BUSINESS

A giant among car salesmen

Denis Leclerc sold his first car at age 11. Now he’s king of the dealers.

JASON CHOW March 5 2007
BUSINESS

A giant among car salesmen

Denis Leclerc sold his first car at age 11. Now he’s king of the dealers.

JASON CHOW March 5 2007

A giant among car salesmen

Denis Leclerc sold his first car at age 11. Now he’s king of the dealers.

JASON CHOW

When Denis Leclerc was 11 years old, he was already obsessed with cars. He preferred reading car brochures to books. And he had already found himself a job as a car washer at a used car lot in Montreal, where he memorized the model and price of every car on the lot.

While at the dealership, he’d sometimes be left alone in the office while the entire sales staff would go out for lunch. One day while he was standing guard at the shop during the noon hour, a man came in to inquire about a Ford Galaxie 500 that was for sale. With nobody else to assist the customer, the kid stepped up, grabbed the dealer plates, locked the office and accompanied the man on a test drive—even though it would be five years before he would get his licence. While on the road, Leclerc answered questions about the condition of the car and discussed the price. They reached a deal at $2,200, and by the time the adults came back from lunch, Leclerc had sold his first car. “I was ahead of my time,” he laughs as he recalls the story. “I just did it like the big man.”

Leclerc never wavered in his drive to become a top car salesman: he dropped out of high school at 15 to sell cars at a used lot. Four years later, he became a salesman “in the big

leagues” at a Chrysler dealership in Ottawa.

At 21, he ventured out on his own in the used car business, until 1996. For the past 10 years, the St. Leonard, Que., native has been owner and operator of Albi Mazda Le Géant, a mammoth car dealership that he’s turned into the largest and most successful Mazda dealer in the world—a fact confirmed by the diamond ring on the finger of his thick hand, a gift from Mazda to commemorate his reign as the company’s sales champ.

Situated 20 km northeast of Montreal in the small town of Mascouche, the Albi dealership and service centre rises almost out of nowhere, nestled among a few industrial buildings on a small road that ends in a farmer’s field. The newly expanded facility is IV2 times the size of a typical Wal-Mart. Within the 154,000-sq.-foot space is a 100-car showroom and a repair garage that can handle as many as 200 cars at a time, with 45 garage doors and 80 hydraulic lifts. There’s also a café and salon for customers who want a snack or to get their hair done while waiting for an oil change. “There’s a magic when you > come in here. I think it’s special,” Leclerc says, | pausing before adding Mazda’s ubiquitous ¿ slogan, “You feel the ‘zoom zoom.’ ” 0

Leclerc has the sales to back up his boasts, a Last year, he sold 4,036 cars, more than any “ other Mazda dealer in the world, and more % than double the next largest Mazda dealer in g Canada. Leclerc’s dealership is responsible for £ five per cent of all Mazda sales in Canada. (The S

other 161 Mazda dealers in Canada sell an average 468 cars per year.) His title is even more impressive considering that he’s selling the seventh-ranked brand in the country.

Mazda makes up just five per cent of the Canadian auto market, and lags far behind the auto giants GM, Ford, Chrysler and Toyota, which account for 68 per cent of Canadian car sales and have much larger national advertising campaigns. To put Leclerc’s sales performance in context, consider that Ford’s topselling Canadian dealership was Freedom Ford in Edmonton, which sold more than 2,600 units last year. About 80 per cent of Freedom’s sales were in what the industry calls fleet sales, supplying vehicles to construction companies, government agencies, police forces and other clients that buy batches of cars at a time at a heavily discounted price. But Albi has virtually no fleet sales. In other words, Albi is winning the sales race one car at a time and pocketing a bigger profit while doing so.

Like any car salesman, Leclerc gives most of the credit to the product he has to sell. The compact Mazda 3 continues to be wildly popular and accounts for half of his sales. He’s also very aggressive with his advertising budget, spending about $2 million a year in newspaper ads. And he prides himself on maintaining high customer satisfaction, with half of his customers being referrals from previous clients.

But Leclerc has also succeeded because he’s been adapting to new times. The business has changed drastically over the past decade, with many complaining of crushing competition and thinning profit margins. Peter Salinas, editor of the trade magazine Dealer BusinessJournal in Sarasota, Fla., says it’s becoming a matter of survival for stores to get bigger. “It’s getting very difficult for little dealers to stay in existence,” he says. “By getting bigger, you reach an economy of scale. The cost per sale goes down compared to smaller stores.” He adds, “A 100-car showroom is big. But it’s an especially good move in Montreal. It means you can look at a lot of cars in the winter with your coat off.”

Perhaps most difficult for dealers has been the change in the dynamic of the relationship between salesman and customer. Gone are the days of the snaky salesman who could push a mediocre car, loaded up with useless options, on an unsuspecting customer to pocket a sizable profit. Now, customers come armed with Internet research, often knowing exactly what car they want to buy and at what price before they even step in the door.

“You can’t fool them anymore. The old-style salesman is over,” admits Leclerc, who often forgoes the traditional suit-and-tie for the more casual look of untucked short-sleeve

shirts. “You know, there used to be that impression that the salesman is out to screw you and sure, it happened. But now, we have to be nice. When you buy a car, everybody assumes they’ll get screwed.” So, he’s trained his sales staff to adopt a softer, kinder approach to find some way to connect to a cynical and wary customer, and Geneviève Lapalme, Leclerc’s best salesperson on his floor, is the antithesis of the fast-talking mustachioed slickster. An attractive brunette with a gentle voice and a blushing demeanour, the 30-year-old is an

Showrooms like Leclerc’s, bigger than a Wal-Mart, could be the future of the business

ex-bar manager who sold 3 20 cars last year— her first in the business. “Denis tells us to listen,” she says. “Listen to your customer. Always listen. You have to find that way to talk to them, to find out what they want.”

Now, with the humongous service centre, Leclerc expects sales to keep soaring. The garage and the showroom are part of the same business model: Leclerc’s garage is so big that it promises fast and immediate service so wait times are reduced. Meanwhile, the salon and café are there so that the experience of waiting for your car isn’t as painfully boring as it typically has been in the past. And since customers are more likely to linger while their tires are changed, they’ll likely wander over to the showroom to take a look at what’s

new in the Mazda family, and maybe think of their next purchase. It’s all part of Leclerc’s master plan for getting customers to keep buying at Albi and servicing their cars there again and again.

Of course, not everyone’s a fan of the bigbox concept, and some bristle at Albi’s sales tactics. “I can’t see myself enduring the sales approach at Albi Mazda without taking the salesman’s head into his desk drawer and closing it on him a dozen times,” wrote one car owner onforumauto.net, a francophone car-chat site. “Tell me of salesmen who have class and can give a final price when you ask for it!” Albi’s competitors aren’t cringing at the

sight of their huge opponent either. “We do fine,” snapped one rival dealership owner in Mascouche whose showroom contained six cars. “Our sales have increased, too. They don’t scare us.”

But ask Leclerc about his competition, and he gives a blank stare as if he doesn’t know the definition of the word. He turns from his desk to ask his sales managers who they think Albi’s rivals are, and the whole room erupts in laughter. “I don’t want to look arrogant, but, you know, we don’t think about anybody outside of here,” Leclerc says. He has built a behemoth that he’s certain will continue to grow. Leclerc’s goal: cracking the five-figure mark. “I want to sell 10,000 cars in a year. After I do that, I’ll quit and go golfing.” M