Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cars promises different experience

Used-vehicle dealer hopes to build trust

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WHEN Terry Smith started Boyd Autobody in 1990, collision repair was a huge, fragmented industry with no one having anything even approaching brand recognition.

Not only that, but focus groups Boyd conducted early on showed that when people considered where to get their vehicle repaired, they lacked a sense of trust and had a feeling they were being taken advantage of.

Not to say the company is perfect but at the least Boyd has established a brand presence -- and about $300 million in annual sales.

It has also likely changed attitudes about trust and confidence when it comes to autobody repairs.

It's one thing to impact the culture of the collision repair business. But can the same thing be done in the used-car business?

Call them crazy, but that's what Smith and Mark Bychkowsky, a longtime friend and auto-industry veteran, are trying to do with their modest used-car venture called, simply, Cars... with a difference.

"There are used-car stores all over the place in Winnipeg, but I bet you can't name one and if you could you would not be able to say what it stood for," said Smith, who is executive chairman of The Boyd Group.

"I think there is a real interesting opportunity with this large fragmented industry to try to develop a position of doing things differently. A position of trust."

(Smith is a partner in Cars but The Boyd Group has no business connection with that company.)

The concept at Cars' Portage Avenue west location includes such things as full price disclosure and no-haggle pricing, a money-back guarantee, no-questions-asked returns within five days or 1,000 kilometres and no charge for a full tank of gas.

Neither Smith nor Bychkowsky wanted to talk too much about expansion plans, but they clearly see the concept as one that lends itself to locations in other cities.

(The website is www.carswinnipeg.ca, so you can see how easy it would be to brand the website in another city.)

It's too early to tell if the model will work, but Smith and Bychkowsky are not neophytes. Bychkowsky, a self-confessed car nut, was one of the youngest people ever to receive his auto mechanic's papers in Manitoba. He was also an award-winning general manager of a Chrysler dealership (Twin Motors in Flin Flon) for 15 years.

After explaining how he personally delivered a couple of vehicles to a customer in Thunder Bay, Bychkowsky said

"The money will take care of itself. It always does."

It is certainly an interesting experiment -- if quality, value and integrity are ingredients for success in other businesses, why not in the used-car business, as well?

Smith admits the financial dynamics are not thoroughly proved out yet. But Bychkowsky is convinced that with the kind of quality control he plans to impose -- only having the best cars for sale and avoiding the lemons -- as well as instituting a level of transparency not always available in the business, success will follow.

"What we'll try to do is offer the best value for the least amount of money," Bychkowsky said. "It'll catch on."

Keep in mind this is a $400-billion business annually in North America, so there ought to be room for a new player or two.

In Manitoba alone, there are about 80,000 used cars sold every year.

Not surprisingly, Nick Roberts, the executive director of the 400-member Manitoba Used Car Dealers Association, does not believe the industry has a bad reputation that needs to be addressed.

"When I started in this business 13 years ago, there were probably a couple of complaints per month," he said. "Now there are hardly any."

But hiding additional charges like cash down payments or the value of trade-ins in the fine print are practices still allowed in Manitoba.

Roberts said the industry actually recommended to the province that such practices be outlawed but new industry regulations continue to allow it.

Smith and Bychkowsky's dealership will only list prices that are all-in.

There are plenty of examples throughout history of business people banging their heads against the wall in vain attempts to shake up an industry by doing good rather than adhering to the status quo and taking the easy money.

The question is, can a used-car business survive without high-pressure sales tactics and the ultimate in buyer beware warnings?

Smith and Bychkowsky are going to try.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2011 B5

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

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