It’s educational. It’s informative. It’s important. It’s the annual P&A Leadership Summit, the only meeting dedicated to — and organized by — executives working at the highest levels of the F&I industry.
PALS was held in New Orleans for the first time this year, having followed the F&I and sales training, compliance, and technology-focused Industry Summit from its longtime home in Las Vegas to Dallas in 2017, then Orlando in 2018, then to the Crescent City.
At every stop, a dedicated and growing group of industry professionals has shown up ready to work. Unlike most conferences, PALS attendees aren’t there to sit back and listen.
“They’re engaged,” said David Gesualdo, PALS and Industry Summit show chair and group publisher of Bobit Business Media’s Dealer Group of publications, including P&A, after the event. “They’re asking questions, giving presentations, sitting on panels. And they are getting business done.”
Since PALS replaced the annual Vehicle Service Contract Administrators Conference in 2013, the event’s advisory board has been led by David Trinder of StoneEagle F&I. Their primary task is to design an agenda that reflects the P&A segment’s most urgent concerns. Here’s how it played out.
P&A Takes a STEP Forward
The event kicked off on the evening of Monday, Nov. 4, with the PALS and Industry Summit evening keynote address. George “The World’s Greatest Closer” Dans took the stage to deliver an impassioned plea for every member of the industry to “grow forward” by promising to take a big STEP — for sacrifice, training, effort, and producing profits.
“Everyone who is going to grow forward needs to change in some way, shape, or form,” Dans said. “Hence, you need to take the first step — not much is accomplished if you are not moving forward.”
After a Sunday evening welcome reception and the opportunity to participate in Automotive Compliance Education (ACE) certification Monday morning, PALS and Industry Summit resumed with the presentation of the second annual Edward J. Bobit Lifetime Achievement Award. Last year’s winner was legendary sales trainer, dealer consultant, and industry firebrand Jim Ziegler. This year, the award went to Dwayne Hawkins, chairman and CEO of Florida’s Crown Automotive Group; his brother, Terry Hawkins, was introduced by Randy Crisorio of United Development Systems, a longtime friend and colleague, and accepted the award on Dwayne’s behalf.
“We can’t afford to stick with ‘what’s always worked’ and expect it to be good forever.”
Dwayne Hawkins is known throughout the Sunshine State as a man who has employed thousands of hardworking employees and sold cars to millions of satisfied customers. But he is also a legendary philanthropist, having donated time and money to a long list of charitable causes from the moment he was able.
“That’s all part of just what you have to do,” he told F&I in a recent profile. “Just helping people, helping organizations do good work. And some of these guys are in charitable organizations that are doing good work. And we share what we know with other charitable organizations and help them improve too.”
Terry Hawkins’ poignant acceptance speech was followed by a much-anticipated keynote address: “Customer Experience: Its Impact and Opportunity in Our F&I World.” Delivered by StoneEagle F&I CEO Cindy Allen, the presentation focused on changing customer expectations and how, in many ways, auto retail and finance — among other industries — have failed to keep up.
“We’re entering a new era in the automotive industry. You can see it everywhere, from the evolution of the car buying experience to rising consumer expectations around service delivery after the sale and how that drives either deep loyalty to dealerships and our products or a consumer’s resolute choice to do business with someone new,” Allen told F&I and Showroom shortly before the event. “We can’t afford to stick with ‘what’s always worked’ and expect it to be good forever.”
After a break, PALS and Industry Summit attendees gathered for the second annual Technology Challenge, an opportunity for representatives of five companies on the leading edge of F&I tech to present their wares in hopes of winning bragging rights via audience vote. And two days later, at the Industry Summit Honors that closed the show, Your Dealer Experience was announced as the repeat winner, edging out 700Credit, AutoFi, Line\5, and Reynolds and Reynolds.
Consolidation, GAP, and Digital F&I
Tuesday’s schedule concluded with a featured presentation, “Consolidation Trends in the F&I Industry,” and the annual PALS and Industry Summit Executive panel.
“Consolidation” was presented by mergers and acquisitions expert Gina Cocking of Collonade Advisors, appearing for the second consecutive year to tackle a topic of ongoing concern. She broke down the factors driving the trend toward consolidation at the P&A, agency, and dealership level and offered insight into how and why prospective deals succeed or fail.
I had the honor of moderating this year’s executive panel. I was joined by three leading P&A executives — Patrick Brown of IAS, Dave Duncan of Safe-Guard Products International, and American Financial & Automotive Services’ Arden Hetland — and a special guest, Will Green, president of the Louisiana Automobile Dealers Association.
