Shared Culture, People and Purpose Drive vAuto/Cox Automotive Success

October 10, 2016

Today marks an important anniversary for vAuto.

Six years ago, vAuto’s then-president Keith Jezek and I flew to Atlanta to sign the paperwork that brought our company into the Cox Automotive family.

We’d had other suitors. There were other companies willing to pay the nine-figure sum we sought for vAuto’s 3,000-plus dealer client base, our team of nearly 100 employees, and our game-changing inventory management technologies.

But we weren’t just looking for a pay-off. We wanted a like-minded partner. Someone who shared our mission to help dealers become better, more profitable retailers. Someone who could stomach the consequence of our mission, which often meant challenging the status quo for the betterment of our dealer clients. Someone who shared our belief that our people deserved to be paid well and treated like family.

I remember looking at Keith, with pen in hand. Pausing a moment before signing away the company we’d built over six sometimes difficult years. He leaned in. “We’re good, Dale,” he whispered. “We can trust these guys. They’re like us. I have no doubt vAuto and our team will prosper with this partnership.”

Six years later, I’m happy to report Keith was spot-on. vAuto’s client base has tripled to more than 9,000 dealers in North America, with $200 million in annual revenues. Our mission hasn’t changed. We continue to have the latitude to bring game-changing innovations to dealers and strive to help them be more successful.

But most important, all of the key leaders who helped make vAuto great remain with the company—a rare thing in the world of mergers and acquisitions, and an ongoing testimony to the power of a corporate culture that inspires a shared commitment to the success of our clients and team members.

There’s no question in my mind that the Cox Automotive culture owes to the integrity, values and vision of our corporate parent, Cox Enterprises, and its top leaders, Alex Taylor, executive vice president and COO, and John Dyer, President and CEO, as well as Sandy Schwartz, president of Cox Automotive.

Together, these leaders inspire and motivate all of us to serve our dealer clients to the best of our abilities.

I see this commitment to client success in my travels across the country as I join Cox Automotive field team members and meet with dealers.

I’m continually struck by the field teams’ collective desire and willingness to go the extra mile to help dealers improve their businesses. They know that gaining a dealer’s confidence, respect and trust requires taking the time to understand their business challenges and opportunities, and demonstrating sincere dedication and interest to each dealer’s cause.

My interactions with field team members provide ongoing inspiration and motivation. Their spirit is infectious. It makes me work harder to be a better steward of Cox Automotive and servant of our industry.

As I reflect on this anniversary, I must acknowledge several individuals who are directly responsible for vAuto’s early and ongoing success. Without them, there simply wouldn’t have been an opportunity for me to take a semi-crazy idea to market, much less transform the way dealers manage their new and used vehicle inventories:

Nancy Pollak: I am truly blessed to have Nancy by my side. When I first shared my idea for vAuto, she said, “Go for it.” Many months later, after I’d mortgaged our house and spent our savings to get my idea off the ground, her confidence and faith in me remained resolute. She stood in my corner during the darkest early days of vAuto, when our financial security and future, as well as my commitment to my own idea, was anything but certain. She is the rock that helps me roll. I’m ever-grateful that she believed in me then, and continues to believe in me today.

Mike Chiovari, vAuto’s vice president of IT operations. In the late 1980s, we hired Mike during his Christmas break from college to provide temporary help in our dealership’s accounting department. He proved to be a whiz, both with numbers and technology. In the earliest days of vAuto, Mike was the first guy to say “yes” when I asked him to help me start a new company. He committed to the venture, even though I didn’t really have the means to properly reward him for all the long hours of brainstorming and white-boarding ideas around my kitchen table.

Mike Krupka, managing director of Bain Capital Investments. Mike led the team that evaluated vAuto as an investment opportunity. I’d come to Mike with essentially empty pockets. Mike helped me understand that while our ideas and solution had potential to scale, we faced a significant obstacle—me. I simply couldn’t be in all the places I needed to be, nor was I the right guy to ensure our fledgling company had the right capacity, people and process to grow the way Mike thought it could and should. Our conversations were sometimes hot and humbling, but I’m ever-grateful for the lessons I learned about business, life and myself.

John Griffin, vice president of Performance Management for Cox Automotive. John was one of my first vAuto dealer clients. He understood how our Provision system would help him successfully sell more used vehicles in the Internet age. But I was most impressed by the way John managed his used vehicle team, leading them to adapt to a new, technology-driven way of doing business. I knew he’d be the perfect person to formalize our vision of providing a coach, or Performance Manager, for every vAuto client. At the time, the idea of a Performance Manager was an industry first. But through John’s leadership, the concept has become a norm for automotive retail solutions providers in Cox Automotive and beyond.

Randy Kobat, senior vice president, Cox Automotive. It’s a big deal when a start-up company comes of age. It’s customary to see a plateau in both growth and innovation. Thanks to Randy, who joined vAuto in January 2014, vAuto continues to defy these business norms. We serve more dealers across North America than ever before, and we continue to advance our mission of bringing innovative insights and solutions to the market.

The Band (Mandi Fang, Chris Stutsman, David Rice and David Hawkins). Before starting vAuto, I’d worked with a bright, young team that helped me create and build Digital Motorworks, the company that pioneered data transfer technology to help dealers put new/used vehicle inventory online. With the guidance and resources from Bain Capital in hand, I sounded a little bit like Joliet Jake in The Blues Brothers as I called each of them: “I’m putting the band back together….” They all signed on, and they remain a critical part of the innovation and product development brain trust in Austin, Texas for Cox Automotive and vAuto.

In addition to looking back, this anniversary also prompts me to ponder the future.

I think we can all agree that the pace of change in the car business will only continue to accelerate. We also know that change, especially fast-paced change, creates disruption, and sometimes chaos.

But this environment also creates a need for innovation, and it provides opportunity for those with the desire, know-how, means and will to embrace change and help shape its course.

Such conditions play to the strengths of vAuto and Cox Automotive, and I see a very bright future for our organization and our dealer clients.

Our success will ultimately depend on how well we live up to John Dyer’s challenge to act now, be bold and stay true in everything we do.