polo ralph lauren custom fit Dealer uses her fashion sense to drive sales
Growing up in suburban Detroit, dealer Katie Bowman Coleman lived too far from her dad’s rural dealership to work summers there. Instead she sold clothes, which interested her far more than cars anyway.
“I watched my dad go through a lot of hard knocks in the car business,” said Coleman, now president of Bowman Chevrolet in Clarkston, Mich. “That was influential to making me think, “I am not sure I want to go into that business.’
So Coleman pursued a fashion career that led her to New York and Australia. But in 1993, when she returned to her roots in auto retailing, she applied lessons from the fashion world to the car business. For example, she display ed cars the same way that she ar ranged shirts in a store and promoted online retailing before it became a trend in autos. Her skills have helped turn her father’s store into one of the fastest growing Chevrolet dealerships in Michigan in new vehicle sales.
“I have a passion for customer service. It is something that crosses industries, from clothing to [auto] retail,” said Coleman, 53. “I also have a passion for people and I believe that how you treat your employees, treat your customers and the attention to detail all matter, no matter what job you’re doing.”
Coleman’s late father, John Bowman, established Bowman Chevrolet in 1984. It is about 40 miles northwest of Detroit nestled among inland lakes in a village of about 1,000 people. The dealership employs 130 and it sold about 2,800 new vehicles and 1,200 used vehicles last year, said Coleman, who became president of the dealership in 2011.
That’s up from about 2,100 new vehicles in 2015 and 1,500 new vehicles in 2014, representing a 37 percent gain each of the last two years. That makes the dealership the second fastest growing Chevrolet store in Michigan since 2014, said a Chevrolet spokesman.
Coleman graduated from Denison University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in speech communications and quickly landed a sales job in Jackson Hole, Wyo., with Ralph Lauren Corp. After a year there, she was promoted to a buyer’s job in New York City. Three years later, she moved to Sydney, Australia, where her duties included bringing licensed Polo/Ralph Lauren clothing to that country.
By 1991, though, she was homesick. She returned to Michigan as the women’s retail buyer for a franchised Polo/Ralph Lauren store in suburban Detroit. But her fashion career there was limited,
so in 1993 her father suggested she work for his dealership.
“It took me a couple of months working there and I was absolutely in love,” she recalls.
Coleman learned the business by doing every job at the dealership during her first 10 years there. She answered phones, drove a parts truck and cleaned the bathrooms. But she also started applying her fashion know how.
“One of the things my dad wasn’t so excited about, but he let me do it was I layered the cars on our front displays with colors like I did when I stocked Ralph Lauren shirts,” Coleman said. “It creates a visual aspect.” On the Fourth of July, for example, she often arranges the vehicles in patterns of red, white and blue to attract attention of passers by.
She became vice president in 2003, and five years later guided a dealership renovation. “That clean, aesthetic look is something I could bring from Ralph Lauren,” she said.
She also has brought in some of the clothing company’s creative perks to boost employees’ morale.
“The car industry can get very staid in the day to day business,” Coleman said. “Sometimes I give people a surprise day off. It’s not the money you’re giving them, but it’s something they’re excited about.”
There are “mystery trips” in which Coleman takes some managers to a mall, gives them money to shop and then buys them dinner. In addition, “Ralph Lauren would stock the office refrigerator with breakfast food,” Coleman said. “I make sure my employees are fed and given snacks.”
Her employees’ tenure ranges from 10 to 30 years. Those happy employees treat customers well, Coleman said. That drives sales.
She also credits strong sales to early adoption of the Internet.
“I got us into the Internet in the late 1990s,” Coleman said. “People thought I was crazy. It was very unusual to have a dealership website at that time and I had to convince my dad that we needed it.”
But Coleman liked to shop online and she believed others would, too. She was right. “I became the highest closing Internet dealer in the state early on and I’ve held that status for 10 years.” About one third of Coleman’s monthly vehicle sales originate through Internet leads, she said.
Coleman strives to give her female employees the same chances she has had. She offers flexible schedules for women while their children are young. She encourages them to become full time and grow into management as their children age. She also does personal mentoring.
Rhonda Jensen, 53, joined Bowman Chevrolet in 1988 as a car biller. In 2013, she became general manager.
“When Katie came to the dealership, she was good with numbers, so she worked with me and I understood the numbers of the whole store,” Jensen said. “She and her dad have similar personalities in that they care so much about their employees.”
Similarly, Judy Simpson, 53, joined Bowman in 1998 as a warranty administrator, cashier and rental clerk. Today, she is the service manager.
“Rhonda and Katie are why I am where I’m at,” Simpson said. “Every day they would answer questions for me.”
For Coleman, success rests on a lesson common to both fashion and auto retailing: “It really comes down to the people and understanding the customer comes first.”
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