"We'd do anything to sell a car," said Bill West, 34, the husky, $100,000-a-year general manager of Koons Ford in Falls Church. "When we get worked up and sell 30 or 40 cars in a day this place is a madhouse."
Koons, billing itself as the largest retail Ford automobile dealership in the U.S., sells between 500 and 600 new cars and trucks a month. A wonderfully rich story of American life and values is played out daily in its showrooms, office and garages. The people to be found there - black and white, well off and not so-well off - are typical Americans in varying stages of delight, rage or quiet acceptance regarding the vehicles that play such large parts in their lives.
The day begins before dawn with a lone service representative writing repair tickets. It warms up as the repair shops and sales sections unlimber to their own rhythms. Hours later, it ends in a late-night frenzy with salesmen rushing to close their final sales.
Because Koons Ford, with its 225 employees, is "king" in sales, it is known in the auto business as "The Kingdon."
"This is the cream of the crop, this is the top rung," said salesman Burton Tepper. "There's a lot of pressure. Basically if you don't perform they'll request you to leave. There's no excuses in The Kingdom. You sell cars."
"It just wants to backfire once in while," said Eva Henslee. "It would hesitate, and then it would spit at me."
She frowned at her huge yellow 1975 Country Squire station wagon while service rep Charlie Robinson scribbled on his clipboard.
It was shortly after dawn, the air was still crisp, and Mrs. Henslee had advanced to the head of the long line of cars waiting for service. Koons Ford, a sprawl of buildings among colorful rows of cars, lay like an aircraft carrier in a sea of suburban highways and shopping centers seven miles southwest of downtown Washington.
"You wanta wait on it?" asked Robinson.
"It'd be easier if I could get it," agreed Mrs. Henslee. She went into the waiting room for fresh doughnuts and coffee.
Her car was checked into the big 32-stall garage by the control tower, and mechanic Bob Butler, an easy-mannered man with an infectious grin, opened the hood. "The plugs and all are in pretty bad shape," he said. "She has carburetor trouble. This is a four-barrel. It doesn't take much to knock 'em out."
Butler walked over to the parts window to get plugs, then returned to his stall and began studying a carburetor repair manual and working on Mrs. Henslee's car.
The car was ready about four hours later and Mrs. Henslee looked at her bill for $103.11, comprising $57.60 for labor, $38 for parts, $5.76 for "Misc." and $1.75 tax. "I know what they do to you when they have to go into the carburetor," she said, "but there's nothin' you can do about it, right? You sign the thing when you come in."
Later that afternnon, Mrs. Henslee was back with a complaint. "They left some things unplugged under the hood. 'I don't know what those plugs are. There's plain wire sticking out there.'"
Butler, the mechanic, grinned, "I know they were connected when they left here," he said. "God only knows. It's one of those things." The Billing System
Like most dealers, Koons uses a rate book to decide how much a customer will be billed for a certain repair job. The book lists every conceivable repair job with the amount of time it should take to perform each. By adding up the hours given in the book for the repair jobs done on a customer's car, Koons arrives at the number of hours of labor that the customer will be billed for - regardless of how long it actually takes a given mechanic to perform the jobs.
The customer, who receives a bill just like the one Mrs. Henslee received, is told none of this. If a customer thinks Koons or some other dealership charges too much for repairs, he is free to go somewhere else or to do the work himself. From Koons' point of view, according to service manager Tom Ingalls, the rate book system is simply a matter of internal accounting that is of no real concern to the customer.
Nevertheless, the details of that system are interesting. Take Mrs. Henslee's case, Butler said that the rate book allowed about 2 1/2 hours for repairing her carburetor and about 1 1/2 hours for tuning up her car. If he finished the job in less than the allotted time - which the better mechanics are supposed to be able to do - then he would be able to bill more hours than he actually worked.
Butler said that in a 40-hour work week, a good mechanic can bill up to 90 or 100 hours of repair work, but that usually one bills about 75 or 80 hours. He said that customers are charged $16 an hour for labor by Koons, while he is paid $7.10 an hour for the hours he bills. Butler said he likes to work at a busy shop like Koons where he doesn't "run out of work" and where the pay level and benefits are good.
According to Butler and Ingalls, most mechanics manage to bill more hours than they actually work. Ingalls said that, overall, Koons bills customers for 20 to 25 per cent more time than is actually worked, but he emphasized that this is an accounting system, meriting neither defense nor condemnation.
