Despite the unusual origin and winding route, the road led to Underwood being named the 2003 NIADA National Quality Dealer of the Year at the association's Annual Convention & Expo this past June in Las Vegas. He is the fifth winner from Alabama.
NIADA officials, and Northwood University representatives who evaluate and select the winner, lauded Underwood for his devotion to running a quality operation, obvious integrity and commitment to community involvement.
"It was a real surprise," said Underwood. "To be recognized by your peers and by experts is a real honor."
Background And History
Underwood owns and operates two dealerships in Bessemer, AL, near Birmingham. Anthony Underwood Automotive Pre-Owned Superstore carries approximately 140 vehicles in inventory, most of which are newer, low-mileage domestic cars. The second location, Guaranteed Credit Approval, keeps about 45 higher-mileage cars in inventory for sale to customers with lower credit ratings.
In 1977, Underwood was 19, a new father, and managing a record store when he heard how much money he might make selling cars at the local Ford dealership. It was not love at first sight.
But his fortitude was revealed as he persevered despite his initial displeasure with his new job. The situation wasn't helped by the fact that as a child, Underwood's family had n8ever owned a car. When he began selling cars, he couldn't drive a stick shift and had to have customers drive those cars off the lot.
"I really didn't like it (selling cars) at first, but I couldn't quit because I had a family. I was kind of hoping I would get fired," Underwood recalled.
Instead, his boss related a statistic that showed what it takes to make a sale.
"He told me 64 was the magic number," Underwood said. "If you make 64 contacts, you're guaranteed to make a sale so I decided I would give it a try and at least if it didn't work, I could say I did my part. At lunch I would put 65 business cards in my pocket and I wouldn't come back until they were gone. It took awhile, but eventually it worked out."
In fact, Underwood said he began selling so many cars that he dreamed of owning his own dealership. In 1989, after completing the Ford dealer training program, Underwood opened his own store in Talladega. But running a new dealership in a small town during a slow economy soon overwhelmed him. When a tornado damaged the dealership, he jumped at the chance to bail out.
"I felt like a failure," Underwood said. "I had to go back home with my tail between my legs. It was pretty tough."
Again, family obligations didn't leave him any options and he shoved his pride aside to take his old job back at the local Ford dealership.
"A lot of people are afraid to fail. And out of fear, they don't try," Underwood said. "I was fortunate that my responsibilities were greater than my fears."
For the next two and a half years, he worked at a series of jobs, including used car manager, until the entrepreneurial bug bit again. Underwood rented a small trailer on the lot of a used car dealer, bought five cars and opened Dealers Trade Outlet, operating under the slogan "If we don't have it, we'll get it."
When his growing business began to threaten his landlord, he was kicked out of the trailer he was renting. Underwood then bought an old service station and grew the business from 1995 to 2002. Last year, coming almost full circle, Underwood purchased the old Ford dealership property and opened his superstore. His second location, Guaranteed Credit Approval, operates from the old service station location. Despite just opening in early 2003, the lot already is selling some 70 cars a month.
"You have to know the market and find the unmet needs," Underwood said, "but we didn't know what we had there."
Together, Underwood's two stores employ 31 people and sell more than 200 vehicles a month. He recently added 10 service bays to the dealerships. He considers himself an aggressive marketer, advertising on all the local television channels. Another unique aspect is his use of two greeters. They, and not salespeople, are the first contact with customers. They get basic information from the customer and then introduce them to a salesperson. For that, they are paid $6.50 per hour plus $1 for each customer greeted. Underwood said the greeters allow him to track customers and sales performance.
Underwood uses another unusual feature at Guaranteed Credit Approval. He offers free "gap insurance" for customers who happen to have accidents and aren't fully covered for the value. He said it happens two or three times a month, but pays off in customer loyalty.
Underwood himself spends most of time traveling to auctions, buying some 150 cars a month. He prides himself on being able to evaluate a car in less than a minute.
"Buying a car is the most important thing in this business," he said. "You make your money when you buy a car and realize it when you sell it. It's just a matter of when."
OUTSIDE THE DEALERSHIP
Underwood is very involved in the Alabama IADA, serving on the board of directors and as president of the membership committee. His primary concern at both the state and national levels has been with education.
"We've made great strides toward better education of the dealer body," he said. "We have a great association and I think with more education we could be just as prestigious and important as the new car dealers are with the NADA.”
Underwood and his wife Joyce have two adult sons, Roderick and Broderick, who both work at the dealerships. In the community, Underwood is active in the Save The Youth, which targets at-risk young people and he recently donated a 15-passenger van to the organization. He has also been a proponent against teenage drinking and the dangers related to driving intoxicated. He has also served on the board of the American Red Cross.
He is an avid reader of self-help and motivational books and said winning the National Quality Dealer award is a testament to the power of positive thinking and perseverance. He tries to include at least one thing in each of his sales meetings that might inspire or motivate an employee.
"My mother raised eight kids in the housing projects and we never had a car growing up," he said. "Now we have served thousands of people with automobiles. It was a great feeling to win this award, but we're moving forward and trying to do better. We're asking ourselves, "Do we really deserve it?"
Obviously, many think so.