Would you believe that the top-rated SoCal VW dealer, Ontario Volkswagen, started as a hot rod shop in the sixties in Pasadena, CA? Or how about that Ontario VW’s General Manager, Earl Reed, got his start in the business washing cars?
Yes is the answer to both of those questions. And those humble beginnings help to set this family-run Volkswagen dealership in a class of its own when it comes to accolades from their customers and VW alike.
Hear the historic details of this uniquely ‘only in America’ story in this iDriveSoCal Podcast.
Recorded at Ontario Volkswagen
SoCal’s Top Volkswagen Dealership – Ontario Volkswagen
Earl: He started with a hot rod shop in the city of Pasadena in 1966 called Sticks Unlimited. In June of 2003, we built and opened up this facility, Ontario Volkswagen.
Coming into a car dealership doesn’t have to be an anxiety-filled transaction. We’re really a family-owned and operated business is what we are.
Look at the third-party review sites, look at what Yelp customers are saying about us. And, look at what Google plus customers, Facebook customers, these are all very valid third party websites that offer customer reviews, unsolicited customer reviews. You really have to experience it.
“Coming into a car dealership doesn’t have to be an anxiety-filled transaction. We’re really a family-owned and operated business is what we are.”
Tom: Welcome to iDriveSoCal, the podcast all about mobility from the automotive capital of the United States Southern California.
This is a special episode as we welcome our newest partner from the world of automotive retailing, Ontario Volkswagen.
Ontario Volkswagen, obviously, located in the Los Angeles suburb of Ontario just off the 15. And with me today is Mr. Earl Reed who is the general manager of Ontario Volkswagen, Earl, thank you so much for joining us.
The History Of Ontario Volkswagen
Earl: Well, thank you. We’re really excited to be part of this fast-growing podcast community.
Tom: So we were just talking off mic a little bit about how Ontario Volkswagen became, and it’s a family-owned and operated store, has been for a long time, but it has a pretty rich history in the automotive culture here in Southern California.
So why don’t you take us from the beginning?
Earl: Sure, yeah. Mr. Gary Sherman is the owner of Ontario Volkswagen and Ontario Volvo, and he started with a hot rod shop in the city of Pasadena in 1966 called Sticks Unlimited.
Los Angeles County Roots w/ an Inland Empire Focus
From the growth from Sticks Unlimited, he ended up getting a Fiat Peugeot dealership in the city of Pomona.
And he triumphed during those days of the late 60s and early 70s. Then I think it was 1973, he acquired a Volvo dealership, Volvo and Fiat dealership, in the city of Pomona. It was called Frank White imports. It was down on Holt Boulevard there for many, many years.
“And from the growth from Sticks Unlimited… in 1995, we acquired the Volkswagen franchise here in the city of Ontario…”
From there, Mr. Sherman acquired the Chrysler Plymouth dealership, which was called Montclair Chrysler Plymouth.
The Volvo franchise was moved from the city of Pomona to the city of Montclair under the name of Exclusively Volvo. Opened up in 1986 on Central Avenue, Central and Holt, in Montclair as exclusively Volvo.
And then he added Audi and Porsche in 1991, which was the old George Follmer Porsche and Audi. Then I joined Mr. Sherman in September, August, September of 1992.
And, at that time, it was Exclusively Volvo and Porsche in that same building in Montclair. So he’s been serving the automotive community since 1966 and primarily been in the Inland Empire… since… the late 60s early 70s in the Inland Empire.
So in 1995, we acquired the Volkswagen franchise here in the city of Ontario, and we moved Volvo and Porsche over the Ontario auto center in late 1995, early 1996. We ran it as Exclusively Volvo, Porsche, and Volkswagen.
San Bernardino County Location and a Hot Rod Heritage
And subsequently, in June of 2003, we built and opened up this facility, Ontario Volkswagen, and Ontario Volvo is still over in the original location in the auto center. So what we’re currently managing is a Volvo store and a Volkswagen dealership.
Tom: And going all the way back–rich history–I didn’t want to interrupt you. But the hot rod shop, Sticks Unlimited, what is sticks? What did that mean?
“…we built and opened up this facility, Ontario Volkswagen, and Ontario Volvo is still over in the original location in the auto center… we’re currently managing is a Volvo store and a Volkswagen dealership.”
Earl: Manual transmission.
Tom: Okay, that’s what I thought…
Earl: …type stuff was what he was selling.
