SINCE THE EARLY ’90s, ACTON FLEET SALES (AFS) has been known as the largest provider of Lincoln Town Car chassis for coachbuilders as well as for always carrying an extensive inventory of livery vehicles. Bill Cunningham, general manager of Acton Fleet Sales, and Coleman Hoyt, owner of the former Acton Lincoln Mercury, built a solid reputation over two decades through honesty, integrity, and overall industry support.
In 2011, Cunningham and Hoyt were presented with a series of unique challenges: The legacy Lincoln Town Car was entering its final months of production, the Mercury brand had been discontinued, and Ford was considering terminating the Acton (Mass.) Lincoln dealership to consolidate its national sales footprint (despite the fact that Acton had sold more Town Cars to fleet buyers than any other dealer in the country, according to Hoyt.)
Hoyt decided to surrender his Lincoln franchise and revise his retail dealership to carry Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and RAM. This was a game-changing moment for operators who had relied on Acton Lincoln Mercury and AFS for a consistent supply of commercial fleet vehicles. The field for the Town Car replacement was wide open, and this gave AFS the opportunity to expand its offerings beyond Lincoln. In 2012 with approval from Ford Motor Company, AFS formed a relationship with Sentry Auto Group of Boston to continue to offering Lincoln products, according to Hoyt. Chrysler’s commercial fleet department took notice of Acton’s national presence soon thereafter and sought Acton’s advice in developing a Chrysler 300 livery sedan. That same year, the AFS brand expansion included a new partnership with SoCal Penske Professional Vehicles (SCP) in Cerritos, California, a subsidiary of the SoCal Penkse Auto Group that is owned and managed by Philip Hartz, president. Hartz is a veteran employee of both Ford and GM, and a longtime friend and business colleague of Hoyt.
Establishing a cooperative relationship on two coasts meant access for both organizations to more inventory and a variety of brands. The Penske family of dealerships is the second largest in the nation. Rounding out the team is Greg Maddock, formerly of Lockhart Cadillac in Indianapolis, who joined the California operations with Hartz in late 2012. Maddock also has many years of experience on the GM fleet side.
“Phil Hartz runs a class-act operation where it’s all about the customer,” says Cunningham. “Phil and Coleman have a very similar philosophy: without the customer, a dealership is nothing. Both surround themselves with good people—long-term, quality people—who have an interest in their clients, and who go out of their way to make sure that customers are satisfied long after the sale.”
Cunningham says that working with SCP allows both he and his team (which includes Fleet Specialist Bob Moody) to serve their customers anywhere in the country, and gives them access to thousands of vehicles from domestic and foreign builders like Mercedes-Benz. Penske even has a Sprinter dealership.
Having inventory on the ground for immediate delivery has been a consistent trademark of AFS. “We’ve never been the type of dealer that says, ‘Hey, we can get it for you in 6 to 8 weeks.’ We know how the industry works. If they need it tomorrow, we can usually get it to them by tomorrow. We know that operators don’t have a lot of time to wait,” says Cunningham.
However, one thing that their fleet customers are waiting to do, is to settle the decision on what will become the industry’s next leading sedan. Cunningham says that there’s interest in many different vehicles now, so he makes it a point to feature all of the best ones, especially when exhibiting at trade shows around the country. “We bring a variety of vehicles to the shows because we want customers to be able to sit in each and test how they feel,” says Cunningham. “We all wish they were still building the old Town Car, but we need to accept the fact that the large cars are gone and move forward with what’s available now. The government is requiring that vehicles are lighter and more fuel efficient, but there are options for every service. It’s my role—our role—to act as an advisor to our customers so that they are happy with their final decision.”
Lincoln, GM, and Chrysler have all stepped up to offer extended warranties to the industry, something Cunningham says his customers always ask about. But this also presents another problem in educating customers about available fleet vehicles versus retail vehicles.
“Some Chrysler dealers are misleading livery operators by selling them retail vehicles instead of the fleet version, which include incentives like an extended warranty. Operators get fooled into thinking that they are getting a 4-year/150,000-mile warranty, when they are not.”
While no one car is emerging as a frontrunner, the AFS /SCP team has been listening carefully to customers’ complaints about leg room—one of the things that operators miss the most about the Executive L Town Car. The MKT has the best leg room of all of the ‘sedan’ options currently available, but sales so far have been tepid.
