars and service vehicles.”

On that metric, Team Automotive is scoring enough for Dillard to expand her business from 60 employees to 407 during the last six years. Revenue is expected to reach $290 million this year. Her short-term goal is to operate in 10 locations with 650 staffers, continuing a growth pace that put the company on the latest Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies.

“We’ve bootstrapped. We have a great relationship with Ally,” she says, referring to the lender whose top executives are based in Charlotte. “We asked for a bit of faith, and they showed right up, and we were able to roll those into the next and the next and next.”

Dillard has deep roots in the car business, having started washing cars at her father’s business as a teenager. Thom Dillard got the same start in the business as a youth in western North Carolina. He worked his way up to running a Fayetteville dealership before securing the Chevrolet franchise in Salisbury in 1992.  

Early on, his daughter saw her future in the business. Her dad worked such long days that “I had to be there if I wanted to see him,” she says. Over time, selling cars became an “instant love affair,” prompting her to attend Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Florida, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in automotive marketing and management in 2004. (It’s one of the few schools to offer such a degree.) She later earned two certifications from the National Automobile Dealers Candidate Academy, which she calls the industry’s closest cousin to an MBA.

Working for her dad over the next decade convinced her it was her calling. That experience gave her credibility with General Motors, which made her the dealership principal when her father retired in 2017. She completed the buyout four years later.

“It’s a huge opportunity, but you have to work through it. You can’t just say I want to randomly buy a car dealership,” she says. “My dad is a gigantic role model. He still calls a lot, and I appreciate his calls.”

There’s a lot to talk about. She has bought four franchises affiliated with Detroit-based General Motors and two tied to Stellantis, the Amsterdam, Netherlands-based company that makes Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Fiat vehicles. Focusing on those two manufacturers, rather than a greater variety, has been intentional because of her desire to create a statewide network. Each location offers similar technology, plans and services to customers, while the company’s growth enables expanded career movement for some staffers.

Dillard expanded to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in February by buying Addy’s Harbor Dodge-Ram-Fiat. It was a bigger operation than her other locations, and she says future deals are likely to involve larger properties. “They are easier to run than the tinies,” partly because they typically have better technology that helps provide improved customer service.

Auto retailing is increasingly dominated by national groups such as Charlotte’s Sonic Automotive and Hendrick Automotive Group, which have 111 and 93 dealerships, respectively. But there’s space for mid-sized companies with different business models, Dillard says. The key is retaining solid community connections and developing a loyal employee base to deliver good service.

Nor is Dillard concerned about the potential threat of emerging electric vehicle manufacturers bypassing traditional dealerships. While Tesla obtained a waiver to enable sales directly to consumers in North Carolina, state lawmakers have shown little interest in changing rules that require sales through existing dealers.

General Motors has a goal of producing 1 million electric vehicles in North America by 2025 and only making zero-emission vehicles by 2035. During the first quarter this year, the company sold about 20,000 EVs out of total sales of 600,000 vehicles.

Various industry forecasters expect the automaker to fall short of its 2025 pledge, partly because of a shortage of EV batteries.

“As a car dealer, I don’t care if we sell a widget or a gasket, we’re happy to serve them all,” Dillard says. But her customers, mostly in small Carolinas towns, “aren’t beating down the walls to buy an EV,” she says. “We still have a demand for big, mean trucks.”

Vehicle prices shot up dramatically during the pandemic because of dramatic supply shortages. Production at GM and Stellantis is getting back to normal, Dillard says, prompting prices to come back down slightly. But she notes that “cars are really expensive because there are so many safety features and creature comforts. There’s a ton of technology in them.” 

To cushion the sticker shock, she notes that lenders are making more 84-month and 96-month loans.

Team, which moved its headquarters to Charlotte last year, is among a tiny percentage of the state’s 560 auto dealerships owned by a female. About a quarter of the company’s 80 managers and corporate staffers are women, reflecting an intentional effort to diversify to reflect its customer base.

“In the automotive world, women tend to be overlooked,” Dillard says. “We hire the right people for the right seat, regardless of demographics.”

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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