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Friday, May 24, 2024

Acton SoCal Penske Cover Art: Part of the Acton SoCal Penske crew (L to R): Fleet Specialist Bob Moody, VP/General Manager Bill Cunningham, Fleet Sales Manager Mark Schelfhaudt, President Coleman Hoyt, and Fleet Specialist Henry Heinlein with a Lincoln Aviator and Volvo S90. Photography by Chris Weiss.

BY SUSAN ROSE

Could fleet dealers specializing in livery sales like Acton SoCal Penske Professional Vehicles be among the silent heroes of the industry?

We’ve come a long way since our fleet metal was largely a binary choice between Lincoln or Cadillac, not the radically diverse portfolio of today—and dealers like Acton SoCal Penske have played a starring role in shaping that lineup over the years by ensuring that our cottage industry continues to have a voice with the OEMs. Without people like VP/General Manager Bill Cunningham, President Coleman Hoyt, and the entire team at the bicoastal operation building relationships with OEMs new to our space and pushing those manufacturers for livery-specific options and warranties, would we have a Volvo or Wagoneer livery program? Without the vital feedback from the hundreds of operators who have trusted Acton over the years, would we have had the Lincoln MKT Town Car or the Chrysler 300 Livery sedan? And now, as the automotive landscape teeters on its biggest paradigm shift yet, how will luxury ground transportation fit into the adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles?

That reciprocal relationship between Acton SoCal Penske, the manufacturers, and operators is infused in their DNA, according to Cunningham: without each other, the circle is broken. Ultimately, he says that they are in the relationship business ... but just happen to sell vehicles as well.

“Coleman kind of groomed us over the last 34 years that if you put the customer first, then everything else will fall in place,” says Cunningham. “We have relationships that go back 30-plus years, and we take great pride in that. We’ve watched a lot of people come and go, but many are still around. We’ve seen a lot of companies transition over to the owner’s children, and we’ve grown with them, too.”

Acton SoCal PenskeL to R: Fleet Specialist Bob Moody, President Coleman Hoyt, VP/General Manager Bill Cunningham, Fleet Sales Manager Mark Schelfhaudt, and Fleet Specialist Henry Heinlein with a Lincoln Aviator Cunningham knew from the beginning that our industry was unlike any other—and that operators couldn’t wait for weeks for their vehicles to get back on the road. Because he and the entire team are always accessible to their customers and continues to act as a conduit between the OEM and the operator, particularly when it comes to those thorny warranty issues, Acton earned its reputation with good old-fashioned hard work and loyalty. You can be assured that if you’re worrying about your out-of-service vehicle, so is the Acton team.

“People don’t understand how important it is to have a relationship with their dealer, someone who will be an advocate for the operator. You can call 50 dealers and try to find the car. But out of those 50 dealers, which one is going to be there at 8:00 at night on a Saturday when you have a serious problem with your car? Or if your car has just gone out of warranty and you have a major component like a transmission or something that has just failed?” says Cunningham.

Acton has also maintained strong bonds with other local dealers like the Sentry Auto Group—owned by another of Hoyt’s longtime friends, Chris Lemley—which is also a critical pipeline of Ford and Lincoln products in addition to the vast SoCal Penske network. They also work with Larry Gordon, who owns the Colonial Auto Group and preps their East Coast Chevrolet products to be shipped across the country, as well as Joel Baker of Baker Durand Cadillac, another resource for GM products.

Acton SoCal PenskeL to R: Former Fleet Specialist Matt Carey, the late Phil Hartz of SoCal Penske, Bob Moody, Bill Cunningham, and Andrew Shoushanian of Versacom Acton SoCal Penske is the serendipitous result of Acton Fleet Sales in Massachusetts and SoCal Penske, one of the nation’s biggest automotive groups based in California, joining forces to become the largest livery fleet dealer network in the nation. The partnership, established in 2011, was between friends and longtime colleagues Hoyt and Phil Hartz of SoCal Penske (Hartz sadly passed away in 2021). Hoyt, who also owned Acton Lincoln Mercury where Acton Fleet Sales was based, was in the process of retiring his dealership after the shutdown of the Mercury brand as well as the demise of the Lincoln Town Car. Such upheaval in the industry was actually a silver lining as they saw an opportunity to expand into new vehicle offerings as well as increase their geographic footprint with a physical presence on the West Coast. The brand’s cachet, thanks to the trustworthy Penske name, carries its own clout.

On the West Coast, it would have been hard for Hartz and the Penske group not to be impressed by what the Acton crew had built in the livery industry. The Acton name was highly regarded throughout the country, and the team was well respected for their years of developing relationships in the niche industry with OEMs and operators alike.

For as much as Acton puts relationships at the forefront of their business, they also foster a family-like environment within their organization, retaining many long-term employees over the years. In addition to Hoyt and Cunningham, Fleet Specialist Bob Moody has been with the company since 1996 and is equally pivotal in their success. More recently, longtime employee Mark Schelfhaudt expressed interest in rejoining the team and is now Acton’s fleet sales manager. Fleet Specialist Henry Heinlein, among the newest additions to the team, is already following in the footsteps of his peers.

