Selling Into The Stratosphere

With an empire anchored by four of the covetedSaturn dealerships, Martin Automative Group CEO Cornelius Martin is flying rings around the competition

Automotive Dealership Service Excellence Award.

“I think the thing that most impressed Saturn was the fact that I am open for change and always seek new and better ways of doing business,” says Martin, whose business foresight has not gone unnoticed. Handling a diversity of dealerships has made him a person most automakers want to hear from. He is often tapped to sit on marketing committees and teams at Oldsmobile and Saturn, contributing to improvements in sales, customer delivery and other business practices.

For example, Oldsmobile dealers now have delivery stations where, like in the Saturn commercials, customers are formally delivered their cars. It was an idea that with a select group of dealers, Martin helped to develop. Operational changes such as these can cost millions, therefore car manufacturers want someone they can trust providing feedback. “We don’t need yes people. We do a lot of research and Martin is a person we know will ask questions and push us beyond the logic of the research,” says Chuck Golden, retails standards coordinator at Oldsmobile in Lansing, Michigan, who has worked with Martin for three years. “Also, when new ideas are developed, he is one of the first retailers to implement them.”

Where other minority auto dealers may have had problems securing financing and lines of credit to buy their cars, Martin had bankers more than interested in doing business with him. With such backing, Martin began branching out. In 1994, he built Saturn of Charleston-Huntington, which is run by his nephew. Another nephew works at the Saturn of Des Moines, which has received just as high acclaim as his other stores. Last December, Martin sought to expand his reach in Dayton and opened Dayton Saturn North. A huge expanse on 4.5 acres of land, the parking lot, dotted with Saturns, resembles that of a small shopping mall.

Due to the generally small facilities of most dealerships, few Saturn retailers can provide body work and paint jobs directly and contract the work out to authorized third parties. Seeking a way to avoid the overhead associated with paying someone else, Martin opened the first and only stand-alone, state-of-the-art Saturn Body Repair and Paint Shop in the country, less than a mile from his Saturn Dayton North store.

The key to future growth, says Martin, is Saturn’s continued appeal which will only be enhanced after the 1998 introduction of a new, larger vehicle to be built in Wilmington, Delaware. In addition, its trademark premium service and “relation ship marketing” where customers are sent surveys and even birthday cards, will also help to keep them third on the J.D. Powers and Associates annual customer satisfaction survey. It only lagged behind Lexus and Infiniti.

Probably not so unique is that many heavy-hitting auto dealers cover the territory of their dealerships by plane. Any business venture Martin considers is not limited by its proximity. “So many people feel that they need to have their store in the city where they were born and raised. With today’s technology, running a store in

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