Dennis Sweeney (front, left) says his parts department team is driving new growth as the dealership expands. “If you don’t have good people, you’ve got nothing,” he says.Technician Alan Wolfe works in one of the dealership’s 18 bays at its new location.

Leading from the front

Downtown Subaru expands into new facility as it grows wholesale parts and service

Oakland, Calif.—As a former member of the United States Marine Corps, Parts director Dennis Sweeney has taken what he had learned from his service and carried it into the civilian work world at Oakland’s Downtown Subaru.

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At a Glance

• Parts department annual sales: $3.4 million
• Inventory: $250,000
• Delivery radius: 45 miles
• Parts staff: 5 specialists, parts manager
• Service department: 17 techs, 18 bays

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“When you lead, you lead from the front and create a culture. In order to make that culture effective, it’s important to lead by example and then all work together within a structured environment,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck.”

The family-owned dealership moved into a new facility last year around the corner from its previous location as the Subaru brand continues to build in popularity.

“Subaru is putting more cars on the road today than most manufacturers,” Sweeney said, “and loyalty to the brand extends to its parts and service. Our customers are intelligent and well educated, and they buy the product because they know the product. They know what they want — its versatile with good fuel economy and not too big, but can also take them to the mountains on the weekends.”

As the brand grew, the former location became too small to service its customers, who often had to wait in line in their cars outside the dealership service department. The new facility provides more room with a service drive to accommodate the 100 vehicles it services daily in its 18 bays, as well as allow its parts operation to expand.

“I love the wholesale parts side of the business,” Sweeney said. “The programs that Subaru provides are helpful because they allow us to remain competitive in the aftermarket and with other factory brands. My goal is to have a separate wholesale operation all its own — with up to five dedicated wholesale specialists — and now we have the room to do it. We’re going to ramp it up.”

To spark that growth, he also recently hired an outside sales manager, Jose Vela, a seasoned industry veteran who has brought in many loyal clients.

Present inventory hovers around $250,000 for mechanical and collision parts at a ratio of 60/40, respectively, and sales have been on a steady upward trend. “Windshields are selling like they’re going out of style, largely because no one else stocks them,” Sweeney said.

The department employs five parts specialists. A remodel of the facility to begin in the summer, will feature a separate retail counter and a technician counter, as well as new offices. Sweeney will also hire additional delivery drivers, and if he sees potential in a new driver, he’ll train them in shipping and receiving to ultimately become a counterman.

“We’re starting in our own back yard with a population of up to five million people, so a lot of our wholesale has focused on the surrounding 10-15 blocks. Our current radius is approximately 45 miles, including into the valley, Dublin and Pleasanton areas, where we’ve been picking business, in addition to Albany and San Francisco. We reach out to our customers, we believe in being proactive.”

Sweeney also does outside sales, visiting with customers from time to time, and regularly picks up the phone to answer incoming calls.

“When I get involved and talk to customers or stop by their shops, they’re not really expecting a manager, so I think it makes an impression. A large part of our culture is that everyone jumps in to do what’s needed — we really go above and beyond. If a phone is ringing more than three times and the team is tied up, I’ll take it because there’s someone on the other end who wants to spend money.”

When an installer calls with a technical question or for information, Sweeney says his staff is ready to assist. “Follow up is huge, too, and doing what you say you’re going to do. We have a team concept — not just within my department, but with all of us. I’m really proud of everyone.

“I don’t play manager if I don’t have to and, most of the time, I don’t have to — they do a great job.”

The department has been brought up to speed with a new DMS system and processes have been streamlined. “If we work our DMS properly, we can pull over 60 lines of special order items with one click, rather than spending 20 minutes going line by line and perhaps missing a quantity. It’s all there in the system, it’s just a matter of tapping into it.”

Sweeney has been in the automotive industry since 1984 where he began at an Oakland Mercedes-Benz dealership, then as a counterman at a Subaru dealership where he ultimately became the service manager, though the vast majority of his experience has been in parts with Subaru dealerships.

“At the end of the day, when I hire someone, they’re not going to remember 30 years later how much money they made with me, they’ll remember if they liked working for me or not — that’s what’s important to me. The relationship will last longer than any dollars and cents.

“If you don’t have good people, you’ve got nothing.”

Parts & People

Parts & People is published monthly by Automotive Counseling and Publishing Company, Inc., a Colorado corporation, P.O. Box 18731 Denver, CO 80203, 303-765-4664. President-Lance Buchner. Founded by Lance Buchner and Dave Lucia.