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Earning Respect and Reputation: Great Lakes Auto Group

Joey Huang’s father was a doctor as is his three siblings, and he was also expected to have a medical career. And, he did — well sort of. Huang actually is a dentist. He’s a graduate of Ohio University College of Dentistry but his future took a left turn when a summer job sparked an interest in selling used cars. Today, his Great Lakes Auto Network owns six dealerships in Ashtabula, and other areas around northern Ohio, and he is a strong presence not only with his manufacturers but with the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers (NAMAD). Last year he sold 7,500 vehicles and employs about 300.

“My father is Chinese and my mother Korean. They expected that I would go into the medical field and educated me that way. I had four years of high school boarding school and then I went to Ohio State and then dental school,” he says. “Do I feel guilty that I didn’t use that education? Sure. But I’m doing something that I love.”

Eventually, his father came around to his son being a used car salesman. “Well, he didn’t care about the money or even the job,” he says. “What my father cared about is being respected in the community. Doctors are respected. So, although I took a different track, I always wanted to make sure that I, my employees and my dealerships were respected in the community. That’s what guides us every day.”

His father also taught him a strong work ethic. His first summer before going to college Huang decided to just hang out. His father thought otherwise. “He got me a job cleaning at a Chinese restaurant for free. He said that since I hadn’t intended on getting a paying job for the summer, I could do this for free. I learned very quickly.”

The next summer job changed his life. He worked at a small neighborhood dealership, Nassief Chevy, and became the salesman of the month. The next summers he repeated his sales success with another dealership. Nassief asked him to be a used car buyer and his success continued. “Well, most of the graduating dentists and half of my professors — including the dean — bought cars from me. It was a great place to sell cars and it gave me the ability to buy and sell used cars on a daily basis. I loved it.

His big break came when a laundromat next to his father’s OBG/YN office was available and Joey rented it as an office and put about 10 to 20 cars next to it and started selling. “That’s the start of it. I became a used car salesman and proud of it.”

Transparency: The Winning Strategy

He says the winning strategy that his used back in the early days is the same today. “It’s the basic grin and a smile. You greet the customer with a firm handshake and make a friend. You greet them at the door and see if they want a bottle of water or coffee. Most of our salesmen never sold cars; they have great personalities.”

And, it goes back to being respected. Huang wants every person in his dealership to be transparent, with the customer and the transaction. He believes that the first three questions customers ask are pivotal in creating a relationship. “The customers know the answers to those questions. They just want to see if you are trustworthy. We are in a small market area. You have to be honest with each customer and make things right.”

That includes standing behind each transaction. “We have to earn our reputation — a small town reputation — every day. If we sell a car and a few weeks later the transmission goes out. That customer will think we sold them a lemon and we lost that customer and all of his or her friends and family. We make sure that we’ll fix that transmission and keep the customer and our reputation intact.”

Two years after he opened his make-shift used car dealership, a Huang tried buying Tom Abernathy Chevy, a small dealership in Jefferson, Ohio, but couldn’t get funding with with GMAC. “They turned us down but we persisted. Tom said that if we came up with a floor plan he would help with the funding. That was 1999 and we just took off.”

NAMAD Enters the Picture

In 1996 he partnered with John Rocco and founded Great Lakes Auto Network. By 2003, Huang was on GM’s radar. He became a Buick dealer and that took off as well. His life also changed the year with Rex B. Harrison, who owned a dealership in Cleveland, told him he needed to go to NAMAD. In fact, he was so insistent he bought Huang’s ticket and shared a hotel room.

“That was phenomenal because I got to meet key people, CEOs, other dealers.” It also presented an opportunity to buy a Honda Open Door dealership near Grand Rapids and out of 20 minority applicants, the decision was down to two — Huang and the eventual winner.  But fate struck again and he opened a Hyundai dealership in Streetsboro, Ohio, in 2005 and quickly became a top seller in the area.

Today Huang owns Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge GMA, HONDA, Hyundai and Jeep and Ram dealerships and he just added a Kia dealership to the mix.

He truly believes that he would not be where he is today without NAMAD and is adamant it is an important today as it was when he attended his first meeting. “I believe in NAMAD 100 percent,” he says. “It gave me the opportunity to open our stores and we need more minority dealerships. Now, does it help me here as much as it would in LA or even Atlanta, which has a surprisingly large Korean population? No. But it helps minorities break into the business and the ratio to customers versus minority dealers is very large, and got larger when so many minority dealers lost their stores in 2008 and 2009.”

Today Great Lakes Auto Network is often on the list of top sellers and Huang has been recognized nationally. He received the inaugural Community Impact Award from Cox Automotive in 2015 and was a TIME Dealer of the Year nominee, the NAMAD Distinguished Service Award and has sat on Hyundai’s National Dealer Council and Chevrolet’s Advertising Board. He has won the Honda’s President Award, Fiat Chrysler Customer First and GM’s Mark of Excellence.

He was a Honda Volume sales leader for the Cleveland Akron Honda market for 2015 and 2016 and the Hyundai Volume Sales Leader for Ohio in 2016.

His manufacturers know he “works hard to sell their cars and I want to be good partners with each. God gave us an opportunity to hire and motivate great people and that’s what makes us grow.” A large percentage of the people who were at the dealerships when he took over remain to this day. “We don’t have much turnover and we do most of our training but we also work with the OEMs on new products. But, this is key — we appreciate our people. Every meeting I start with a thank you to the employees. Employees want to feel appreciated, same with customers.”

His biggest challenges are consistency across all his dealerships and again, he counts on caring managers who understand the culture and goals. “Each manufacturer is different and offers great cars. Our challenge, as long as gas stays low, is not selling trucks and SUVs; it’s selling cars. Electric cars will play a part in our future but maybe not as much as in the West Coast. We’re the Midwest. You have to know your communities.”

Even though he just added a Kia dealership, Huang is still looking to expand. “I’m not afraid of being gobbled up by larger dealerships. I believe that we can grow and succeed by offering a great experience — and that’s whether you’re big or small. I’m looking to grow for the right opportunity and would probably want to stay in the eastern part of the US — down to Florida.”

But, it all goes back to his father and respect in the community. Huang spearheaded Educar, which offers all schools in Ashtabula County the opportunity to raise needed funds through a raffle. The winner receives dollars toward the purchase of a car or cash. In the past four years he’s given away a $250,000. He’s looking to expand it to other communities. He also helped raise more than $1 million for Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland.

“I believe in spending dollars where I live and do business. I want to help take care of the people in the community. If you’re respected in the community, that’s everything.”

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