However, this widely used system has sometimes been a subject of controversy, with customer advocates arguing that it encourages mechanics to do quick, shoddy work. At Koons, Ingalls said, his foreman strictly supervise the mechanics to insure quality work. When working well, such a system provides incentives for good mechanics and eliminates the confusion customers might have if faced with fluctuating prices for the same work under a less stable pricing system. Keeping Your Cool
Through the roar and clatter of the day's work, service manager Ingalls maintains an air of implacable calm. A lean man, he seems almost taciturn. It is very impressive: he is keeping his head.
"I have a very bad temper," he said with just the suggestion of a smile, "but I've learned in this business that if you lose your cool you can't do your job." McGoldrick And Son
By midmorning activity was increasing in the big showroom with its bright new cars. Salesmen were shooting the breeze around a table by the big picture window. When a potential customer entered the room, one of the salesmen would detach himself and move in his direction. The salesmen used a roster on the table to keep track of whose turn it was to take a walk-in customer.
Salesman Tom Gordon, a man with a sincere, low-key manner, was well along in selling a car to a young man accompanied by his father.
"Do you like the interior?" said Gordon.
"Yeah, I do . . ." said Pat McGoldrick Jr., 22. He looked with admiration at a fire-engine red Mustang with bright plaid seats.
His father, tall, urbane NASA employee, bent to examine the $4,102 window sticker. "He needs a cosigner," explained elder McGoldrick with a smile. "He doesn't have me around for my good looks."
The father said he has performed similar duty for all his children - one son who bought a VW, another a Saab, another a Pinto and a daughter who bought a Monza.
"I could give you a 25-minute dissertation on car headaches," he said, feigning an air of tired resignation.
"You want to take it home with you today?" asked salesman Gordon playfully.
"Yes, he's hurtin'," said the father, explaining that his son needed the car for a job and then school.
"It'll be ready in half an hour," said Gordon.
The final price was $3,873.90, a figure considerably less than the price that appeared on the sticker in the car's window and that was presented by Gordon as the lowest he could go. The exact details of his computation in arriving at that figure, the delicate factoring of supply, demand, competition, psychology - all these remained locked in Gordon's mind, important business secrets.
The son was to pay $400 down and $113.87 a month 36 months. He said he had shopped around before coming to Koons and was happy with the deal.
"I made $25 on the deal," said Gordon. "I didn't try to feel the boy out and offer at a higher price . . . I made a happy man, happy son. That's how I make my living." The Salesmen
Gordon makes more than $40,000 a year, works 12 hours a day and said he loves it. "I had to quit high school because my Dad died . . . I couldn't leave here and get that kind of money - and be happy. You gotta be happy doing what you're doing."
He is at home in the showroom, the guts of Koons Ford. Koons is a big volume house, a "pressure house" as vice president Jimmy Koons puts it, and numbers is the name of the game. The management tries hard for a friendly, upbeat atmosphere in the showroon.
"You'll see morale out there," said owner John W. Koons Sr. "We build morale all the time. When anybody gets their lip hung down, (we correct it.) If anybody catches me out of my office with no smile and hits me on the shoulder, I give them $5."
For many who work there, Koons is a way of life. "It's like a big family," said salesman Tepper. "A lotta people don't take vacation in this business. It looks like hard work but a lotta people enjoy it so much they don't take vacation."
The salesman are somewhat independent operators in that Koons management allows them latitude in the deals they make. For example, Gordon explained, if a salesman sized up a potential customer as a pushover, he might try to squeeze more money out of that customer than he would out of another for the same car. Gorden added that he himself never operated this way. Said Tepper: "Two salesmen last month both delivered 50 cars. One made $4,000 and one made $7,000."
Management does require that salesmen do nothing to hurt the good name of Koons, said that all maintain a high volume of sales.
A salesman's total monthly compensation is based on a series of complex and mostly secret formulas that begins with the simple 25 cent commission of the profit on a car. For example, Gordon said, he might receive as little as $25 for selling a $3,214 Pinto or as much as $164 for a $6,388 Thunderbird.
While a salesman can size up his customer psychologically, his commission, and the profit on which it is based, is also subject to the simple laws of supply and demand. For example, the higher profits and commissions on the Thuderbirds are possible because the car remains so popular and Ford is apparently not able to produce enough to meet the high demand.
"T-Birds are really hot and please don't ask me how much because it's really a lot," said general manager West. "(The company) can make $1,000 in five minutes on a T-Bird but (sometimes) I gotta spend four hours to make $100 on a Mustang."
Commissions, however, are just the base of the pay pyramid for salesmen. An elaborate system of monthly bonuses, contests among the salesmen and other incentive devices boosts the rewards according to a salesman's volume. There are also group rewards for high volume, which encourage the salesmen to egg each other on.