Tom: Sure. And hot rods really got their start here in Southern California.
Earl: Yes, they were very, very popular. You know, the Beach Boys scene and hot rods. That was right here in Southern California.
Tom: I’m so happy nobody got to the iDriveSoCal concept before I did because this is just so much fun for me to hear the history.
Earl: It’s fun talking to a gentleman like Mr. Sherman who’s you know an entrepreneur, right? All of a sudden, he decided, “I’m going to get in the car business,” and starts with one car up and built it into where it is today.
Tom: Yeah. And let his passion become his livelihood.
Tom: So, that’s the history of the store. Now the history of you personally. You have a pretty interesting path to the position that you hold now.
Only in America – The Story of Ontario Volkswagen
Earl: I do, yeah. I’d love to talk about this story because I refer to it as “only in America”. You could write that book about what was my journey to get where I am today.
And I started in 1975 right out of high school washing cars at the Chevrolet dealership in Riverside, California. It was called Dante Chevrolet.
And, I knew I wasn’t going to go the path scholastically, going to college after high school. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.
“I refer to it as “only in America”. You could write that book about what was my journey to get where I am today.”
And my father had told me, “If you’re going to get into the workforce, you need to select a field that no matter what happens in this world, you’re going to be able to utilize those skills.”
That’s how transportation came to mind.
So I applied for a job out of the newspaper. I was only 17 years old at that point. I hadn’t even turned 18 yet. And they hired me to wash cars at Dante Chevrolet, and I did that for one full year – and grinded it out. I got some cute stories about that I think I’m going to share it real quick.
Tom Smith: Please.
A Slight of Hand Raise!
Earl: When I turned 18 years old, which is about 60 days after I had started there, my supervisor’s name was Jerry Blandino, called me in his office and told me what a great job I was doing and wanted to give me a raise to acknowledge the great work I had done.
“And I suddenly found out, after the fact, that he had to give me raise on my birthday. I turned 18 and the minimum wage requirements changed.”
And I suddenly found out, after the fact, that he had to give me raise on my birthday. I turned 18 and the minimum wage requirements changed. So I think it was a $1.80 an hour I was making. And, he did a great sales job needless to say. So that’s one of those things you’ll always remember.
Tom: Sure, nice positioning.
Earl: So I did that for about a year and I had some older gentlemen that had some real impacts on my life and one of them was a service dispatcher at this very, very large Chevrolet dealership in Riverside. In my lunch hour, I used to go sit in his office with them and watch how he dispatched service repair orders to technicians in the shop. I said, “I can do that.”.
Working Through the Service Ranks
And so I kind of used that on the job training, off the clock, of course, on the job training. I applied for a service dispatcher job at a Toyota dealership in Riverside called Joe Redford’s Toyota Riverside. There I was all of 18 years old, soon to turn 19 years old, and I go apply for this position.
So, I put on my application that I’m a car washer and they wonder, “Why do you think you could do this service dispatcher job?” And I said, “I can do it. Give me a shot. Give me 30 days and I’ll prove I can do it.”
Al Christy hired me for that particular job and ended up proving myself in that role, and he kind of took me under his wing a little bit, Al did. And the other gentleman named Dick Jennings and they taught me to become a service adviser. Next thing you know, I was a service rider at a Toyota Riverside.
I did that until 1979, and then there was an ad in the paper for a service manager at Volvo of Riverside owned by Mr. Rick Fritz at the time. And I think I was all of 20 years old now.
“I can do it. Give me a shot. Give me 30 days and I’ll prove I can do it.”
But I knew that I could just about do anything, and I went and applied as a service manager, convinced him to hire me at 20, soon to be 21 years old, which he did. And didn’t make any money, but he taught me the business, and I worked service for many, many years.
Time to Learn Sales – Differently
And then one day he said, “You know, I can make you a sales manager, but you gotta go over and sell cars for a couple of years.” I had to sell cars for Mr. Fritz Volvo of Riverside as well as be the service director.
“You know, a lot of that had to do with what I experienced going back to 1975 and how I saw consumers treated by the car business, and I just didn’t like what I saw.”
Ultimately, I became a sales manager, which moved me to become a general manager of that store in 1988, which I did.
And then I hooked up with Mr. Sherman in 1992, became a minority partner with him, Exclusively Volvo and Porsche, and here we are years later.
So only in America.
