Garrett Thorpe is COO of The Impact Group, the company his father, Mark Thorpe, founded as a general agency in 1988. Today, the company works with dealers, agents, insurance companies, third-party administrators, and OEMs to advance F&I technology, training, and reporting. P&A met with Garrett Thorpe to track the evolution of F&I technology, learn how dealers can win customers back from the Carvanas of the world, and ask whether great trainers are born or bred.
P&A: Garrett, where am I reaching you today?
Thorpe: We’re in the Washington area. My wife Kathy and I have both been in Arlington since 2009, but I grew up in Loudoun County, Va., about a half-hour west of D.C.
P&A: And you grew up in the business, correct?
Thorpe: I did. In some ways, it’s almost like I was born for this. I hate to admit that, but I have memories of Saturday-morning meetings in dealerships from the time I was about 3 years old.
P&A: Tagging along with Mark?
Thorpe: I was. And after growing up spending time in dealerships, getting into the industry and going to work for The Impact Group was a natural evolution for me. Now, having been with the company for going on 13 years, it has been very rewarding. I’ve certainly been introduced to a lot of perspectives along the way.
P&A: And F&I has evolved in that time.
Thorpe: It sure has, and Mark was involved in a major way. He’s from Central New York. He was the first F&I manager in Ithaca. Then he went from retail to accepting a position with Pat Ryan & Associates during the formative years of F&I. He returned to retail as an F&I director here in the D.C. area, then ran F&I for Toyota’s mid-Atlantic distributorship, then started a general agency. Along the way, our company evolved, moving from general agency work into income development and F&I training, and now F&I technology.
P&A: When did you join the company?
Thorpe: I started out here back in 2007, in technical support. Then I moved into a training role, and for the next 10 years, my primary responsibility was software implementation and training, in-person and by web conference. I actually just gave up that role beginning in January of 2018. That’s when I took over the operations side of the company and my title changed to COO.
P&A: Was it hard to step away from training after doing it for 10 years?
Thorpe: It was harder than I anticipated. I did love it. I developed an approach I thought was really effective, and it was very rewarding. And part of the difficulty of moving into operations was struggling with the separation from our clients and our end users. So I still look for opportunities to get into dealerships, especially with our local clients, and communicate closely with our agents and partners. I’ve found a nice balance, so it’s been great in that respect.
P&A: Who took over training?
Thorpe: Tim Johnson. He was the F&I director for a dealer group we worked with. He had used our platform, trained his own F&I managers on it. He really valued our process, our approach, and he knew our company pretty well. He also worked in a general agency capacity as a rep with The Warranty Group. So he sees the business from all those perspectives and he’s able to support general agents and conduct training in dealerships. He’s talking income development alongside the navigation of the software.
And that’s always been one of the things that differentiates us. We do try to customize our approach around the development strategies of our agency partners and the needs of the particular dealer. We consider all the players involved and evaluate where their current processes are effective and, where they’re falling short. Tim is an expert at training on processes developed around unique sets of circumstances. And he’s a great guy.
P&A: Did training come naturally to you?
Thorpe: I had to find my voice with it, like anybody would, particularly with the online training. At the time I started, I didn’t have a full appreciation for exactly how the miniscule details of every aspect of your delivery — your voice modulation, your pace, the importance of asking specific, targeted questions — can affect your performance. It’s just like F&I, really. Gain information and insight from the person in front of you. Read between the lines to understand what they’re telling you and what they need.
P&A: Can anyone do it or are good trainers born that way?
Thorpe: I do think there’s a certain communicative ability and passion for training, and if you don’t have that, you’re inherently operating at a deficit. Tim is a great example. He loves F&I. And he’s a natural salesperson. That makes him good at what he does.
P&A: Will your time as a trainer make you a better executive?
Thorpe: I certainly hope so! Doing something for 10 years and not gaining a valuable skillset to take forward would be a tough pill to swallow. Certainly the ability to have effective and clear communication with your team is key, and the training experience has been very beneficial in that regard. It gave me the ability to listen well, identify challenges, and solve the problem.
P&A: What problems are you working on now?
Thorpe: As we all know, so much of the conversation in our industry is about the future of retail automotive. What is the customer experience going to look like? What’s the best way to deliver it? The providers and administrators are going to play a key role in that. There are a lot of providers, in the menu space or otherwise, focused on digital retail solutions. We have to give the customer the experience they’re demanding. But we also have to protect — or, ideally, maximize — the dealer’s income, protect their F&I department, and keep them compliant. So my day-to-day is keeping an eye on the pace of change in the marketplace and steering applications in a way that covers all those bases.
P&A: Are you disappointed with the pace of change?
Thorpe: I think my disappointment lies in the fact that there are still a lot of dealer organizations out there who are not using a menu or taking part in the technological evolution of our business.