A salesman may also, at his discretion, charge his customer a sum for "dealer's prep" - a vague term for cleaning the car up and getting it ready for a customer. This can run to over $100, and nobody at Koons was willing to discuss the matter in any detail. Basically, it seems, "dealer's prep" is pure profit, and the company's only policy, said Jimmy Koons, is that "the customer is always informed."
But informed of what exactly, he wouldn't say. The Management
"Either love me or quit taking my money," Koons Sr. is said to have told his employees.
Apparently it works. "He's more like a father to me than anybody else," said salesman Gordon. I'm dedicated to Mr. Koons," said general manager West. "I love him as much as my own father."
Koons, Sr., who started selling cars in northern Virginia 35 years ago on a few hundred dollars borrowed from a friend, has all the appearance of an old country doctor with his gold-rim glasses, gray hair and folksy, gruff-gentle manner.
Now he rules a corporate empire comprising seven Washington-area car dealerships and six other automobile-related corporations. In a recent months in all dealerships he sold 1,637 new and 586 used cars, 412 trucks and 63 recreational vehicles.
Koons Ford, run by his 26-year-old son Jimmy, is the cornerstone of his operations. Other sons and relatives head up some of his other dealerships. Jimmy is a backslapper who infuses tremendous energy into Koons Ford. "It's a people business," he declares, and Jimmy loves people.
Koons has also brought talented management from the outside like West, the blond-haired human dynamo he hired away from Ford Motor Co. "I consider myself a mover," says West. "I'm a professional individual and I have fun . . . I am Koons Ford."
"Americans are spoiled," said Koons Sr. as he relaxed for an interview in his corporate board room. "Hell, I remember we used to drive around without air conditioning. We'd roll down the window and be cool as could be . . ."
Now, Koons said, most cars he sells come equipped with factory air conditioning. "People want all the trimmings. Very seldom do you sell a stripped-down car." Power steering, power brakes, even power windows - and big cars - all these remain popular, he said. The Computer Man
Business manager Richard W. Morton pressed a button on his fancy new computer and it spit out information like this:
T-Birds earned gross profits of about three times what Pintos did, with other cars falling in the low to mid-range between these figures. "Fleet cars" sold to organizations like Hertz brought less than half the profit of cars sold to individuals, according to the figures.
"My gross average is probably less than any other Ford dealership," said Jimmy Koons. "What we net out of a car is less than $100 - what we net."
The computer also provided service statistics showing labor sales of $6,146 for the day and $131,024 for the 26 days of the month. Parts sales were $8,891 for the day and $186,732 for the 26 days of the month. For each customer job in the first 26 days of the month the charge for labor averaged $42 and for parts $31. What People Want
Salesman Gerry Malanda thinks they want "snazzola." Bill West says they want "comfort" but are gravitating toward smaller cars.Tom Gordon thinks people are basically "confused," and said that for the first time he has seen people looking at window stickers to see how much mileage cars get.
Today's car market is volatile, almost schizophrenic. Basically, according to Jimmy Koons, the dealership has been selling about 70 per cent small cars - Pintos, Mustangs, Granadas, Mavericks.But interest in the big LTDs and intermediate LTD IIs was strong a few months ago, then diminshed as interest in small cars intensified. In the past few weeks there's a renewed surge of interest in the gig cars. Nobody can really explain it.
Style sells however, as the continuing firm demand for T-Birds, which West refers to as "dollar signs," shows, "People like to drive a car with a lot of prestige," said Jimmy.
Getting enough of any model car from Ford assembly lines is difficult. Despite car carries that line up to disgorge as many as 180 cars a day at Koons, the dealership can't get enough of any model. West said he likes to keep nearly 1,000 cars in stock but is lucky to have 600, which narrows customer choice and slows sales.
"Why the low number of LTD IIs?" West shouted in a late-night order session with Ford's Northern Virginia rep. John Bufford. "That's what concerns us! What are they doing, playing with the numbers?"
"We're still having problems from the strike," explained Bufford later. "It's difficult for us to get our levels fied. "When people complain I take it bad. I don't want to call anybody else personally," she said. "I really feel up." He said the dealers he services "want everything they can get."
At one point West suggested to a reporter that Ford was holding back on small-car deliveries until the new model year when, presumably, pent-up demand for smaller cars would help Ford meet stiffer federal mileage requirements.
Some of the salesmen said they had heard the theory kicked around at a sales convention, but no one wanted to discuss it further. Complaint Dept.
Bonnie Sheldon, a young woman, sits in a small office and phones service customers to see if they're satis and I just sit here and wait awhile."