Tom: And congratulations on all your success. I mean, obviously, you were recognized as someone that was worthy of various peoples’ investment of time and energy, and you didn’t let them down, certainly, didn’t let yourself down.
Earl: You know, a lot of that had to do with what I experienced going back to 1975 and how I saw consumers treated by the car business, and I just didn’t like what I saw. I just didn’t really feel you needed to run a business that way.
And I’ve always kind of adopted that. That you treat people the way you want to be treated. And so that had a big impact on how we run our store today. I just think that it’s not necessary to treat consumers that way. We respect them. And it pays off in the long term, and it has for us.
Service is Everything at Ontario Volkswagen
Tom: And we talked about that a little bit off-mic, the perspective of you know a lot of people come up to the car business in different ways.
But you, having come from the service side–and spent some considerable time on the service side before going into sales–and now you know being, ultimately, responsible for the operation the entire enterprise, that’s a big difference.
“My grandfather said… if you can greet every customer with their last name, make them feel warm and welcome, they’ll remember you and they’ll want to do business with you.”
I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of other professionals that have taken that path.
How do you feel that impacts the philosophy here, what customers coming to the store experience and kind of just a big-picture view of that?
Service Focus Started Long Ago
Earl: Well, I definitely think it’s unique because, typically, general managers come up through the sales environment.
Coming up through the back end, fixed operations, parts and service, different perspectives completely. So again, some stuff I was told by a wise gentleman when I was much younger.
My grandfather said, “You’re going to get into service. The best thing you need to do is to remember people’s names. Always remember their last name, and if you can greet every customer with their last name, make them feel warm and welcome, they’ll remember you and they’ll want to do business with you.”
So that has a lot to do with how we are today. It’s that purchasing a car, servicing a vehicle, coming into a car dealership doesn’t have to be an anxiety-filled transaction.
And it starts you know even in the service point when a consumer pulls in the driveway. They don’t know where to go.
Differentiation In The Buying Process
They don’t know how they’re going to be approached. Just the whole process is intimidating until you have a relationship with someone at that store that you’re comfortable with.
Then you find the barriers come down, comfort level changes. So I think that the entire field that I’ve learned from the back end of the operation is carried over into my sales portion of how to run the business.
“We’re approachable. We just know there’s no barrier whatsoever. So you know what you see is what you get.
Make consumers feel welcome and friendly and understand the first time in, first few times in, they’re probably apprehensive. Make them feel comfortable.
Tom: It’s a respectable philosophy for sure, and I think, in this day and age when there’s so much information out there. You need to really differentiate.
Members Of The Community
And I could tell a difference the first time I was on your website. Certainly, when I walked in, I could tell a difference. When you and I sat down to talk about working together, I could tell a difference. And how do you articulate that difference to your customers?
Earl: I’m going to answer that very simple. I think the word is approachable. I’m approachable. We are approachable. It’s at the mall, it’s at dinner, it’s at Subway picking up a sandwich at lunch or walking on the showroom floor. We’re approachable. We just know there’s no barrier whatsoever. So you know what you see is what you get.
I think we’re friendly. We’re outgoing. It’s difficult to speak to it, but I’m sure you sensed it when you walked in the first time. We’re really a family-owned and operated business is what we are.
The Approach Is Different at Ontario Volkswagen
Tom: And that’s a big thing in automotive retail, and it’s becoming a bigger thing in automotive retail, isn’t it?
Earl: It is. When I started in the business, and probably up until as much as five years ago, probably, the way we were training sales staff members was that when consumers come in to purchase a vehicle, they are very uncomfortable doing it because they do it once every three, four, five years. You do it every day.
“…you need more consultative in your approach, so being approachable…”
Well, that’s not the same approach any longer because there’s so much information available today online that consumers are coming in more informed, in some cases, than the sales staff is.
They actually know more information.
Consultation Is Key At Ontario VW
So you need more consultative in your approach, so being approachable makes that whole process I think just takes barrier walls down quicker. Knowing that you need to answer questions truthfully, straightforward, give them the answers they’re looking for because they want to do business with somebody they can trust.
“…answer questions truthfully, straightforward, give them the answers they’re looking for because they want to do business with somebody they can trust.”
Tom: A little bit about the brand of Volkswagen.
It’s iconic, it’s cult-like, it’s fahrvergnügen. And when fahrvergnügen first came out and some people put on their Volkswagens the slang for that, “something groovin'”. Which all of it made me chuckle.
