You probably won’t find anybody as fanatical or as informed about cars in Texas as Rene Isip. The COO and President of John Eagle Auto Group, one of the state’s most sought-after dealers, has created dealerships that feature restaurants, wireless internet, children’s playrooms, studies and lounges. The Group does everything it can to keep customers entertained while the dealers do the demanding work of finding the best car for them.
An avid collector of exotic and classic vehicles himself, Rene takes immense pride in what he can offer customers. In an interview in 2011, he said that he has never changed his phone number, so that friends, family and customers can contact him for advice when buying cars.
Now, having worked in dealerships for more than 30 years, he is well steeped in the art of car sales, as passionate about the details of vehicle maintenance as he is about getting behind the wheel on the wide-open road.
But that’s not why he’s worked in car dealerships his whole life. “For me, it was about sales,” he says. “Every time I sell a car, it feels like a victory. It’s satisfying.” Working as a car dealer, “you become accustomed to getting a pat on the back. A new month always means that you’re back to zero, though.
I feel driven to constantly improve and be better than I was a month ago. I always think I can do just that little bit better.” No matter how good a place he is in now, Rene believes that there is always room
“I could be on vacation in Italy and I’d still be working from my iPad, emailing everyone early in the morning or late at night about how we can improve and fix issues. It’s that passion to improve that excites me about this business.”
He says that at John Eagle Auto Group, “it’s all about the drive. No matter how hard I practice, I learn from my previous experiences, and no matter how many cars I sell in a month, it can never be good enough. I’m always competing with myself to be better than before.”
Secret of success
Although the company’s name is John Eagle, the Group was in fact founded by Bob Eagle, John’s father. In 1962, Bob purchased a bankrupt Lincoln Mercury dealership in Dallas, Texas, determined to turn it around from its abysmal sales rate of eight cars per month. Within a few years, the dealership became one of the best in the country, expanding to Austin, San Antonio and Houston.
Today, as a dealer of both used and new vehicles, the company offers everything from sedans to SUVs and light trucks. With locations throughout Texas, the Group continues to grow in scale; in March 2018, the business celebrated the opening of a new dealership in Alamo Ranch, one of San Antonio’s most prominent shopping complexes.
The success of the Group in recent years can be attributed to the partnership between Rene and John, who have focused on cultivating what Rene calls a “family culture” for both customers and employees.
That all began in 2002, when Rene joined the Group as COO at John’s invitation. At the time, Rene was running the largest Honda store in the US and was given the opportunity to buy his own dealership. Needing a minority investor, he asked John if he would be interested.
John said he would be willing to help under one condition: that Rene help him run his business. “From there, we formed our partnership,” says Rene. Suffice to say, his having been President of the company since 2016, it has been a successful partnership.
Working together for more than 15 years, Rene says he and John have “learned a lot from each other”. And through managing 12 stores and more than 4,000 employees together, they’ve “learned how to deal with all kinds of personalities while maintaining a family culture”. Rene says that it’s that family culture that has been the secret of the Group’s success, emphasizing service over sales.
“Everybody thinks the core of a business is sales,” he says, “but though we do sell a lot of cars, the only way we’ll sell more cars is if we keep our customers happy. We put our focus on after-sales service. When customers need an oil change, new brakes or tires, we get the car in and out as quickly as possible.”
“The only way we’ll sell more cars is if we keep our customers happy.”
Rene emphasizes though that “it’s always important that we get the job done right, the first time. You don’t want customers coming back saying, ‘Hey, you didn’t do this job correctly!’ So, customer satisfaction is particularly important to us. I don’t want cars coming back for the same repair a day or two later.”
He stresses that the Group is committed to ensuring that customers don’t come away with just a car, but with a well-rounded experience. “I want our mechanics to think of themselves as doctors for their customers’ cars,” he says. “As doctors, what we are doing is a multi-point check-up on cars, 100% of the time, ensuring that we are giving a thorough analysis to our customers as if they were patients visiting a doctor.”
If the service is well-rounded and detailed enough, the customers will return. That’s why Rene constantly asks himself just one question: “How often are our customers coming back to us? Ultimately, I’m always looking at our service retention. It’s important to me that customers want to return to us for maintenance and repairs.”
Keep it in the family
Remembering the cold and uncomfortable conditions he worked in as a salesperson, Rene focuses his efforts to create a family culture at John Eagle Auto Group. Because the Group remains a private company, “we naturally have a family culture in this business. We’re not a corporation. We’re not a public company. We’re not run by Wall Street.
“We’re not a corporation. We’re not a public company. We’re not run by Wall Street.”
“Even though this is a big company, we manage each store individually. Every employee knows that they’re part of a larger group, but their focus in that group is the dealership they’re working at.”As Rene puts it, he could have the best buildings and the best cars, “but if I don’t have the right people and the right culture, it’s not going to work.
That’s why I focus on taking care of our employees. If I have happy employees, my customers will happy, and I will be happy with the return on my investment.”
In emphasizing the importance of culture at the Group, Rene has prioritized internal promotions to reward current employees. “We try to show everyone that there are opportunities for career advancement in this company. Employees who are passionate about what they’re doing can take on big responsibilities, and not just at the store they are located in.
“If they do a fantastic job, we can move them to another store, or even to another city, if there’s not an opportunity at their current store. We can move someone from Dallas down to San Antonio, or from Dallas to Houston, and vice versa.”
Moreover, Rene’s efforts to build a strong internal culture go much further than simply offering benefits and internal promotions. “Any time there’s a major catastrophe, like a flood or a hurricane, our employees can lose their homes or move, and we’re obviously shut down for a time because of it,” he comments. Rene stresses the Group’s familial culture in these situations, and that “being part of a family, we have their back”.
