Alison Spitzer is not your prototypical car dealer. She has a master’s degree in international relations from American University in Washington, D.C. She spent time in Manhattan at the prestigious Cassidy and Associates, a firm that helps clients navigate the complexities of the federal government.
Her career path was the product of a childhood in which her parents encouraged her to experience the world in as many ways as possible. It sparked her curiosity about how people relate to each other and has proven useful in her role as president at Spitzer Management.
“I can understand and empathize with all different kinds of people,” she says. “There are 18,000 car dealers in the country, and we’re all virtually selling the same quality of vehicle and identical inventory. The only thing that can really set you apart is the kind of culture you have and your ability to listen to your customers and the people who work for you.”
The auto industry of today is vastly different from the one that existed when George Spitzer rolled out the first Model T at the dealership in 1904. Today, the company operates 24 franchises in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida and has just under 1,000 employees. The days of local television and newspaper ads luring families to the car lot on Saturday morning have been replaced with high-tech strategies to reach consumers who often have in the palm of their hand all the information they need to buy a car.
“The average customer used to drive to six places before they bought a car,” Spitzer says. “Now they go to two. People consume media in a lot of different ways. Our goal is to be where there is the biggest pond to fish in. It’s not cost-effective to try to do them all, and there are a lot of dealers who have gone out of business trying to do that.”
Protect your industry
Spitzer’s first role in the family business came in 2007, when she took the job of assistant to the general manager at the company’s Homestead, Florida, store. She eventuallybecame the company’s c-commerce director, then vice president of automotive operations, and ascended to the role of president in 2015.
“There are a lot of big personalities in this business, a lot of big egos,” she says. “It took me awhile to be comfortable in my own skin and to not be that kind of leader, but to just be who I am.”
One of the first big challenges she faced occurred while she was in Homestead. In 2009, General Motors and Chrysler terminated the franchises of thousands of dealerships in a move that rocked the auto industry to its core. Spitzer and her father, Alan, who serves as chairman and CEO, led a grassroots effort in Washington, D.C., that resulted in the reinstatement of approximately 1,000 dealerships nationwide. The pair went on to co-author a book about their experience, “Grand Theft Auto.”
Advocacy for her family’s business and her fellow car dealers continues to be a top priority for Spitzer. There are so many ways to get from here to there, or to get to a car, that didn’t exist just a few years ago.
“Protecting dealer rights in a very complicated new landscape with the Lyfts of the world, the Carvanas and companies like Texas Direct, that’s something that dealers didn’t have to deal with 20 years ago,” she says. “It’s about proactively protecting our rights, our business, our people and our margins. It’s incredibly important that we spend time on that to prepare and make sure that we’re protecting our business for the future.
Spitzer serves on the board of Ohio Automobile Dealers Association, the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association and the legislative committee of the National Automobile Dealers Association.
“I’m involved,” she says. “My dad has instilled this in me after what we went through. I had a passion for politics before, but living it is different.”
In 2015, Spitzer was named one of Automotive News magazine’s 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry. Her father could not be more proud of what his daughter has accomplished.
“Alison has earned the respect of people throughout our organization in all departments, including several who have been with the organization since before she was born,” Alan says. “I also know for a fact that executives from the auto manufacturers hold her in high regard as well.”
Continuing to evolve
Family is an integral part of the company. Alison’s brother, Andrew Spitzer, is a vice president.
“When he was little and I graduated and came home from college, he was like, ‘Ali, now you can go work at the grocery store,’” Spitzer says. “He just thought I was going to come and stay home. I think we always wanted to work with each other. It was just trying to find the right fit.”
When the dealership had the opportunity to open an in-house Allstate insurance agency, Andrew took the lead. He now works more on the operations side and has built a strong working relationship with his sister.
“While we’re always working, and you never have a day off, you don’t want it to consume your life,” Andrew says. “You want to make sure you’re still there for your family. Dad has always preached that from day one. Alison and I, we have very complementary personalities, and because of that, we can butt heads. But once we leave those doors, any frustrations stay there.”
On a day-to-day basis, the biggest challenge is continuing to find ways to connect with customers efficiently and effectively.
“We have to stay recession-proof, and to do that, you have to have your customers coming back and back and back,” Alison says. “One of our biggest focuses right now is working on phone skills to increase our traffic. Right now, the average age of our customer is 52, which is not a bad thing. We want to continue to service everyone. But we need to drive that average down and reach the entire population.”
