Kenneth Ganley loves selling cars and shares his passion with the team at Ganley Auto Group

One of Kenneth Ganley’s favorite things to do as a child when he had a day off from school was to go to work with his dad, Tom, the founder of Ganley Auto Group.

“I was probably the only 8-year-old that would rather be in a car showroom than riding his bike and playing with his friends,” Ganley says. “I was fascinated by the whole process of selling cars. I grew up in it. My parents would always joke that they knew from a very young age what I was going to do with my life.”

When he became a teenager, Ganley would wash cars, sweep floors and do other jobs around the dealership. It wasn’t long before his father gave him a chance to experience for himself what being in the car business is all about.

“My dad had a big sale one weekend at his Chrysler store in Middleburg Heights,” Ganley says. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come to the sale, wander around and see if you have any luck selling anything?’ I’ll never forget it. It was a woman and her two children and she needed a car for one of them.

“We found this car on the back of the property that was $500. It ran great and she loved it. At that moment in time, I was so excited that I had sold a car. To this day, when we have a really good day — the showroom is full of people and we sell a ton of cars — there is nothing better. You go home and have this feeling of euphoria that business was great for that one day.”

Those emotions have only grown stronger over the years. When Ganley was 21, he and his father set up their first joint venture when the duo bought a small Toyota and Mercedes dealership in Akron.

“He said to me, ‘Take every dime you have ever saved, put it into the business and I’ll sell you 20 percent,’” Ganley says. “And I did. From that moment, I worked even harder because I had a lot of skin in the game. Every acquisition from there forward, he and I would partner on it. I felt in doing that, I wasn’t the typical dealer’s child.”

Ganley took over day-to-day management of the business in 2006 and has guided the company to sales and revenue records every year since 2009. The $1.5 billion company now has 29 locations in Northern Ohio — plus one in South Florida — and sold nearly 55,000 cars and trucks last year.

When Tom Ganley died in August 2016, he left behind a company that ranked No. 27 on the list of the top 150 dealership groups in the U.S., according to Automotive News. His son is committed to taking the company to even greater heights while continuing to honor everything that his father built throughout his life.

Personality management

As Ganley climbed the ladder from son of the founder to president and CEO of the company, he learned that managing the personalities of 1,700 different employees can be quite challenging.

“You would like to think that a great attitude and great leadership is going to equal success,” he says. “But things happen, no matter what type of business you are in. It’s how you deal with it that counts. I think I’m an extremely fair and impartial person and I try to look at things with a level head. But you’d be naive to think nothing is ever going to go wrong.”

He need look no further than his own relationship with his father to understand that disagreements are going to occur in business.

“There were days we’d get along great and then there were days we would argue badly over something,” he says. “I’d go home to my house and he’d go home to his house. He’d call me and think everything was over. But I was still angry that we fought all day. It’s hard. If all I had to do was show up and sell cars every day, it would be real simple. That’s easy.”

The first step to minimizing conflict across an organization is having strong management in place at each location.

“If you have leaders who are setting the right culture in that facility, you’re going to have fewer issues,” Ganley says. “When I have a location that repeatedly has issues, I start at the top and look at the management team. I’ll pretty quickly be able to determine if I have a problem top down or if it’s a problem with a specific employee. My general counsel and leadership group has done a great job making employees aware of right from wrong, what’s expected and what you can and cannot do.”

Still, employees are imperfect people just like anyone else. Honest mistakes can typically be addressed and corrected. It’s those actions that conflict with the expectations that are set at the top that can be more frustrating.

“People are going to do stupid things occasionally and you have to deal with it the right way,” Ganley says. “That’s probably the piece of the business I dislike the most.”

Ganley Auto Group has partnered with Connected HR in Independence to help address some of the HR problems that are common to any business.

“They come in and will get involved with any issue we have where we want to bring in a separate set of eyes to interview employees and assess a situation to determine what should or should not happen,” he says. “That’s been helpful. From the employee perspective, it’s nice to have an outsider come in and say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about this problem and try to resolve it.’ Sometimes they just want to have someone else to talk to and explain what happened.”

In addition to this conflict resolution mechanism, Ganley has made a more concerted effort on employee education. New employees are required to spend two weeks in a training program that acclimates them to the business and how things are done.

“Prior to that, I would have store managers handle training and everyone was a little different,” he says. “Now we have a much more structured environment.”

One of the key messages that Ganley wants to get across can be traced back to a phrase his father would say around the dealership every day.

“The proof of ability is results,” he says. “We put that message in a lot of the buildings in the training rooms and meeting rooms. What he meant by that is you can tell me how good you are. But the bottom line proof of your ability is the results you deliver. Results are what you’re here for. If you work really hard, but there’s not a lot of results, there’s really not a point to that.”

Protecting a legacy

Delegation is part of the leadership formula for Ganley, but only to a certain degree. To this point in his career, he prefers to be very active in the day-to-day management of the company.

“My dad and I chose to keep the company growing,” he says. “I haven’t really created another level of management because I want to be involved. Even if it’s a miniscule detail, I don’t mind being involved in it. It’s part of the job.”

His relationship with his general managers varies depending on individual need.

“I have some general managers who run absolutely perfect operations and I never hear a word from them,” he says. “I have others who call to ask me if it’s all right if they take a walk around the property. I deal with two very opposite ends of the spectrum. With a company this size, it’s never going to be perfect and that’s OK. I have some younger guys who need my opinion on things that they do.”

There is rarely a moment in the day when Ganley’s phone is not full of voicemails, text messages and emails.

“When I’m at home, if I don’t answer the issues that are sitting on my phone, they pile up and it becomes a much longer job,” he says. “I will try at some point if I’m coaching my kids in a sport to shut it off and put it in my pocket and forget that it’s there. But it usually keeps vibrating and ringing.”

