Zack Cochran’s career didn’t begin in the car business.
After graduating from the University of Virginia, he entered the world of municipal finance, serving as an advisor to governments and agencies on state and local finances. He was good at the job, “but I knew I didn’t want to do that the rest of my life,” he says. He mulled it over. Would he go back to school for post-graduate business education? Or would he follow in his own family’s footsteps, which was filled with surgeons? He wound up taking the third option: he started working at Whitten Brothers in Ashland and Midlothian, Va., a dealership that’s been in his father-in-law’s family for four generations.
Zack rose through the ranks and now runs the Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Mazda dealership with his cousin-in-law, Harrison Whitten. Dividing and conquering, Zack oversees the fixed ops side of the business while Harrison runs the variable sales side. Zack and his wife Sarah Cochran, whom he met at the University of Virginia (and would prove to be the keys to a future career in the dealer business), have three children, Eliza, 14; Preston, 12; and Ruthie, 9.
Let’s hear from Zack.
Tell us about your time with Whitten Brothers. How long have you been with the dealership?
I grew up thinking car dealers were the evil empire and had a massive stigma attached to them. My father died when I was 12 years old, and my father-in-law was more or less like my dad. It was a massive risk to, you know, muddy those waters with a work relationship. So I thought long and hard about that, but for one reason or another chose to take the plunge and jumped into the car business in 2003. I worked for my father-in-law, Bobby Whitten, and my uncle-in-law, Jimmy Whitten. I started at the ground level selling cars. I sold tons of cars, but not because I was a better salesman — not because I had better word tracks or magic, no voodoo or anything. Process produces results, and I knew the product inside and out, and I just listened. I learned at a really young formative age in the car business that process trumps talent, and I succeeded quite well. I started to move up through the ranks from salesperson to finance to sales manager to general sales manager.
What’s your typical day like at the dealership?
I have some financial modeling skills from my prior working experiences. I don’t trust reporting unless I can truly digest the mathematics behind it. I don’t trust data unless I know where it came from. So I created my own financial model for all of our departments. I extract operational data from the prior day that I paste into a financial forecast and model so I can see short-term trends, mid-term trends, and long-term trends. Everything is about setting goals and expectations — where are we at, versus our targets? On the fixed-ops side, you're selling time, and then there's a parts-to-labor ratio that goes hand-in-hand with that time that you're selling in the form of labor and the technicians. Now more than ever with COVID and contact tracing you have to pivot a bit with your hourly labor forecasts and goals. If you have four or five guys contact tracing that have to miss work for 10 days, then obviously, you're going to vaporize your forecasts and get flexible. I'm big on looking at where were we at on an efficiency basis based upon the physical number of beings that were in stalls turning wrenches yesterday.
What keeps you up at night on the fixed ops side?
There's a famous saying in the car business: “We used to, and it worked, and then we stopped.”
[Similar to getting through the 2009-2009 recession], I don't have any of my accounts payable green-lighted unless it has my signature or Harrison's signature, which seems somewhat like micromanaging. But right now, every dealer needs to control dollars, ask questions of your managers, understand expenses and the rationale behind them. We can be really efficient because if we're going to have these fluctuations in dollars based upon contact tracing and issues from the pandemic, then we're going to have to understand that if our dollars decrease, and we don’t have the humans to produce those dollars, then I cannot have that same expense as if I had a fully stocked shop full of techs.
My heartburn is also how to incubate and rear the next generation of technicians. There’s an ever-aging population of techs. I think that you have to find new ways to engage some of these younger folks.
Are you looking at EVs and the types of new, IT talents that you're going to need in your garage in coming years?
I'm incredibly excited about EVs. I think one of the ways that we could potentially be finding our next wave of technicians to fill the stalls is going to be on the backs of electrical vehicles. Some of the old mindset is that the technician is going to get greasy and dirty and be working on gas-burning internal combustion engines. I think there's going to be a new technologically-minded and savvy individual that says, “This might be a career for me. This is exciting. I could be on the forefront of this.” As we start to head in that direction, you're seeing that with virtually all the manufacturers coming out withe new EV models. Maybe that's going to be the catalyst that spurs some fresh blood into the technician force.
From a financial perspective, how are you viewing some of the some-would-say necessary changes that were forced on dealers due to the pandemic?
The pandemic has brought forth some concepts from some really high-line brands that have now kind of entered the mainstream, like pickup and delivery and concierge services. We're all wrestling a little bit with the fine line between appropriate pricing to be able to provide all of these a la carte concierge-like services at a price point that's palatable for both the consumer and the dealer. We want to still make a fair and justifiable profit and at the same time, offer a competitive price point to the customer. We want customers to feel like they're getting the value, but they're not paying an inordinate premium to have that vehicle pick up and delivered and properly maintained and cleaned.
What’s your advice to someone going into the fixed ops side?
Always be looking to exceed expectations, whatever it is you're doing. Look to improve the ease and convenience of those doing business with you. Take customer phone calls and help them – don’t put customers in a circular queue of death. There needs to be someone on the other end of the phone at your dealership who gets the customer question and says, “Let me find that out for you.” Conceptually, it's so simple. But it’s harder to execute. Someone needs to own it and call the customer back with a with a polished answer.
It's just the very element of car dealerships: it's too siloed. I'm always trying to break down these silos, like the parts silo, the service silo, the sales silo, the finance silo. How do we create a homogenous being so that when the customer calls, they are talking to one place?
You've been in this world for 18 years. Why do you stick with it? And why do you love going to work every day?
I love every day, even the bad days. You run the gamut of emotions from elation to dejection all in a week. I love the fact that I'm working to sustain something this family created over 100 years ago. We were founded in March of 1920. I want to take the opportunity that was presented to me when they turned over the keys to me and Harrison, and I want Jimmy and Bobby Whitten to look upon us 20 some years from now and be like, “Wow, look, what these two gentlemen did. Look what they took. Look what they grew it into. Look at this sustained legacy of success.”
By the way: Get the latest trends in FixedOps in our April 20 FixedOps Meeting.