October 2016, Auto Dealer Today - Cover Story
General Manager Sue Finneron and her father, owner Mike Finneron, earned distinction as Canada’s No. 1 Hyundai dealers seven years after the loss of their 30-year-old General Motors franchise forced them to start over from scratch. Photos by Jessesavage.ca
On the eastern shores of Vancouver Island, in the city of Courtenay, British Columbia, lies Finneron Hyundai, Canada’s No. 1 Hyundai dealership. Owner Mike Finneron and his daughter, General Manager Sue Finneron, earned the honor in February, shortly after collecting their second consecutive President’s Award of Merit trophy, which placed them in the Top 15 Hyundai dealerships nationwide based on factors such as sales, market share, and customer service.
If you think that’s impressive, consider that there are 220 Hyundai dealerships in Canada, including five on Vancouver Island alone. Add to that the fact that Finneron Hyundai sells about 550 new and used units per year and has captured a 12% competitive market share, far exceeding Hyundai’s nationwide penetration of 8%. Finally, note that Courtenay, with a population of just over 24,000, is situated squarely in an area Canadian Auto World describes as “pickup country.”
You might wonder whether the Finnerons would be better off with a more traditional, truck-heavy brand. Well, they tried that. For the 30 years leading up to the 2009 discontinuation of the Pontiac brand and the disenfranchisement of hundreds of General Motors dealers throughout the U.S. and Canada, Mike Finneron Pontiac Buick GMC was an unbridled success story that ended with a form email from the factory: Their franchise agreement would not be renewed.
“There were a couple of bad days when I thought, ‘What will I do? What can I do?’” Sue recalls. “But as I’ve heard, once the gasoline is in your blood, you can’t get it out.”
A native of Surrey, England, Mike Finneron immigrated to Canada at the age of 20. He soon found work at a Pontiac GMC dealership in Nanaimo, B.C., where he worked his way up from an entry-level sales position to general manager. He applied to acquire the former Courtenay Pontiac Buick GMC in September 1979.
“I was 10 years old when he got the first dealership, and I remember sitting at the kitchen table and saying, ‘One day, Dad, I’m going to run that dealership,’” Sue says.
Despite some early ups and downs, including a major recession in 1981, Mike managed to repay a loan from the factory’s financing arm within five years of taking over the point.
“We expanded the original building and bought more properties alongside, which we still have,” he says. “During my time with GM, I served on pretty much all their committees, nationally and locally.”
Over the next 30 years, the Finnerons became champions for the Pontiac lineup, which accounted for 40% of Finneron’s sales. Mike believes the store could have survived the decision to shutter Pontiac. But in the mad scramble that followed, that marque, which enjoyed far greater popularity north of the border, became a target.
“Business is business,” he says, noting that, despite having consistently achieved high CSI and market penetration — and serving on all those committees — there was no opportunity to save his franchise. “An executive in Oshawa decided the fate of 240 dealers in four days.”
Mike and Sue then were left to decide their own fates, as well as those of their 29 loyal employees, two of whom have now been with the organization for more than 35 years. They had considered adding a Hyundai franchise several years earlier but couldn’t make the numbers work. With an empty building and a full staff, Mike decided it was a good time to put in another call to the South Korean manufacturer.
Weeks later, a car carrier hauled Finneron’s 11 remaining GM vehicles off to another dealer, and six more transports rolled in with 60 new Hyundais. It was the beginning of a new era for the dealership and its owners, and it heralded the launch of a unique and effective marketing campaign.
Located in “pickup country” on the east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, Finneron Hyundai boasts a 12% market share for a brand that averages 8% nationwide.
Sue Finneron began washing cars at the dealership at the age of 12, then went off to earn a college degree before completing programs offered by the Automotive Business School of Canada and Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Fla. She has worked for the organization full-time for the past 24 years — including 16 years as general manager — but she continues to drive her education forward.
She developed an alter ego, “Super Sue,” after having her caricature drawn at a marketing seminar, and began making appearances in character — first on the radio and then in-person. When she partnered with Schenectady, N.Y.-based Potratz Advertising to develop a new website, Super Sue became a central figure. Web visitors can play “Super Sue Shootout,” an interactive (and challenging) game, and Sue’s alter ego champions various charitable causes in the Comox Valley.
“From time to time, I do put on a cape,” she says with a laugh. “I host a local charity telethon, and sometimes people will dare me to come out with the cape on.”
To the Finnerons, Super Sue represents everything the dealership stands for: If you have credit issues, car trouble, or any other problem, she will find a way to fix it. That level of dedication likely helps explain the Finnerons’ remarkable ability to convert former Pontiac buyers into Hyundai enthusiasts. The Santa Fe SUV is by far their biggest seller, but the Genesis lineup has proven extremely popular — across multiple age groups — in a market bereft of a single highline dealership.
“We sell more Genesis than any other Hyundai dealership on Vancouver Island,” Sue says. “Once they get in it, they fall in love with the car. One customer said, ‘Sue, this was the best decision I ever made.’”
Noting that his daughter does “all the work,” Mike says he enjoys coming into the dealership every day and watching Sue take the business and the Hyundai brand to new heights.
“She’s chairman of her performance group, and she’s on the marketing committee for Hyundai, so she’s very involved,” he says. “And she gets the same excitement out of it as I do. Sell some cars, get a buzz. It’s just an exciting business.”