Says Cunningham, “I think that Ford may have taken a little too long to introduce the commercial livery MKS sedan after the MKT crossover was introduced, and we all saw operators offer some initial resistance. The MKT Town Car livery package is an outstanding, robust choice, but its non-sedan exterior design caused operators to ponder other brands. Once you get yourself in the backseat, the MKT is fantastic for our industry, but tastes have changed and the industry seems to really prefer a sedan. Craig Hall, Ford’s Limo Livery manager, is doing a tremendous job getting Lincoln re-launched in the industry. GM and Chrysler are aggressively stepping up. It’s one of the reasons why GM is doing so well right now—it has a very solid, attractive car in the Cadillac XTS. Its appearance says luxury, and it’s probably the one vehicle out of the domestic offerings that is a true luxury sedan available to the industry. More importantly, both Chrysler and GM are out here in the marketplace visiting and listening to customers, which is exactly what we continue to do at Acton and SoCal Penske as well.”
In early 2013, AFS/SCP announced that it would be working with Specialty Vehicle Group (SVG), a CMC-approved builder and parent company to Federal Coach and Eagle Coach. Adhering to the strict CMC and GM guidelines, SVG produced the first long version of the XTS that gives the critical extra leg room to the rear seat passenger for comfort.
“I have people calling me who have never seen or sat in the XTS-L before, and they are asking to order it just because they had a buddy who said that he liked it and saw it at a trade show. The traction it’s getting is just amazing. We can’t build them fast enough, and we have to limit the production to about 10 cars per month to sustain quality,” says Cunningham. “Music Express and the Federal Government have expressed interest in the vehicle. The XTS-L has an additional inch of leg room over the classic Lincoln Town Car Executive L Series.”
AFS/SCP also saw the need for a stretched Chrysler 300 for the same reason. Since Chrysler does not have a coachbuilder certification program, Cunningham says AFS went directly to an engineering firm for the conversion. They selected Michigan-based Livernois Engineering, a tier-one supplier for GM, Chrysler, and Ford. The Livernois staff has intimate knowledge of how the vehicle is built. AFS/SCP is working with Chrysler in mid-2013 to crash test the vehicle and ensure that it is meets FMVSS certifications. “We’re only going to sell something that is certified, just like our Cadillac XTS-L is approved by Cadillac. It’s an expensive process—we have to ‘sacrifice’ a number of vehicles to get banged up during the testing—but Chrysler and AFS/SCP are willing to make commitments like that.”
Both extended vehicles use OEM parts and, more importantly, do not use extended aftermarket doors. Cunningham says he talked to numerous operators about their wants and desires in an extended vehicle, and this point came up frequently.
“The reason is simple: cars fit together like a puzzle. Over time, customers lean on the doors, which can cause the door assembly to fall out of exact alignment, which introduces wind noise and water damage. Chauffeurs start having to slam the door shut. We knew that the factory door was the way to go. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t sell a car that only looked good on the first day, but six months, a year, or three years later.” As an additional benefit, OEM parts are immediately available if the vehicle is ever involved in an accident—versus a special-order aftermarket door—which translates to less operator downtime.
The products may have changed, but Cunningham says that their advocacy for the customer is unwavering long after the sale. Customers generally have to rely on local dealers—who don’t understand that time off the road costs operators money—for service. “If their local dealer can’t figure it out, or if they need to get a part, we always tell our customers to call us. We have access to the manufacturers, and we can get someone over there right away to get this solved—not tomorrow, not next week. That’s what we’re here for. We’re still in the infancy of our partnership with SCP, but Penske has hundreds of dealers across the country, and our ultimate goal is for all Penske dealers to be set up to assist our customers.”
Vehicles are also much more sophisticated than they were in the past. Between the intricate dashboards and all of the onboard telematics and electronics, it takes patience to learn what each vehicle can do. “My salespeople often have to take an hour and a half just to explain how to use these modern cars. We went from kind of a basic dinosaur vehicle with the old Town Car to having something as complicated as the space shuttle,” jokes Cunningham.
The union of AFS and SCP has produced one of the largest one-stop shops for chauffeured ground transportation, but the guys have not forgotten their roots. Both Maddock and Cunningham have built years of friendships with industry professionals who rely on them for their vehicle needs.
“I have some customers who bought one used vehicle from me 23 years ago who now buy hundreds at a time from AFS,” says Cunningham. “But the call I get the most is from customers who are only looking for one car. They say, ‘I know I’m not as important as the big guys,’ but nothing can be further from the truth.
“All customers are important, and I want them to be proud and satisfied that they purchased from us. We’re here to help them make the right decision, but also to help them after the sale and through the life of the vehicle, and I hope to form a longtime relationship with every operator. As they grow, we want to grow with them.” [CD0513]