She dialed a number, "Hello." she said, identifying herself. "I'm calling to see if the service on your Pinto was satisfactory." She listened, then began writing: "Wind whistle on right side . . . rattles left front area . . . hard starting . . . grease when roll window up . . . squeak: something loose . . . has been in here before for these problems." She hung, then laughed.
"Well," she said, "it's a brand new car and there's always a lot of problems."
In a nearby office, customer relations chief Bob Smith worked over stacks of repair orders, logging and following through on the complaints ferreted out by Ms. Sheldon.
On a typical day, he said, there were 86 repair and eight body shop tickets. In a four-day period, including that day, there were 13 mechanical and two body shop complaints for which customers had to return. Eight other complaints were really questions handled by telephone.
"These tickets are very hard to read for a customer." Smith explained. "They've paid $5 for something and they can't read what it is."
A stack of tickets on Smith's desk contained complaints like: "Was not ready when promised:" "Customer thought was still under warranty, was told was not:" "Squeaks more than before: windshield wiper does not work:" "Estimates were not correct:" "Work was sloppy; still has scratches, dark spots;" "Still idling rough, will be back in."
The Koons management goes out of its way to maintain a good service image, and claims that its complaint ratio is lower than at most other dealerships. In random interviews many customers said they thought Koons service was good, and some said they went out of their way to go there after bad experiences at other dealerships.
"Not everyone agreed. "I brought my car to Koons because I was disgusted with another dealer," said Larry Schechtel, "but Koons is not different. You have to go back and back. They eventually make it good, but the time, that's not taken into consideration." Used Cars
Bright, late-model used cars are lined up around the used car shed at Koons Ford.
"This is the key to the dealership's success," said West. "This is where Mr. Koons' money is tied up." With $200,000 in used cars sitting on the lot, rapid turnover is imperative. The average used car at Koons sells for $3,000. West said. The average price that Koons pays for a used car in a trade-in was not disclosed.
If a used car doesn't move in 30 days, West said, it is sold to "wholesalers" located chiefly in the South. He said that these businessmen then sell the cars at cost, about $500. to individuals who in addition pay $10 a month until the car breaks down permanently. West described this system as an old southern tradition helpful to persons without credit.
"A used car salesman is a unique breed of individual." said West. "More of your better-paid salesmen are in used cars. There's more profit to be made in a used car than in a new car."
Gordon agreed. "If I wanted to make a lot of money I'd sell used cars. But how can you stand and tell a guy it's the best car in the world and you don't know nothing about it?" The Windup
By evening, the last customers have picked up their cars from the service side and the mechanics are on their way home. Everything but the showroom was closed. There the pace quickened and by 9 or 10 p.m. it was a madhouse.
The typists were overworked and a long line of car buyers formed, waiting for their paperwork.
"I'll never buy another car from Koons!" shouted Charles E. Hoffman, enraged at having to wait after buying a Mustang for his son. "You buy a car and have to wait an hour and a half just for the paperwork! I sell million-dollar lines and don't go through this kind of stuff! . . . If I could get my down payment back I'd go some where else and pay $100 more.!"
West got into the act, racing from office to office, admonishing his boss, "Your problem, Jimmy, is you don't have anyone here tonight to write these up!"
Special arrangements were made to take Hoffman to the used car shed where someone could type his papers.
Other customers sat quietly.
Steve DeLaMater was happy. He had bought a beautiful Mustang with the new "T-Top" convertible configuration, the first such car that Koons had sold and probably, West said, the first one on the East Coast.
"I resisted getting a new car for years," said DeLaMater, "but just fell in love with this one."
Salesman Tepper said DeLaMater paid dearly for his whim - the full sticker price. "It should be like that for a car like that," he said.
By 10 p.m. most salesmen were gathered in a back office around the big blackboard where sales were chalked up, waiting for the final tally. Others rushed in to have West approve financing for a last customer, then rushed out again.
"Sixteen cars, 15 fleet, three trucks and I don't know how many used cars," announced new car sales manager Frank Detorie. "That's a fair day."
"An unutual trend on the board today," Bufford, the Ford man, noticed. "Fourteen out of the 16 are small cars. No intermediates. It just strikes me funny. You'd think there'd be at least one T-Bird being as the car's so hot and they got two of 'em sitting on the showroom floor."
Jimmy rushed in just in time to hear this.
"Yesterday we had five small cars out of 17," he exclaimed, slapping someone on the shoulder. "We don't care, long as they buy!"
By 10:20 the showroom was clear. West turned out the lights.