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Industry Pioneers: John Garff

John Garff CEO of Ken Garff Automotive Group

While Ken Garff Automotive Group may have been selling cars for 86 years, family members regard themselves as more builders than salespeople. It’s a philosophy proudly displayed over the door of John Garff’s home in Salt Lake City, Utah, the place where the journey was begun by his grandfather and founder, Ken Garff.

John, now President and CEO of Ken Garff Enterprises, remembers his grandpa and all that he taught him very well. “We believe in building people and treating people right,” John says. “Being a builder is about elevating people, it’s about who we are and who we are as a company. It’s also about building our faith and our community. It’s in our family DNA, it’s our family motto. That’s why it’s over our door, to remind our kids every day to go be a builder of people.

“We have accomplished so much as a company because of good leadership and good people. Brett Hopkins (the Ken Garff Automotive CEO), along with our leadership teams, have fueled our growth into becoming the second largest privately held automotive group in the US. The wind in our sails clearly comes from our good people.”

Today, still headquartered in Salt Lake City, the company employs more than 4,500 people in 50 dealerships throughout America, including 20 in Utah. Nearly 120,000 cars, new and used, are sold every year from dealerships in Utah, California, Texas, Iowa, Nevada and Michigan.

John Garff CEO of Ken Garff Automotive Group
John Garff, CEO of Ken Garff Enterprises

As head of parent company Ken Garff Enterprises, John has five CEOs who report to him, along with regional vice presidents. While there are other Garffs working for the company, including John’s father and Chairman, Robert, and his siblings, Matthew and Jennifer, nepotism entitlements aren’t tolerated.

Another of Ken Garff’s beliefs runs deep within the third generation of Garffs. “There’s no free lunch. You get whatever the job pays,” says John. “If you’re not working, you don’t get anything. There are no entitlements. I think this is one of the factors contributing to us being a successful family company for 86 years.“From the beginning, our family has always had the entrepreneurial bug. We have always looked for change, embraced new ideas. And the best idea wins.

Nothing’s personal here, everybody comes in, everybody’s got an opinion, but it’s always the best idea that wins. That entrepreneurial, open-minded view of our business is part of what’s helped us adapt to all the dramatic changes we’ve made over the years.”

With such keen ambition running through generations, the burning question has to be whether John has ever considered not working in the family business. At least before he turned 10 and started sweeping the shop floor. “Honestly, no, it’s always been in my blood,” he says. “From that first job, filing, stocking parts and, yes, sweeping the floors, I just never wanted to do anything else.”

The father of five is a graduate of the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy, and has served as president of the New Car Dealers of Utah, on the Utah Division of Motor Vehicle Safety Inspection Advisory Council and for The Nature Conservancy of Utah.

John Garff CEO of Ken Garff Automotive Group

He is a member of the National Advisory Board for the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and is also on the board of Success in Education, a Garff family initiative with the aim of enriching students through learning. The public organization offers three programs, Road to Success for literacy in 134 elementary schools; Keys to Success to prepare for college and the workforce; and Code to Success, a computer programming certification course.

John’s family is renowned for its generous donations to philanthropic causes and education, with his parents establishing the Robert H and Katharine B Garff Foundation in 2004. “My parents spent a lot of time in public life,” John explains. “Dad was the speaker of the House of Representatives in Utah, my mom has been on the board of trustees in the state school board, while my grandmother was a school teacher. My parents have always had a passion for education and believe, as many do, that one of a few ways you can change the world is through education Because of that ethos they have donated close to US$50 million, if you add up all the money spent on buildings, programs and scholarships.”

“We value the deep, multifaceted relationship we’ve built with John and his team. Ally shares their commitment to ‘Doing It Right’ for customers through business excellence and community involvement. Ken Garff strives to be the best, and we’re honored to support them.” – Karen Holley, Executive Director, National Accounts, Ally Financial, Inc.