Acton SoCal PenskeWith their clients and friends over the years (L to R): Bill Cunningham, Scott Solombrino (former CEO) and Fleet Manager Todd Bertolami of Dav El/BostonCoach, and David Russo and Mark Leddy (formerly) of GM With the merger, the team also attracted the talents of Greg Maddock, who had strong connections on the GM side from his years in commercial sales at Lockhart Cadillac, as well as Reed Amiri, general manager for SoCal Penske’s GM and Cadillac brands. Maddock has also mentored Jesus Benitez, who is his right-hand man on the ground in California (Maddock recently relocated to Tennessee).

Of course, the fact that Hoyt and Hartz shared the same customer-first philosophy is part of the reason why the merger is still flourishing more than a decade later.

“People don’t understand how important it is to have a relationship with their dealer, someone who will be an advocate for the operator.” – Bill Cunningham, VP/General Manager of Acton SoCal Penske

When Acton Fleet Sales launched in the early 1990s, the Town Car was the “it” vehicle, and Acton was moving a ton of them to livery customers. Cadillac was its closest competitor at the time because the manufacturer was among the few that not only expressed a commitment to the industry but also backed their products with a special extended livery warranty.

This was also the high point for limousine builders, and major coachbuilders couldn’t get enough of the Town Car chassis that Acton provided. Both Lincoln and Cadillac had programs that supported coachbuilders to stretch their stunning vehicles into captivating limousines ... until that market lost ground in the late 2000s and early 2010s. By then, the popular Cadillac DeVille had already ceased production, and Ford was getting ready to deal the industry a heartbreaking blow by discontinuing the Town Car, a beloved vehicle that epitomized luxury ground transportation.

“We worked with all the major QVM builders, and it was my job to keep them supplied with cars, because you never wanted them to call and be unable to get a chassis,” says Cunningham about the coachbuilders. “I’d have smaller builders who’d only buy a few dozen all the way up to people like Ed Grech of Krystal [now Grech Motors] who was buying 1,400 a year. It was a fine line to make sure we ordered just enough, but not too many, to smooth out their production lines.”

Acton SoCal PenskeL to R: Henry Heinlein, Mark Schelfhaudt, and Bob Moody with a Cadillac Escalade With the massive shift and consolidation in the automotive world where legacy brands and models disappeared, familiar faces at the OEMs have also changed over the years.

“I’ve worked with some phenomenal partners over the years,” Cunningham says. “George Zigas and Mike Bedard at Ford were legends. Doug Walczak went to bat for the industry when Ford decided that the Town Car was done, and we got a few more years out of it. He understood if a car broke down, or there was a part delay, that it was ultimately costing the operator money, and he assisted the dealers in every possible way he could resolve the problem and, more importantly, keep the customer loyal to the product.” Cunningham also commends the genuine working relationship he had with Walczak’s successor, Craig Hall, and now with Kim Johnston.

“Mark Leddy on the Cadillac side was another great person who we lost to retirement, but then we got Kevin Brewer, who is just fantastic. He’s always in touch with me, and when I need something, he bends over backward. Locally, we work with GM rep David Russo and he’s also phenomenal. They’re just two great guys who work very hard for the dealers and for the customers. Without people like that, we wouldn’t be able to grow or be able to do what’s needed to make sure the customer gets the level of service they deserve.”

It’s well known that Cunningham has been one of the loudest advocates of the Wagoneer L and has been diligently working with Ted Leppzer of Stellantis to bring it to the industry. Cunningham says that the vehicle consistently has a following at the shows and association meetings, especially among those who are hungry for options.

“We were always proactive. Acton has always been that type of dealer, where if there was a new product or program or service procedure or something, we raised our hand to be a part of it. Going back to our Lincoln days, we were always the test store for Ford because we had a great service department run by a terrific service manager, Chris Couture. It was important to us that we had quality technicians serving the vehicles of our customers,” says Cunningham.

Volvo is another brand that is pledging its commitment to the industry. SUVs dominate much of the luxury automotive space, but Volvo is among the few that still offers a sedan option that has both a spacious and feature-rich rear cabin. Nationally, the brand is represented by Jay Tobia.

“Jay is a smart guy. He’s a mover and a shaker; he makes things happen,” says Cunningham. “He’s very interested in seeing Volvo grow this business, and he’s committed to the operators in this industry. So, this is another new and exciting partnership for us, and we couldn’t be happier to have somebody like Jay in our industry.”

The automotive industry stands on another precipice, this time prompted by a global shift in automotive manufacturing and increasingly stricter efficiency standards in the US. Acton was also among the first fleet dealers in the nation to work with Cadillac and EmpireCLS on a pilot program to introduce the all-electric Lyriq to chauffeured transportation. EmpireCLS currently runs dozens of Lyriqs successfully in their Los Angeles location as well as several in their N.J. headquarters, and the results, according to COO Joey Phelps, have been extraordinary for the company and their customers.

“We think the Lyriq is a beautiful car. One thing about General Motors is that the styling cues of their vehicles, in my opinion, are just so sharp. They have a rich look and they’re innovative: You don’t feel like your grandfather designed it,” says Cunningham.

Despite the accelerated timeline put forth by the federal government and several states, Cunningham is keenly aware that widespread industry adoption is going to be hampered by a lack of infrastructure and practical application. In the meantime, Acton SoCal Penske is focused on the immediate needs of operators until the world catches up with the necessary infrastructure—or moves on to another option.   [CD0424]