It means very little downtime for Ganley, but at this point, he’s fine with that.

“Anyone who says a family business is easy, I don’t know that I’ll ever agree,” Ganley says. “But now that my father is gone, I feel a sense of responsibility to the rest of my family to make sure we do well and the company continues to grow and improve. That seems to be the course we’re headed on.”

Despite the strong work ethic, Ganley understands the importance of maintaining balance in his life.

“With any of our associates, I want to see them have a great quality of life and not burn themselves out at work,” he says. “I used to work seven days a week. When I was younger and had just gotten married, I was at the dealership every day. But at some point, you have to be able to balance. If your personal life is good, your work life is going to be good. You have to be able to do both. If you’re struggling with something at home, that is probably going to follow you into work and keep you from performing.”

Ganley has a brother and a sister who have each spent time in the business and another brother who has not. Between their kids and his own three boys, he admits he sometimes thinks about the possibility of a third generation of Ganleys leading the company.

“I do think about it, but I’ll never make my kids do anything,” he says. “If any of them show the desire to be involved in the business, it would be great. I think it was always a dream for my dad that this would be a multigenerational business.”

For now, Ganley will focus on helping his oldest son, who just turned 16, get his driver’s license.

“I’ll be a nervous wreck when he gets behind the wheel all by himself,” he says. “I look at my 16 year old and I say to my wife, ‘He was just 5 years old playing with his toy lawnmower in the front yard.’ Time really flies by.”

Creating a great experience

The personnel side of a business is critical to making a good impression on customers, but it’s only one part of the equation. The sights, sounds and even the smells also project an image for a business. When people walk into one of his dealerships, Ganley wants them to feel the same passion and energy that he has always had for cars.

“There is nothing quite like the smell of a brand new car,” he says. “I’ve focused on building new facilities across our company. In almost every building we have, everything is new. We either tore down buildings and rebuilt them or did complete renovations. So I’m big on the environment when you walk into the showroom. That’s part of having a great experience.”

The other part of buying a car, of course, is the price tag. One of the biggest changes that has come about since Tom Ganley started his business in 1968 is the access to information that customers now have before they ever step foot into a dealership.

“When a consumer wants to buy a Toyota Camry, within a matter of five to 10 minutes, that person can find out exactly what we paid for the car,” Ganley says. “I’m pretty sure this is the only industry where that’s the case. I don’t know what my shirt or tie cost when I go into a store to buy it. But in our business, it’s different. If a consumer comes in with a reasonably open mind and says, ‘Look, I’ve done my homework on the car, I want to be fair with you,’ it can be a very easy process. We try to make it very easy.”

Consumers often have a distorted view as to how much a dealership will mark up the price of a vehicle.

“If someone thinks a $25,000 car has $8,000 in markup, that’s just not the case,” he says. “Margin compression is a big issue. Manufacturers want to be competitive on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, but they like to raise what we the dealer will pay for the car.

“You go back years ago, margins were 20 to 25 percent. Now on some brands, we’re talking margins as low as 5 percent. That $25,000 car might have a $1,500 margin. I have expenses like any other business — whether it’s employees, advertising, floor plan interest or mortgage payments. We still have a business to run and that is probably the biggest challenge.”

Despite the margin difficulties, Ganley says he couldn’t be happier with the relationships his company has been able to build with its clientele.

“Every year, we have seen customer satisfaction ratings go up,” he says. “I’m a fanatic about that. I want our stores to have the highest satisfaction ratings possible. It’s one area where I’m very critical with our store management teams. I want customers to walk out with a smile on their face knowing they got a great deal, but also had a great experience.”

As he looks to the future, Ganley says he will continue taking steps to strengthen his company’s place in the community and the legacy his father built.

“Car dealers can at times get a bad reputation, so you’re always working to try to improve that,” he says. “Things were very different in the 1960s and 1970s. My father built a great platform and took gambles on brands like Subaru and Hyundai when other dealers didn’t want to do that. We’ve been able to grow tremendously because a lot of the brands we sell are doing really well. But I’m always very concerned and I want to make sure we continue to be the leader. It’s not hard when you have a lot of good, smart, honest, hard-working people behind you.”

How to reach: Ganley Auto Group, www.ganleyauto.com

The Ganley File

NAME: Kenneth Ganley
TITLE: President and CEO
COMPANY: Ganley Auto Group

What is your favorite car? Today, I’m driving a BMW 750 and I love it. When I was in high school, my dad gave me a Mazda Miata to drive. When it came out, there was nothing like it. That two-seater, pure roadster, throaty exhaust. It wasn’t a fast car, but it was fun. You flip the top down and you have a blast in that thing.

I always told my wife as the years went on that if I could ever find a brand new 1990 Mazda Miata, which was the first year for that car, I was going to buy it and I found one with 300 miles on the odometer in Florida. The guy told me he had bought it for his wife 27 years ago, brought it home and she said, ‘It’s a stick shift, I’ll never drive it.’ It had been sitting in his garage ever since. So I bought it and had it shipped here.

How do you balance your time between locations? That’s hard and I wish I had more time. I try to be in each location once a month or every other month. But things happen and you can’t always do that. It’s also not that effective to constantly be on the road. I can get more done sitting in my office than I can traveling from location to location. So I don’t try to be everywhere all the time. You have to be able to delegate to your leadership team. This is what I expect. I’ll stop in and say hello and check in on how things are going. But ultimately, I’m going to hold you accountable.

Takeaways:

  • Find your passion for your work.
  • Take steps to help your people solve problems.
  • Do everything you can to make a great first impression.