In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Houston, the Ken Garff management team stepped up to help the 703 employees in the company’s eight Houston stores, particularly the 112 who suffered damage from flooding. Giving everyone paid time off to regroup, John also flew to the city to see for himself the losses incurred. The company paid all the employees’ claims, most of which were for home repairs. Once again, it was about building people the Garff family way.

In recognition for his services to the community, John has been nominated for the 2019 TIME Dealer of the Year award, to be announced in January. It is one of the automobile industry’s most prestigious and coveted honors, recognizing America’s most successful auto dealers demonstrating a longstanding commitment to the community. The 51 nominees, selected to represent their local dealer association, are from more than 16,000 franchise dealers nationwide.

John Garff CEO of Ken Garff Automotive Group

John worked his way up from sweeping floors to selling cars, his first to a neighbor, admittedly not quite legal at age 15, but ratified by his dad. The following year, he spent the first of many summers selling. He then put himself through college where he earned a BSc at the University of Utah and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

As one of the first car dealers to recognize the potential of the internet, John launched in 1996, a market-driven, customer-friendly website connecting shoppers with reviews, information and guides to buying a car. The business was later sold to Comcast in 2008 and the sale proceeds were used to buy more dealerships during the recession. In 2002, John was appointed as President and CEO of Ken Garff.

The same year Ken Garff founded a captive Utah-based insurance company for automotive products and a captive insurance service provider company, while also starting six vertical businesses in fields such as digital marketing, dealership IT services and human resources.

Other professional achievements for John have included founding and securing a US$50 million fleet-lease company and credit facility between 2016 and 2018 to help Ken Garff’s fleet customers grow their respective businesses. Today, this facility size exceeds US$300 million and, as a result, Ken Garff is now the largest truck fleet provider in the US.

Furthermore, John has served in several leadership positions with the New Car Dealers Association of Utah. Of particular note is his time as President of the Association in 2009 during the global financial crisis. John was on the firing line as he spent significant days and weeks with congress and senate representatives in Washington, D.C., speaking to them on behalf of the automotive industry.

Reflecting on the changes in the sector throughout his career, John concedes they have been huge. “It is definitely a dynamic, living industry that changes constantly. In fact, looking over my experience selling cars as a student, and even just during my 10 years in leadership, it seems like change is the one thing we can count on. “Our business is very disruptable, our industry is very disruptable, and we want to continue to disrupt to stay on the cutting edge of technology and technique.”

John Garff CEO of Ken Garff Automotive Group

Technique extends to transforming the skill of selling. As early as a decade ago customers relied heavily on the spiel of a salesperson to buy a car. Armed with an agenda and sometimes, a little more oddly, an inflatable gorilla, the sales pitch was sharp, predictable and rehearsed. Today, the customer is not so naive. They arrive at dealerships armed with information and a fair idea of what they want. Their research is completed on the internet, with social media also playing a huge part in their decision. Reviews, opinions and experiences are at their fingertips, with John admitting they are often more informed than the salespeople.

“The internet is definitely a game changer, our customers have changed exponentially,” he says. “I would say about half of our customers come in knowing exactly what they want and are very specific about it, that’s a much higher percentage than in prior years. The other half has an idea of the style, type and cost, but are still a bit undecided about a couple of different things and want to be shown more options. That’s just a case of narrowing those options down and matching their budget.

“These days, they’re there for the experience, not the transaction,” John adds. “The proliferation of information available means consumers are very educated and they expect transparency. But even more so, they expect a good buying experience and part of that comes from the fact that they know as much, or more, about the car than our salespeople. That’s not uncommon because they’re diving into the specific make, model and trim.”

Ken Garff Automotive reacted quickly to the change in customer expectations and, about eight years ago, retooled its brand and changed the company’s culture to hire the right men and women with more people-centric characteristics than slick sales techniques.

“Inherently, the type of person we hire today is fundamentally different from the person we hired even just a decade ago,” John admits. “Whether they have experience in the car business is actually immaterial. We look for employees who are people friendly, who like to engage with customers, are positive, who listen rather than talk. We hire genuine people, whether they have the skill sets or not. We’ll teach the skills.”