In an interview that appeared in the special Industry Summit edition of F&I, Green told me that, whether new car sales remain strong or consumers continue to gravitate toward pre-owned and CPO units, the value of protection products will remain unassailable.
“You want to protect that asset. It’s the second most important purchase most people make. When you buy a home, you buy insurance, warranties, protect it any way you can,” Green said. “Why wouldn’t you do that with the vehicle you purchase? That’s why the F&I office so important.”
Our discussion ranged from GAP losses and digital F&I to plateauing new vehicle sales and the U.S. and global economies. We also touched on the emergence (and cost) of F&I Sentinel — more on that in a moment — and the dealer protection bill passed at the end of California’s last legislative session.
“We often say you can’t replicate the content and value offered by PALS, and Tuesday afternoon proved it,” Gesualdo said. “Where else can a P&A executive get up to speed on the sheer number of trends and topics our speakers covered in the space of two hours?”
Who Will Take the Lead?
Wednesday began with a motivational keynote delivered by Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré (Ret.), a decorated military officer whose 37-year U.S. Army career was highlighted by his role as commander of Join Task Force Katrina following the devastation visited upon the New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In “Resilient Leadership: Prepare Today — Prevail Tomorrow,” Lt. Gen. Honoré outlined the critical role of strong leadership in every endeavor. “From global and domestic terrorist threats to natural disasters, we face new risks to our individual, community, and economic security each day,” he said.
F&I Sentinel’s Stephen McDaniel was next with “Lender F&I Product Review and Approval — What You Need to Know,” a deep dive on F&I product review from the perspective of auto finance sources and regulators.
“Since the creation of the CFPB, we have seen a significant increase with respect to the scrutiny placed on the financing of F&I products,” said McDaniel. “To address that scrutiny, auto finance companies are implementing review processes for F&I products prior to agreeing to finance them. We have worked with some of the largest auto finance companies in the country to implement a web-based solution to address this risk.”
Next up was “Shaping the F&I Landscape in the Digital Age,” a panel session led by Gerry Gould of Gerry Gould & Associates and featuring Holman Automotive Group’s Lori Church, Luis Garcia of AVID Insurance, Fabre Auto Group’s Jonathan Hutchins, Rick McCormick of Reahard & Associates, and SouthwestRe’s Matt Bitler. The panel discussed the industry’s efforts to keep pace with evolving customer buying habits and their effect on the F&I training and presentations that fuel product sales.
A second panel, “F&I Product Selling in a Digital Marketplace,” followed. Moderator Daniel Lievrouw of American Guardian Warranty Services was joined by panelists Carl Ciaramitaro of Provider Exchange Network, Jonah Cole of Dealer Inspire, APC Integrated Services Group’s Ken Murer, AutoFi’s Joe St. John, and Matt Weinberg of Drive Motors.
To no one’s surprise, the panel engaged in a spirited debate over the best way to protect F&I — and car buyers, by extension — during a period of rapid technological advancement.
“There are many perspectives about online shopping and buying. Not all agree about online buying, but everyone now agrees that consumers will most likely shop online for their next auto purchase,” said PEN’s Ron Greer, a PALS advisory board member who organized the panel. “OEMs and dealers are pouring money into consumer shopping solutions. For the past few years, digital retailing companies have learned the importance of F&I products to the dealer’s overall sales process. Successfully including products like vehicle service contracts and ancillary products is an industry challenge. Providers cannot completely rely on dealers and their vendors to effectively present products in this new arena.”
The discussion over digital F&I continued with the final session on the PALS agenda, “Can You Sell More Aftermarket Products by Going Online?” This tag-team presentation was hosted by Roger Hilterbrandt and Rony Maalouf, both of F&I Express. Their goal was to establish the P&A’s segment role in delivering on the promise of online product sales by introducing the core concepts of F&I at critical junctures in the shopping and buying process.
“Three sessions, one common refrain: The world is changing and so must F&I,” Gesualdo said. “And that simply can’t happen until we as an industry decide how to proceed. It’s a great responsibility held by a powerful group of executives, and we are proud to have hosted them in New Orleans.”
StoneEagle F&I’s Trinder concurred.
“This year’s P&A Leadership Summit was one of our best yet,” he said. “Each of our speakers and panelists delivered great content and the attendees were engaged throughout. It is clear that PALS continues to play a critical role in the advancement of our industry. I would like to thank all who helped with the content preparation, all those who presented, and, of course, the attendees. We look forward to meeting you all again at next year’s event.”