You know it’s just one of those brands that kind of like, huh. I mean all the way back from the Beetle, right? That was the first Volkswagen on the streets here in the United States. What’s your take on the brand that is Volkswagen, where it’s come from, where it is now?
On the VW Brand-wagon – Ontario Volkswagen
Earl: Well, obviously, they’re working very, very hard to be more than a niche player in the automotive business in the United States.
They made a real commitment to this market when they built the plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee to produce the Passat model in 2011.
“They made a real commitment to this market when they built the plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee to produce the Passat model in 2011.”
At that particular time, our industry was not where it is today as it relates to SUV.
It was more of a sedan market, so for Volkswagen to make that type of investment to want to build that car here in the United States for the American people, not to ship out but to have here, was a big deal.
Now subsequently, obviously, the market’s changed and sedans don’t play as a big a role.
Volkswagens SUV Push – Atlas, Atlas Cross Sport & Tiguan
People are buying three different types of SUVs, large, medium and small size SUVs. So Volkswagen’s addressed that with their model lineup and the new seven-seater Atlas, which is less than a year in the market, seven-seater Tiguan, which is less than the year in the market.
“…building this MQB platform where they’re able to have a scalable one size platform for all these models is a really big deal.”
So they’ve really you know, obviously, recognized that there’s a shift in the market, so that wouldn’t have happened prior to Chattanooga.
Earl: That just wouldn’t have happened. Just wouldn’t have been able to probably do a cost-effective, develop a brand new platform.
So building this MQB platform where they’re able to have a scalable one size platform for all these models is a really big deal.
So that’s it. We have the new Jetta coming out in April this year which is also that’s a segment that’s not as large, but it’s still very important for Volkswagen. People know us as Jetta a car company.
Serving VW’s Cult-Like Following
Tom: Being from the Midwest, I mean the Jetta was a big…that had like a following like a subset following of all Volkswagen. Sorry to interrupt you but…
Earl: You know what, it was true because that’s really the case. You know, I mean the Jetta, still, to this day, has a great following even though that segment is shrinking.
There will be adjustments in manufacturing to account for that, but it’s still very important.
It’s kind of like that brand icon force is what it is. We’re really excited for that new car coming out by mid-year, and I think it will help Volkswagen reestablish a foothold in that segment.
Tom: So we touched on this a little bit. The L.A. Coliseum. A few moments to share with 100,000 of your closest new friends and potential customers. What do you share with them?
Earl: To hand me a mic. I’d have no problem talking to them.
Tom: I can tell.
The Ontario Volkswagen Difference
Earl: Going back to that one word, approachable, which just very, very open in how we do business. And I think you have to try to…sense it. I can talk about it all day long.
Tom: Sure. You have to come in…
“…there are all sorts of things that can validate what I’m telling you, but you really have to experience it to understand what I’m trying to explain.”
Earl: You really need to kind of a look at what…look at the third-party review sites.
Look at what Yelp customers are saying about us, look at what Google plus customers, Facebook customers, these are all very valid third party websites that offer customer reviews, unsolicited customer reviews.
I mean if you can look at the fact that we’ve won the Volkswagen Customer First Club award four years in a row.
I can’t mention another California dealer that has won that award four years in a row. That’s a report card from the customers who are doing business with both sales and service, and we all know it’s much more difficult to get a good score in the service department.
It’s much more difficult. The fact is that we’ve been able to secure these higher ratings through these third-party websites is a validation of what I’m speaking to today. We were just recognized as the California Volkswagen Dealer of the Year by DealerRater.
So there are all sorts of things that can validate what I’m telling you, but you really have to experience it to understand what I’m trying to explain.
Tom: Come on in.
Ontario VW – Be Their Guest
Earl: Come on in.
Tom: Is there anything that you’d like to touch on that we haven’t?
Earl: No, I’m really happy to be part of this iDriveSoCal podcast. I’m looking forward to the relationship growing, so come on by and say hello and introduce yourself to us. I think you’ll find that we have something to offer.
Tom: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Ontario Volkswagen, Earl Reed, we very much appreciate you being part of our program, and welcome to our family. And we look forward to helping to intertwine our family with your family and help bring news of the Volkswagen brand to Southern California for many years to come.
“…come on by and say hello and introduce yourself to us. I think you’ll find that we have something to offer.”
Earl: Stay tuned.
Tom: Stay tuned. For iDriveSoCal, I’m Tom Smith. Thanks for listening.