BY ROB SMENTEKFor close to four decades, Bill Cunningham has been at the forefront of the luxury ground transportation industry. As vice president/general manager of Acton/SoCal Penske, one of the largest dealers for the limousine and livery market based on both coasts, Cunningham’s sales acumen, foresight, and close relationships with the OEMs have quietly influenced the shape of fleets across the country. After all, he’s built longtime friendships with hundreds of operators nationwide over the years by listening to their needs, considering their budgets, and thinking outside the box to deliver. Whether it’s stretch limousines, luxury sedans, or versatile SUVs, he and the Acton/SoCal Penske team have played a key role in introducing popular workhorse luxury vehicles into the industry.
Now, faced with supply chain issues and a vehicle shortage in a hungry marketplace, Cunningham is once again thinking outside the box by spearheading a new partnership to bring another SUV to operators. He’s working closely with Chrysler Small Business Sales Specialist Ted Leppzer to develop a fleet program that would introduce the Wagoneer to the luxury market.
It’s no secret that fleet vehicles are hard to come by with waiting lists stretching six months or more for delivery—if they are delivered at all.
“Customers will call and ask, ‘Hey, what’s the big deal? There’s only a couple of chips in the transmitters.’ You have to understand that the Lincoln Aviator, for example, has over 100 chips in it. The more gadgets in the car, the more electronics, the more it requires. But it’s not just semi-conductor chips—it’s rubber for tires, it’s wiring harnesses that are coming from overseas. There are a lot of supply chain issues ... there are many, many parts that go into building a car and they’re sourced out all over the world.”
Dealing with the industrywide crisis, Cunningham realized that something had to be done if operators were to have new model year vehicles on the road—or any vehicles, as many sold portions of their idle fleets during the slowdown. So, in 2021, Acton approached Stellantis, the parent company behind the Wagoneer, about introducing a fleet program with a vehicle that could be an alternative to the industry favorites Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator.
“I thought, rather than tell the customer that they can’t get a vehicle, let’s give them some options,” says Cunningham. “I don’t ever want to say I don’t have something for you. I’d rather say, ‘what about ... ?’ or ‘would you consider this ... ?’”
Cunningham believes that the Wagoneer is a worthy option for operators looking to add larger SUVs to the fleet. Gone is the boxy profile and wood paneling that dominated the third-generation Wagoneer that ended its reign in the mid-’90s; it’s now a fully reimagined, premium luxury SUV.
“We think the Wagoneer is unbelievable,” he says. “Not only is it a good-looking vehicle, but the first time I sat in it, I said: ‘Man, this drives like an Escalade.’ Stellantis is currently working with us to come out with national fleet incentives, which allow us to sell the standard-length version for $60,000. We think there’s a lot of opportunity for this vehicle.”
“We’re really excited about the Wagoneer,” adds Cunningham.
And the Acton team believes that operators have a lot to be enthusiastic about, as well. In addition to the smooth ride and attractive price point that Cunningham mentioned, the Series 1 Wagoneer comes standard with leather in its three rows of seating. Furthermore, the leg and headroom are ample and comfortable for even larger passengers. Later this year, the company will debut the L version with a 7-inch increase to the wheelbase and a 5-inch increase in the rear overhang, which means even more room for cargo.
Recently, the Wagoneer garnered some positive feedback from operators when Leppzer and Acton/SoCal Penske Fleet Sales Manager Bob Moody demonstrated the vehicle at a New England Livery Association (NELA) meeting.
“We had a handful of customers say they loved the vehicle. They thought it was a beautiful car,” says Cunningham. “Ted went to that NELA meeting and came back very excited. He said, ‘Man, that was the best thing you ever suggested.’”
Similarly, Cunningham offered a preview of the Wagoneer to one of his oldest and dearest customers, Commonwealth Worldwide Founder Dawson Rutter, who has been buying from Cunningham for 30 years.
“I met him a few months ago for lunch and I brought a Wagoneer. I asked him, ‘What do you think of this?’ He climbed inside and said it’s a nice car.”
While, yes, having an attractive and reliable vehicle is important to luxury ground transportation operators, equally valuable is an OEM fleet program that has your back. Cunningham is confident that Stellantis are in whole hog.
