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Sept. 22, 2008 – Remembering a dealer’s enduring quality

September 22, 2008
Filed under Columns

Cliff Gullett was dealer No. 5 on my quickly dwindling list. It was the winter of 2006 and I had spent more than a week on the phone with other dealers trying to convince them to participate in a study that I thought had real merit.
The study, something similar to a mystery shopping program, would evaluate the effectiveness of a dealership’s sales staff. The study’s findings would then be printed in Powersports Business. Dealers thought highly of the study, and not so highly about seeing their staff’s retail sales flaws exposed to the industry at large.
“Look at what you would learn!” I suggested.
“Yeah, and so would my competition!” they replied.
And so it went for several days until I reached Gullett. His dealership was lower on my list simply because I thought the study would be most beneficial to a multi-point dealer principal who would probably see different flaws in different stores, even under the same management.
Gullett, however, owned just one store, in Bozeman, Mont. His multibrand dealership had followed the path of many metric stores, growing from a small operation to one that made millions in sales annually and that eventually outgrew its humble beginnings.
Gullett loved the study’s idea and agreed to become its guinea pig, even if it meant airing his staff’s imperfections. It is that willingness to learn, to approach the unexpected with an open mind that came back to me last week upon hearing tragic news about the Montana dealer principal.
Gullett, 48, died in a racing accident on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, the site where he and his racing team had set a number of world records that same week.
Many will remember the affable Gullett for his enthusiasm for motorsports and more particularly for his love of racing. “Over the past few years his passion in motorsports carried over to his passion for land speed racing, and while it claimed his life, he died doing what he loved,” wrote Curt Lance, Gullett’s general manager at Team Bozeman and friend of the family.
Others will remember Gullett for what he started: His dealership and others in Montana helped spur state legislation that sought to change how dealers and OEMs work together, especially in regard to vehicle inventory. That legislation is now being tested in federal court. Lance said that case will continue despite Gullett’s passing, “as Cliff would have wanted it to,” he said.
More importantly, the Montana legislation has began a discussion of whether the current distribution method is the right one, or whether it should be altered to the betterment of both parties. It is a discussion that has spread to different spots in the nation, including in California. There, dealers and the Motorcycle Industry Council met in August to discuss distribution practices.
It is an important issue, and one deemed to stay a hot topic long after Gullett’s death. It is not, however, what I will remember most about Cliff Gullett. Rather it’s this: Whether you’re a dealer principal or editor of a trade magazine, success does not come easily. In the best of cases, it is earned, but not before many ulcer-causing trials and tribulations. Once you’ve reached a certain level of competence, it is then incredibly difficult to question your own practices, not to mention have somebody else judge them. And yet that’s what Gullett did one wintry day in 2006.
Now this may seem like a trivial thing: The idea of whether to participate in a Powersports Business project or not. But really, that’s hardly the point. The point is to have the willingness to accept that what you preach to be the best course of action may be a suitable means to the end, but in fact not necessarily the most effective one.
Gullett knew this, and it was reinforced to him after the study was completed. The study found his new unit sales staff did some things well and some not so well. But most importantly, it made him reflect on how his sales staff dealt with customers’ budgets. Too often, he found, customers were falling in love with products they couldn’t afford and hence didn’t purchase. So after the study, Gullett and his staff discussed whether to bring up the budget question earlier in the initial interview.
Even after clearly benefiting from opening his dealership to outside review, Gullett was asked if he was worried about having others view his staff’s imperfections.
“I thought we were going to get dragged through the dirt,” he said, laughing.
His sense of humor will be missed. His willingness to stand up to what he believed was an unfair practice equally so. But to me, his willingness to question his own logic, his and his staff’s own practices, is what made Cliff Gullett special. psb
Neil Pascale is editor-in-chief of Powersports Business. He can be reached at npascale@affinitygroup.com.

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