Jim Griffin aims high, achieves goals

Special to ADAMM

Not everyone can be No. 1 — especially if Jim Griffin’s in the game.

Two of his dealerships — GRIFFIN Ford of Waukesha and GRIFFIN’S HUB Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of Milwau­kee — have been certified as Wiscon­sin’s sales volume leaders for 2015. You can excuse his other dealership, GRIF­FIN Chevrolet of Milwaukee, for not be­ing similarly honored: He’s only owned it since the middle of last year.

Griffin cites the usual reasons for his stores’ success, like hard work (“I’m al­ways doing something, even when the doors are closed and the lights are turned off”) and starring in his own high-profile TV ad campaigns, but he also credits the will­ingness to adapt to changes in how cars are sold while also remaining focused on fundamentals that never change.

“People used to come in and say, ‘Tell me the difference between such-and-such car you sell here and one of these or one of those from the guys down the street’,” Griffin said. “You’d talk about the product and the price and interest rates, but today there’s so much information on­line that people come in knowing all about the vehicles, the options, the price, how much their monthly payment should be. It’s not just about how you get people into the store, it’s how you treat them.”

Griffin started selling cars at the Ford dealership his father, Jack, started in 1960. Prior to that, he’d cleaned cars for his dad and worked for a rust-proofing chain. Jim was 18 years old and barely out of high school when he closed his first deal, selling a pre-owned 4×4 Ford F-250 pickup with a plow on it.

He said the sale gave him a taste of what it’s like to compete against other dealer­ships — and his colleagues. “I loved the atmosphere of the showroom when things were happening,” he said. “And I loved the cars. To be successful in this busi­ness, you really have to be a car guy.”

Jim rose through ranks at his father’s Ford store, advancing to management roles in the 1980s when high inflation, high interest rates on vehicle loans and  high gasoline prices created headaches for car dealers across the U.S. Overcom­ing those challenges, he said, helped pre­pare him for future success.

The goal, Jim Griffin said, was always to succeed his dad, and once he became principal owner, he started to diversify, adding Dodge, Oldsmobile and Mitsubishi stores and a used car lot to the company’s portfolio.

By the time of the financial meltdown of 2008-’09, Olds and Mitsubishi were out of the picture. Griffin Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram was born as Chrysler Corp. demanded dealerships carry all four of its brands. Griffin bought the Hub Chrys­ler Jeep outlet and moved the combined dealership, at Chrysler’s request, to its current location on S. 27th St.

“They said they wanted me to open within two years,” Griffin recalled. “I told them, ‘You can’t have customers in that area go without a dealership for that long.’ We were open for business within three months.”

With the addition of the former Berg­strom Chevy dealership last year, Griffin now sells vehicles made by each of the “Big Three” U.S. automakers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. It’s something he plays up in his TV commercials.

Griffin likes to point out that Ford is the top-selling brand in the U.S., and reminds consumers that the company “looked in­side, not outside” when it declined help from the federal government during the financial crisis. He refers to Chrysler as “Detroit Iron,” an allusion that hard-working Milwaukeeans relate to. He also thought they related to the familiar slogan, “Is there a Hub tag on your car?” so he kept it, changing “Hub” to “Griffin” and the voiceover at the end from an Old West style to “something jazzier.”

As for Chevrolet, Griffin focuses on the company’s iconic century-old logo and asks, “Don’t you think you’d look good in a bowtie?”

He said that doing commercials is easy because “the tape is rolling, so if you make a mistake, you just do it over.” But it was a different story the first time he ap­peared on camera.

“Tom Hooper of WITI was at the Auto Show Gala interviewing people, and I told him to ask me about what was new in the Ford display and I’d run with it,” Griffin said. “I had to fill two minutes! I pulled it off, but at the end, I was ready to faint.”

Advertising is great, he said, but he puts more time and effort into doing things that help his employees establish relationships with customers. A recent example involves creating employee teams and making sure employees have input into how they do their jobs.

“I don’t just go in there and give orders,” he explained. “I don’t want to have a customer ask, ‘Why do you do it like that?’ and the employee answer, ‘I don’t know; they tell us to.’ If you have happy employees, you’ll have happy customers.”

It’s all about the kind of fundamentals he learned working for his father 40 years ago.

“The internet is good for customers and it’s good for dealers — if they use it properly,” he said. “You can’t get all wrapped up in the new thing and forget how you used to do business, though. It’s a people business. It’s all about the relationships you have with people.”