Steve Finlay w/ Ward’s Auto discusses F&I contest at Northwood University

Steve Finlay

Northwood University students take this contest seriously.After all, they’re fledgling entrepreneurs in the school’s unique automotive marketing and management program and the prize is more than a tin-cup trophy, shiny blue ribbon or $50 gift card good at the college book store.

Rather, it’s $25,000 split among the 3-person team that
wins the F&I Innovator of the Year contest, created and sponsored by Irving, TX-based F&I product and services provider EFG Companies and now in its second year at
Northwood’s Midland, MI, campus. EFG Chief Marketing Officer Jenny Rappaport, who came up with the idea for the contest, recalls the enthusiasm of the first-time winners – and the speed in which they cashed their prize checks. “The awards ceremony was in the evening, and the next morning we were still up in Midland when I got a call from our accounting department,” she says. “The bank had called and said, ‘We have three people depositing checks totaling $25,000 at 9:01 a.m. Is that normal?’ The kids were standing at the door.” If the students take the competition seriously, so does EFG. The company came up with the contest for reasons that go beyond rallying intramural competitiveness. One reason is to raise the awareness of dealership finance and insurance operations among enrollees in Northwood’s dealermanagement curriculum. “This was a good way of rounding out their curriculum and getting them deeper into F&I as a vital dealership department,” Rappaport says. Another reason for the contest is to get ideas for fresh F&I products to take to market, particularly those that might appeal to young automotive consumers. “With all the changes going on in auto retailing, we wanted to tap into the bright minds at Northwood and allow them to create the next product, be it GAP, service insurance or whatever,” says John Stephens, EFG’s executive vice president-dealer services. “With apps and social media as prevalent as they are today, there is so much potential for new things. I don’t think it will come from 28-year veterans like me sitting in a boardroom, trying to figure out what that potential new product will be, one that will wow customers,” he says. “So let’s go out and find a young crowd for that.”

That’s why EFG went from the boardroom to the classroom looking for ideas – and talent. Rappaport, who credits EFG’s top management for embracing and green-lighting the contest proposal, recalls it was something of a gamble that first year in 2015. “We launched this with some risks,” she says. “Basically, we were saying the F&I industry as a whole needs to get more agile and innovative. We threw down the gauntlet and went to a different source. Frankly, they could have come back with terrible ideas. That was a concern. But what they came back with was fantastic.” EFG was “looking for the big bang,” Elgie Bright, chairman of Northwood’s 4-year Automotive Marketing and Management program, the first of its kind. Many of today’s dealer principals and managers went through it. The company is getting ready to roll out the first contest’s winning product. It’s an app that uses a vehicle’s OBD-2 onboard diagnostic system to keep people in touch with their vehicles and dealership in various ways. From a theft perspective, the app notifies them if the vehicle moves and they’re not in it. It maps which nearby service stations are selling the least expensive fuel. It keeps service and maintenance needs in a central location. The plugged-in OBD-2 diagnostic device informs owners of maintenance and repair issues. The app allows users to make service appointments and tells them about factory warranties and parts availability. EFG will sell the product through dealership F&I departments and share profits with Northwood. That winning product met three criteria, Stephens says. “I want a product that’s not only good for consumers, but also for dealers and for EFG as well. Three different parties need to benefit.”

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