Technology will play a key role in that effort so much of how Spitzer Management functions is driven by data analysis.
“This used to be a gut business, such as appraising vehicle values,” she says. “There’s still some art there, obviously. But there’s more technology to help us go through and do our homework on the market to put the right car on the right lot. So for instance, if we took a car here at Brook Park on trade, maybe it could sell at a faster turn rate at our Monroeville Toyota store, which, by the way, most can. It’s just a great market. So we make the decision to change, to move it over. It’s working smarter, not harder. Everybody’s worked hard in this business forever. That’s what can set apart the dealers that are going to survive.”
Engage more people
Legislation and advocacy are critical. So is finding new ways to reach customers. But at the end of the day, it always needs to be about your people, Spitzer says.
“Our goal is that we are known as a really great place to work, and we happen to sell cars,” she says. “We’ve got a really good group of leaders that we work with at our stores who feel like they’re part of the bigger picture, a bigger purpose. We’re in retail, that’s what we do. We sell cars. It’s a commodity. But if you feel like you’re part of something larger and you have that vision you share, you’re going to go much further.”
In her early days of leading the business, Spitzer focused quite a bit on the value of listening.
“I sat in a lot of meetings in the beginning where the leader of that store was talking, talking, talking and not asking questions,” she says. “There is also great value in networking, getting outside our four walls to get ideas that could help us and mold them into what works for our culture. I believe absolutely in servant leadership and in people and taking steps to drive down turnover. You can’t put a cost on that.”
One of the reasons Spitzer is so focused on people and building relationships is that she sees great opportunity in the Cleveland market for the growth of new talent.
“Most people wouldn’t really know that the Cleveland market is as competitive as it is,” she says. “But there is technology, and there are a lot of great schools like Tech Elevator. Those kinds of schools can fast track students. Six weeks and you’re going from a $36,000 job to a $58,000 job.”
If more of this young talent stays in the Cleveland area, that’s good for everybody — including car dealers.
“There is more opportunity for people to stay here,” she says. “There’s a return to localism. I lived on a $44,000 salary in New York City. I mean, that’s not easy. The cost of living there is crazy. The cost of living is much lower here. You can enjoy life, and there’s a lot to do. I see really good things for Cleveland.”
Whatever happens, Spitzer is confident she has a team that can conquer whatever challenges may arise.
“If you don’t have that attitude to constantly find ways to improve and evolve, you’re not going to stay in business for 115 years,” she says.
How to reach: Spitzer Management, www.spitzer.com
The Spitzer File
NAME: Alison Spitzer
COMPANY: Spitzer Management
Spitzer’s connection to Henry Ford: George Spitzer was a farmer and local hardware store owner in Grafton in 1904 when he started the business. While traveling through Northeast Ohio, Henry Ford was trying to locate the best businessman in the area to sell his new product, the Model T. When he arrived in Grafton, he asked the local people where he could find a strong partner. They pointed him to George Spitzer. Ford approached Spitzer and the result was a partnership with Ford Motor Co.
Spitzer success: By the 1950s, Alison’s grandfather, John Spitzer, had built the automotive side of the company into 14 stores in four states. John and his brother, Del, continued to innovate with their sales process and TV advertising campaigns. In the late 1950s, Ford Motor Co. awarded Spitzer a new store in Cleveland, and within a few years, it became the brand’s largest retail outlet in Ohio. The parent company was skeptical, so mystery shoppers were assigned to investigate the sales technique. One of the shoppers ended up buying a car from Spitzer. As a result, Ford recruited John and Del to make a two-hour training film for Ford dealers that detailed their sales techniques.
Spitzer family: Alan and Pat Spitzer have been married 42 years and have six children and eight grandchildren. Alison and Andrew each play active roles in leading the company, which is also involved in real estate development, marina operations and a golf course, as well as the original hardware store. Ashley is a social worker preparing to open her own business. Alana graduated from Jacksonville University and works as a Montessori school teacher. AJ just completed his master’s degree at the University of Vermont and plans to be a veterinarian. And Amelia graduated from Allegheny College with a degree in international relations, then spent a year in France teaching English to French students. She will be entering graduate school.