“You just have to treat people the way you want to be treated,” she says. “We started our business with service in mind and as the years have rolled by we’ve recognized the value of every customer. We don’t want to lose them if there is any way possible.”
In recognition of such devotion to quality, customer service and community involvement, NIADA named Lewark the 2002 National Quality Dealer of the Year.
“It was a total shock,” Lewark says of hearing her name called at the NIADA awards banquet in Orlando, FL, this past June. She was a finalist for the national award as a result of being named the Virginia IADA Quality Dealer of the Year. “There were so many great dealers there that it was an honor just to be included the group.”
FORTY YEARS IN THE INDUSTRY
The award came just one month before her 40th anniversary of entering the car business. She began soon after graduating from high school in 1962 when she went to work in the finance and insurance department of a local new car store. She describes herself as a bit of a “workaholic,” and was soon bouncing from job to job within the dealership, learning every aspect of the business.
In 1970, Lewark and her husband, Frank, opened Auto Buying Service in Fairfax, located about 20 miles south of Washington D.C., with just 11 cars on the lot. The dealership’s specialty was muscle cars. The Barracudas and Corvettes they kept on the lot appealed to the young men stationed at the nearby Naval officer training camp in Quantico, VA.
“The cars were a high-theft item so at night we used to park them nose-to-bumper so there was no way they could get them out of there,” Lewark recalls. “Back then you could afford those cars, but things changed and they got a lot more expensive so we started selling more family cars.
”For many years, the dealership operated in a traditional manner from a lot on Fairfax’s busiest thoroughfare. At its peak, Auto Buying Service kept around 100 vehicles in inventory.
In 1996, the Lewark’s leased the valuable property to a new car dealership and moved their own business to an upscale business park. The relocation and accompanying downsizing allowed Frank to move into semi-retirement.
Although the unusual location inside a business park means virtually no drive-by traffic, Lewark says Auto Buying Service still sells plenty of cars thanks to its large number of repeat customers.
Much of Auto Buying Services’ new business comes through an aggressive presence on the Internet. Another example of Lewark’s readiness to change and adapt, Lewark was an early user of Internet technology. Lewark maintains a well-polished web site (www.autobuyingservice.net) that lists the store’s complete inventory. The company also is linked with large Internet services such AutoTrader.com, AutoByTel.Com, Cars.Com and others.
“We first started using the Internet in 1994, but it didn’t really start paying off until four or five years ago,” Lewark says. “The Internet has been very successful for us. We track every sale so we know where it came from. We still do some newspaper ads, but they aren’t getting the response like they used to.”
A unique feature of Auto Buying Service helps explain the company’s name. Many of the vehicles they purchase for sale on the lot don’t come from standard sources such as auctions or new-car dealers, but from individuals. Lewark said they advertise heavily the fact that they buy cars. Many people, she said, aren’t interested in taking the time to sell their own car. “And they know they’ll get a fair price from us, when they know they probably won’t if they trade the car in for a new car,” she says.
Meanwhile, Lewark and her staff also have developed a business of finding and buying cars for customers. If she doesn’t have the right car in stock, the dealership will locate one by scouring sources such as newspaper want ads, other used car dealerships and the Internet to find the right vehicle at the right price. She then buys the car, taking full title to it, and reselling it to the customer.
Regardless of what type of transaction Lewark is handling, customer service remains her paramount concern. Her dealership sends each customer a thank-you note and follows up with a letter 30 days later and then another in 30 more days to inquire about the customers’ satisfaction.
“Any complaint is responded to immediately,” Lewark says.
A past president of the Virginia IADA, Lewark is an active member and an ardent supporter of the association’s goals and programs. She works diligently to recruit members and raise money for the VIADA.
Lewark has been married to husband Frank for 39 years, something she calls her “greatest achievement.” They have one daughter, Betsy, and a grandchild. She is actively involved in local Christian outreach programs that work with homeless people and youth. When Lewark isn’t selling and buying cars, she spends much of her time reading. She enjoys motivational books and mysteries, as well as reading her Bible everyday.
Lewark has seen her business change extensively in the past 40 years. She remembers when selling a vehicle required completing no more than two forms, while today there “is a whole folder full of paperwork.”
One aspect that hasn’t changed completely - the acceptance of women working at used car dealerships. Lewark says she often has to prove to customers that she knows what she’s talking about. And she also thought her gender might keep her from being named the National Quality Dealer of the Year.
“It’s still a man’s business,’’ she says. “We’ve come a long way, but it’s a man’s business. “A lot of times people don’t expect me to be able to answer mechanical questions about the car. I still get referred to as the receptionist. But that’s OK, when you have to swim upstream, it forces you swim a little harder and swim a little faster.”
While Lewark has adapted to many of the industry’s changes, it’s clear she will never change her basic philosophy.
“We once had a service manager who was a little too cost conscious about how the department was run and I finally told him that he should treat every customer like they were his sister,” Lewark says. “That’s how I want service conveyed to them.”
This is not a business you have to be dishonest in. I know some dealers are, but this is a business where you can treat customers fairly and be very successful.”
And also a business where treating customers fairly can earn you your industry’s highest honors.