Q&A With Gary Ackerman of Gaudin Motor Company

In just a few years, Gaudin Motor Company will celebrate 100 years of being in business. The feat is truly outstanding, especially considering that only 4 percent of businesses make it even 10 years. With a direct line back to the founding of the company in Escalon, Calif., in 1922 by his grandfather George Gaudin, Dealer Principal Gary Ackerman’s roots run deep in the business. We recently had the chance to ask him what it’s like being part of such an iconic company, what his trailblazing family taught him, and where he sees the industry going.

Your roots in the dealership industry run deep. Would you share one of your first memories of being at the dealership?

I was almost literally born on the showroom floor of Gaudin Ford. My first real memory would be at the first Gaudin Ford in Las Vegas. It was on 5th Street (now known as the Strip) and Stewart. Across the street from the old City Hall. My dad used to take my sister and me down to watch the Helldorado Parade. In 1957, Ford launched the very first retractable hardtop model, called the Fairlane Skyliner. I have a pretty vivid memory of the top coming down and all the noise it made. I remember it because it scared me!

When did you know that you wanted to build on your family’s legacy and work in the industry? What was your first dealership job?

My first job at a dealership was during the summer while I was in high school. I washed cars in the detail department, which was an open-air tin building with no air-conditioning. That’s the way all the stores were in those days; the nicer ones had swamp coolers. It was hard work and long hours – a good way to learn. I worked various odd jobs, like new car get-ready and accessories installation. I never really gave much thought to a career until I graduated from college in 1974. When I graduated high school in 1970, the draft was still in effect and the War in Vietnam was still raging, so you either went to school or you visited Vietnam – not a difficult decision.

When did you join your family’s business, and what did you learn from your early experiences?

When I graduated college, I really had no clue what to do, but I knew I needed to support myself. Grandfather Gaudin was the true patriarch of our entire family, and he raised his two daughters, his two sons-in-law, and all the grandchildren to study and work hard with the goal of being able to support themselves and not rely on anyone else. Looking back, this was pretty progressive, as it was the ’50s and very few family leaders were teaching young ladies to plan this way. He would laugh at being referred to as a “feminist,” but that is what he taught us.

So I am back to Vegas after college and told my dad that I wanted to try the car business. He smiled at me and said, “I think that is a great idea. Where do you intend to do that?” You can imagine my shock, coupled with some sadness. What I heard was that he didn’t want me, but that isn’t what he said at all. My grandfather had done the same to him when he married my mother; I had just never heard the story.

He felt strongly that I couldn’t really learn the business being the boss’ kid. He was right. To this day it was the greatest gift he ever gave me. I ended up back in California working for a Ford store in the San Fernando Valley. I stayed there four years and learned a lot, from the proper way to treat guests, to getting fired and learning how to recover from mistakes! I returned to Las Vegas during the holidays in 1978 and have been here ever since.

How many years did you work with your dad there in Vegas?

I had the honor and privilege of working with my father for 35 years. It is something I value and cherish, as it has become very rare in our culture. He and my grandfather always emphasized how important it was to serve both our customers and our community. I still preach that today in all three of our stores. 

This community has been home to three generations of our family, including my children, and we owe our success to them. We also feel, as the oldest dealer in Las Vegas, that is it our responsibility to help improve the city in any way we can. It is the only way we know how to approach our business and we are very comfortable with it.

You have been in the business now for over four decades. How is the customer journey changing?

I think the customer journey over the last four decades hasn’t changed much at all. The technology of our products has changed, the technology with which we communicate has changed, but the journey hasn’t really changed. Our customers need to buy cars and trucks for myriad reasons. Our job is to make that purchase experience as pleasant and stress-free as possible. That is why we focus on the word “serve” in all of our internal training.

Our customers have more choices today than ever in the history of our business. All of our competitors have quality products, so it is our service that separates us. It is as true today as it was in 1922, when Grandfather Gaudin started selling Model T Fords.

What role does technology play in shaping your approach to selling cars?

There are two major technology shifts at work in our industry. One, the digital revolution has swept our culture and all businesses. Our customers no longer need us to provide the answers to all of their car questions. They can simply click and search. This is the biggest change since I have been in the business.

The benefit to the consumer is obvious: Information, any information they want, is at their fingertips. While it is a huge benefit, it can also lead to false impressions and even erroneous information. It remains our responsibility to provide them total transparency and accurate information when they do contact us and want to compare notes. The digital technology actually helps this process, too, as it is far easier and less stressful for the customer to communicate all of their questions and fears before coming to the store. If handled professionally, this makes for much less time spent at the store going through details.

We still want customers to drive the vehicle they are interested in to ensure that it will do everything they want it to and just feel right. No number of surveys or amount of data will answer those two questions.

The danger in the digital world is that it’s literally pushing us farther away from our customers, making it more difficult to establish a real relationship with them. This relationship becomes even more important now as the buying process gets shorter, the quality of the vehicles gets better, and the number of required visits to our stores gets smaller. All of those are assets to our customers, until something goes wrong or changes with their needs. That is where the relationship is still king. We have always been and always will be a family store(s) and we will always approach relationships in that way. After all, who really wants to wake up and go out and meet a new car sales person tomorrow!

What’s your favorite part of the working in the industry? What do you see as your biggest challenge?

My favorite part of the business is the people, both our team members and our customers and guests. I just love the interaction and that it is different every day.

I still love teaching and training our teams and seeing them finally “get” some of the old-school practices that certainly still apply today. Our little company will turn 100 years old in 3 ½ years and I will be thrilled to come to the office that day. Such a remarkable event in today’s world, and we are all excited for it to happen.

I think the biggest challenge is the next technological revolution that is just starting. All electric vehicles and autonomous technology. When I picture a world where vehicles don’t have drivers, it often makes me think of my grandfather taking horses in on trade and having to teach his customers how to drive because many had never been in a motor vehicle before.

The challenge, at least in my eyes, won’t be getting used to all electric or autonomous vehicles – rather it will come in the changes to the infrastructure necessary to support those changes. Makes me wonder why oil companies haven’t started experimenting with electric charging stations. Who will do all of this so that those who want to drive an all-electric vehicle will have access to charging as easily as they do to gas stations today? When an autonomous vehicle needs service, and they will, what time of day will that vehicle decide to come to a store and get it? 3 a.m.? It is a world that is changing very quickly and we all need to be prepared.

What’s it like having a business and life in vibrant, exciting Vegas?

I love Las Vegas, and I love our family history here and in California where my grandfather started. I can’t imagine living anywhere else, and I can’t imagine not helping our town grow bigger and better.

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