“Ted Leppzer is the backbone of this. He’s the link between us and National Sales Manager Justin Lambden, who previously worked with the Acton team when we introduced the Chrysler 300 into the industry. They have an understanding of how this stuff works. Ted is really motivated. He’s digging in and wants to see this launch. He and Justin have been driving this program with us. If there’s a problem with the vehicle and it’s got 100K miles on it, Ted’s going to be the guy to help us solve it so the customer is up and running. So, I’m excited for that, as opposed to just launching a new vehicle. This will be another great option that my East Coast/West Coast team can present to the customer.”
“I thought, rather than tell the customer that they can’t get a vehicle, let’s give them some options.” – Bill Cunningham of Acton/SoCal PenskeWith the addition of the Wagoneer onto its menu, Cunningham jokes that Acton/SoCal Penske is turning into the “Baskin-Robbins of the fleet world.” Currently, the company offers an immense product line that includes vehicles from Ford, Lincoln, Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, GMC, Cadillac, and Chevrolet. And with headquarters in the Boston and Los Angeles metro areas, the company can provide their high-level of service to clients across the country.
“It’s a big advantage to be on both the West Coast and East Coast,” says Cunningham. “If you call us from Colorado, for instance, we’ll pull the car from our California inventory, which ultimately saves you money in shipping. We can balance our inventory so we’re able to get the quickest response to a customer and get it there at the lowest possible price.”
Helping luxury transportation operators is key to the Acton/SoCal Penske team. Whether it’s ensuring that customers don’t pay a penny over MSRP or working with an OEM to get a warranty repair, the company is determined to make sure their lines are always open.
“We are all about long-term relationships, which means you have to do it right for the customer. They have to know that you’re looking out for their best interest. And most importantly, they have to trust you. We will go out of our way to help people with problems. We take phone calls at 9:00 or 10:00 at night. We give all our customers our cellphone number and email, and we get back to people. We don’t ever want to sell a car to a customer once,” says Cunningham.
The Acton/SoCal Penske team is composed of industry veterans, who Cunningham is quick to credit for the success and trailblazing foresight of the company.
“Coleman Hoyt, the president of our company—I’ve been working with Coleman 33 years—is the best. Here’s a gentleman who, within a year of buying the company, had knucklehead me saying ‘I want to sell limos.’ When that didn’t pan out, I convinced him to let me order chassis by the hundreds and drop-ship them all over the country. He let me run with the ball,” says Cunningham.
“Bob Moody has been with me for close to 30 years, and all he does is eat, sleep, and drink limo/livery. He’s a great guy and a hard worker who’s always available to customers. A few weeks ago, he was supposed to take a vacation, but we are so busy that he’s been here every single day. He had so many units in play that he wanted to be there for his customers. That’s the level of commitment we have,” says Cunningham.
When Acton Fleet Sales—a Chrysler/Ford-Lincoln dealer—partnered with the late Phil Hartz’s team at SoCal Penske in 2011 (to become Acton/SoCal Penske), the dealership gained sales experts familiar with the General Motors side of things.
“General Manager/Fleet Operations Greg Maddock is an absolute Cadillac genius. I can’t say enough about him. He has a great following—people buy cars from him and they love him. We also have Jesus Benitez in California, a young man who Greg mentored. He does a phenomenal job. He’s learned quickly how to work the banks and get deals approved for our customers,” adds Cunningham.
As we enter a future where we’re swapping fossil fuels for batteries and gas stations for fast chargers, you can bet that Cunningham and Acton/SoCal Penske—and some of their customers—are prepared for that inevitable transition. Some states, such as California and now Washington, are phasing out the sale of gas-only vehicles in the next dozen years.
“General Motors is coming out with the Cadillac LYRIQ sedan, which is a gorgeous, gorgeous car. I had the opportunity to climb in it in Phoenix at the GM Fleet Meeting. It’s beautiful and priced in the $50s. I think we’re going that way—combustion engines are going away—but ultimately [the success of electric cars] lies in the infrastructure. There are some livery companies that are already investing in the chargers; they see the writing on the wall. They want to be part of the green Initiative and reduce their carbon footprint. They’re already moving toward that. The industry always adapts because they’re smart businesspeople.”
With an understanding that we may be a year—maybe two—away from OEMs and dealerships being able to ship product on demand, Cunningham says that they will continue to work tirelessly to introduce solutions to customers looking to add vehicles to their fleet.
“We’re looking at every possible way to bring product in and make it available for our customers. We’re trying to do the very best we can with what’s out there. We’re trying to find new things, like the Wagoneer, that we can present to operators as another option. We’ll continue to do that. I think we’ve proved we’re not going anywhere.” [CD0922]