John Garff CEO of Ken Garff Automotive Group

In 2017, Ken Garff hired a Vice President of HR. It took them a year to find Alice Zwahlen, but she offered the particular expertise needed to widen the company’s net and snag the perfect talent. “She calls herself a headhunter because she likes to hunt for good talent,” John explains. “We now have six talent acquisition managers who are out fishing in ponds our industry typically doesn’t fish in, like service industries and colleges. We’d rather get out and find the talent we’re looking for than just see the same people who are circulating in and out of jobs.”

Once Ken Garff finds the right person, a three-month intensive orientation process is implemented to mentor and train the new employee. Career paths are also defined to encourage upward mobility. It’s a strategy John sees as not only vital for fostering talent but for keeping them long-term.

“There’s no stepping out onto the floor and working until that process is completed,” he explains. “Then mentors are assigned to help them continue on their path. The first 90 days are critical to long-term retention, after which it’s really about the job environment because what keeps people staying goes far beyond pay and benefits, it’s the culture and work environment that is important. “One of the crucial attributes we look for in people is likability; naturally likable, genuine and positive people. Another attribute we look for, and it may seem silly, is being nice. People who are nice and likable, it makes a big difference in a work environment. Everyone wants to be around nice people.”

While the tactics for selling cars and the customers themselves have changed dramatically, John believes that when it comes to buying a car, priorities have not fundamentally changed. While modern cars are equipped with multiple gadgets and options, from heated seats to parking sensors and voice control, it all still comes down to one thing.

“You can see from the way John and team value their customers, treat their employees as family and give back to the community that they’re passionate about building much more than a business; they’re building a legacy.” – Anne Kline, Head of TD Auto Finance Commercial Services

“First and foremost, it’s always been about price,” John says. “Next to a house, a car is the largest personal purchase that most people will make, so it’s a pretty big decision and people want to get it right. Fuel economy is another big thing and safety is also very big.”

The rest, comfort and all those amazing gadgets, come next. “That’s still different for every customer. Every buyer is unique and putting everybody into the same bucket is a disservice to the customer. That’s why listening is so important.”

And listening is very important to Ken Garff Automotive. So much so, it’s embedded in its logo. The tagline ‘We Hear You’ is synonymous with the company’s history in the community, with John still hearing stories from generations of customers who remember his grandfather and the Ken Garff way of doing business. Ken was proud of his reputation for being fair, sometimes a tad overly so. Like the time he agreed to pay full price to buy back a car with 15,000 miles on the clock after the owner complained that “something had gone wrong”.

John Garff CEO of Ken Garff Automotive Group

“It’s very important for us to treat our customers with respect, particularly now that the whole process has changed,” John says. “Most people’s experiences have been to just be sold a car; that’s sort of our industry, how we’ve done it over the past several decades.

You come in to buy a car and someone sells you a car. But after extensive market research, we found that most customers wanted to have an easy, enjoyable, trusted buying experience. And you accomplish that by listening and understanding their needs. It’s our job to help them connect with that car. It’s about treating people right, and right is an acronym for ‘respect, intelligence, greatness, honesty and teamwork’,” John adds. “Our company philosophy is to create lifetime customers. Everything we do is focused on the long-term and if we treat the customer right, then the likelihood of them coming back and referring us to their friends and family is much more likely than otherwise. It’s core to everything we do.”

While John is not actively selling cars today, he enjoys helping friends and family. He refers between 10–20 sales a month, sharing tips on how to sell and how to buy. It’s a skill this third-generation car dealer enjoys passing on. “My two older kids have both recently sold cars and I spent a lot of time with them, teaching them how to do it. I do stay involved because it’s a huge part of our business.

Ken Garff has been around for 86 years and our goal is to continue to be a successful business for the next 86 years. My kids represent the fourth generation of the Garff family and I look forward to handing over the reins to them one day in the future.”

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