After the recent floods in Houston in which many employees were either displaced or unable to work for a time, Rene and the Group’s leadership team flew in from Dallas to help. They offered cash to employees to help them get by for the weeks the business wouldn’t be operational. “We don’t expect them to pay it back,” Rene adds.
“The money was given because they needed some help to get their affairs in order; that’s what families do.”
Similarly, he recalls a general manager at a store in Dallas stricken with “some kind of skin disease”. Having been told to stay home and take care of himself, that employee was out of work for close to a year, in which time he wasn’t replaced. “We had somebody from another store help run his store. When he recovered, we brought him back, filled him in, and stayed with him for a few days to make sure he was okay.
He got paid for the full year he was sick. He got his store back; he didn’t lose that. We didn’t move somebody else in. That’s the kind of family values we want to make sure our employees know we have here, that we’re here to take care of them and to help them. Nobody at John Eagle Auto Group needs to be afraid if they miss work. We’re here for them.”
Hands on the wheel
As a dealership with a statewide presence, the Group has a lot of ground to cover in the geographically diverse state of Texas. Despite the challenges that can arise from that, Rene insists that Texas is to him “the best car market in the country”.
“If you look at the east coast and the west, any time there has been a recession, they’re hit harder. I don’t know what it is about being in the middle, but when we’re hit by a recession, we take a dip that’s nowhere near as big as it is on the coast.” Rene speculates on several reasons why that might be the case.
“Everybody thinks Texas is just oil and gas, but that’s just not true anymore. Yes, oil and gas are still big parts of the Texas economy, but we have hospitals now, and the health care and insurance industries here are huge.”
As further proof, he points to the burgeoning economies of the state’s metro areas, which rival San Francisco and New York City in economic growth and impact on the country. “The landscape for business here is so varied; for example, there is a massive tech industry in Austin, and there are a lot of jobs in the telecommunications industry in Dallas. Not to mention that many big corporations are moving to the state, too.
“Business in Texas is great, because while you could have a down cycle with oil and gas, our diverse economy can help carry us and make sure we aren’t hurt too much.”So, when Rene thinks about the challenges facing the Group, he’s thinking about bigger, structural issues. “The biggest challenge in this business will be ensuring that we have the right people in place.
It’s a people business, and we want to make sure we have the right people. Generations are changing and where baby boomers want to work longer hours, millennials want more downtime. The biggest challenge in that regard is being able to manage those needs and accommodate the different generations we have working for us.”
Elsewhere, Rene has tried to tackle opening hours as an impediment to business and customer convenience. “We’re changing our hours of operation to be more accommodating to our customers. We stay open for longer now; instead of closing at seven o’clock, we’re keeping the business open until nine in the evening for service as well as sales.”
That extends to offering quick repairs for vehicles, especially when customers can’t afford to wait. “We’ve opened express centers for certain jobs, and they can get the job done within 30 minutes. We’ve created separate facilities in our dealerships
to accommodate our customers’ needs, and we keep them up to date.”
When it comes to bigger concerns, like the direct-sales model being implemented by automakers like Tesla, Rene is far less concerned with the potential implications. “The wonderful thing about being in Texas is that these automakers can’t sell direct to customers here,” he points out. “But we’re also adapting, and following their lead.
We’re looking to have, within our stores, a boutique option where you can build your own car. That way, a customer can come in, build a car, order parts from the website, and we can have the car ready and delivered to them. We’re adapting to that way of selling cars.”
Rene exhibits a similar calm and measured attitude to the ongoing tariff war between the US and China, and the effect it will have on the US economy. “We’re fortunate because we have Hondas and Toyotas, and although they are Japanese manufacturers, most of those cars are built in the US. So, we don’t feel the effects of the tariffs yet.” Still, he understands that the economy will feel the effects of protectionism
“We want a positive economy and we want strong consumer confidence in the economy that will help fuel our sales. So those are the only concerns I have with the tariffs currently. As far as the cars we sell, we’re just thankful that they’re built in the US.”
Being as committed as he is to the success of John Eagle Auto Group, Rene instinctively begins to talk about the company when asked about his biggest personal challenge. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have steady growth in acquiring more dealerships, so, my biggest challenge has been stimulating development while having ownership in six stores.
It takes a lot of capital to do that and, through the years, that has been one of my biggest challenges.” Pressed further, he shifts to talking about the challenge of “making sure that I recruit the right people. There are a lot of good candidates out there, and I try to hire young people with fire in the belly. They want to be more successful, so those are the team members I look for, so that I have talented people I can put in different stores.”
It’s only after being asked a third time that he starts focusing less on the needs of the Group and more on himself. “I’d say that my biggest personal challenge is myself,” he says. “What motivates me isn’t success because I’ve been successful, and it’s certainly not money. It’s fear of failure, and man, that drives me nuts.”
“I am always thinking about what I can do better, because I don’t want to fail.”
He’s remarkably candid about how these anxieties can affect him, but he contends that it is as much a motivating factor for him as it is a challenge to be overcome. “I am always thinking about what I can do better, because I don’t want to fail. When you’re like that, you’re always thinking about it, and it wears on you. But that’s the challenge I must live with.”
When it comes to how he deals with the pressures of running the Group, he says that he wouldn’t be able to do what he does without the support of his family. “In my younger days, I was putting in 60 to 70 hours a week, and if I didn’t have the right people around me, I couldn’t have done that.
If I didn’t have the support of my wife, I couldn’t have done that. If I didn’t have the support of the manufacturers and the dealers, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.”
He adds it’s that care and support he receives from those he loves that gives him the drive to keep going. “My secret is that I have a very understanding and incredibly supportive family, and now we’re all reaping the benefits because, obviously, things are different from 30 years ago when I started in this business.
To get to where I am today required many long nights and weekends. I kissed the ring. I needed a good family to support me, and if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”