If they had come onboard a little bit earlier, a lot of the customer dissatisfaction that has caused the digital revolution wouldn’t be there. If every dealer followed a process that was customer-friendly, transparent, and engaging — without sacrificing profitability — and leveraged that value proposition to the buyer, we wouldn’t be in a position where Carvana and TrueCar are in front of us.
With that said, now those dealers are feeling the need to catch up to customers’ expectations. And some may be making decisions that are not necessarily in their best interest. So we have to refocus the conversation: How do you take a big step forward in a way that doesn’t do any harm? It’s a problem that can be solved. But it is a little bit frustrating. We’ve been implementing interactive F&I presentation software since the mid-1990s. Some providers out there claim to have invented the F&I menu or treat electronic menus and the concepts they deliver as a new thing they’ve devised. It’s not new. They’ve just finally realized that they need to take a step forward.
P&A: What is new in F&I tech? What do you have coming out this year?
Thorpe: I think 2019 is going to be a big year for us. Just to kind of walk it back, I’ll tell you what 2018 looked like. It was our 30th year in business, a big milestone for our company that we’re very proud of. It means a lot to everybody here. And from a revenue standpoint, it was the best year in our history. We revamped operations. We hired Tim Johnson, we hired a new controller, and we have new people at the clerk position and in technical support. We did a full audit of our book of business. We’ve put a continued focus on process improvement, getting everyone cross-trained and collaborating on the training side and the support side.
From a software perspective, we’ve been rebuilding our platform from the ground up — everything from the underlying data structures all the way up to advanced DMS-driven reporting and a new menu interface. We’re now releasing an update to our deal-management process that provides major efficiencies to electronic rating and contracting capabilities, flexible presentation options and streamlines the deal workflow, all with fully adaptive design. Within the next several weeks, we’re releasing a completely revamped menu which will bring innovative new presentation tools with it. It’s been a long time coming. Some people are clamoring for it and we’re anxious to get it out there.
P&A: Are you able to think five or 10 years into the future, or are you just trying to get dealers and agents where they need to be or should already be?
Thorpe: In large measure, it’s about getting to where we probably should have been, but, for a variety of reasons, we’re not. If the franchise model is going to avoid collapse in the face of all the disruption — and that’s a direction none of us wants it to go — it has to provide a customer experience that is value-based. And that experience should feel the same at the dealership as it does on the customer’s couch.
I chuckle at that Carvana ad where the customer buys a car and manages their trade-in while binge-watching their favorite show. I mean, who wouldn’t want to make the second-largest financial decision of their life while distracted by TV? I’m being sarcastic, but I do believe there is an effective balance. If we can provide a modern buying experience that creates value in the relationship with the dealer, still maintain control of our processes, and leverage decades of experience to offer the customer what’s in their best interests, even if they never make it to the dealership — that balance is exactly where we’ll wind up. And we’ll be profitable. But we don’t have to start a race to the bottom, and put all our VSC pricing online so that a customer can shop their dealer’s F&I markups against competitors from the salesperson’s desk. Especially without proper education on what they’re shopping for. We can’t shortcut the F&I value proposition.
P&A: And people will continue to visit the dealership, because most will want to drive the car before they buy it, and many will need help getting financed.
Thorpe: Maybe it will be slightly different if vehicles become fully autonomous, but I think customers will continue to want to see, touch, feel, and drive a car before they decide to purchase. Purchasing a new vehicle is an emotional decision, and there is still excitement in the dealership experience. It won’t go away for those reasons, especially if we make the experience value-driven and fun.
P&A: What do you do when you’re not working?
Thorpe: We love spending time with friends and family. We have a big family. Mom is one of 11 kids, so I have lots of cousins. Most of them are local and my brother is, too. Family’s always been important to us. Day-to-day, work keeps us very busy. Kathy is a veterinarian and she owns a veterinary services company. She and I both put a lot of energy into our professional lives. But we find ways to enjoy our time away from work. We’re involved with animal rescue, which is very rewarding. Last year, we bought a little 2000 BMW M Roadster, hoping that it will someday be a classic. So we like to get out and get the top down. We’re looking forward to starting a family, maybe later this year. Those are the big things. But we love to travel. If we can get a trip away, that’s what we like to do most.
P&A: What’s your next destination?
Thorpe: To be determined. We had a great trip to Spain last fall. We’re thinking maybe Scotland or somewhere close for the next one. We like to try to do something like that once a year. I mentioned Mark is from upstate New York, so we spend lot of time there, up in the Adirondacks, getting up to the lake, getting outdoors. Also, I’m a big Capitals fan, so winning the Stanley Cup last year was amazing.
P&A: Just getting past Pittsburgh in the playoffs was amazing.
Thorpe: Completely! And we’re all hoping for a repeat, but I know that’s a tall order. But I’m excited for 2019, and I’m excited for what 2019 holds for our company. I think we’ve got a software development team that is fantastic at what they do, and some very robust offerings to show for that. I’m looking forward to getting them out in the marketplace and making sure everyone is aware of what we’re doing.