Over the curb: New Auto/Mate exec talks Xs and Os

September 17, 2020

DealerSocket’s Over the Curb blog goes one-on-one with Tony Graham, Auto/Mate’s new executive vice president and general manager.

By Gregory Arroyo

“It’s not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It is the customer who pays the wages,” reads the famous quote Tony Graham has displayed on his LinkedIn page. Sourced from a renowned car company founder, it has served as the backbone of his 27-year career in the car business.

Graham officially stepped in as the new executive vice president and general manager of DealerSocket’s Auto/Mate on Aug. 24, bringing a proven track record of success to a business unit the company acquired in February 2020.

The senior business leader is no stranger to the DMS space. Initially recruited by ADP in 1993 as director of product marketing following a seven-year stint with NCR Corp., Graham spent the next 26 years working tirelessly on behalf of retail automotive dealers in a variety of leadership roles for the DMS provider.

Credited with launching CDK’s Minority Dealer Business in 1999, the executive turned his idea to establish the company’s presence in that segment into a highly successful business. Graham also served as executive sponsor of the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, which included the creation of the ADP Minority Summer Internship Program and implementation of the company’s first diversity council, employee resource groups, and diversity training. After leaving CDK Global in 2019, the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers (NAMAD) honored him with its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Tony was a trailblazer as an executive with CDK and ADP,” said NAMAD President Damon Lester. “What he’s been able to do — not just for nonminority dealers but advocating and assisting in the plight of minority-owned dealerships — is a testament to his character. If Tony says he’s going to do something, he’s going to get it done.”

Ernest Hodge, president and CEO of Atlanta-based March Hodge Automotive Group, added: “I’ve known Tony for well over 20 years. The guy has a tremendous amount of integrity and empathy for his customers and just has a real passion for whatever he’s doing. He’s just outstanding.”

DealerSocket’s Over the Curb blog caught up with Graham just before his first day in his new role. Discussed were a range of topics, from COVID-19’s impact on dealers to his family, passion for coaching, and what he brings to DealerSocket.

DealerSocket: I know you’re a family man, so let’s start there.

Graham: I’ve been married to my wife Beverly for 32 years, but we’ve been friends for 40. We met as freshmen in college.

DealerSocket: That’s incredible. You also have three adult children, correct?

Graham: Yes, I have two daughters and a son. My oldest daughter, Ms. Toni, is 30 and works in the automotive industry. She’s a very successful sales manager at a Mercedes-Benz dealership and was a world-class sprinter at the University of Alabama. She was a Division I All-American.

My middle daughter, Ms. Taylor, is 27. She ran track and tennis in high school, but she didn’t do sports in college. She’s my scientist and works for the city of St. Petersburg, Fla. My son Palmer graduated from college this past December. He was a three-sport athlete in high school and played Division I college football. He now works for The Pfizer pharmaceutical company.

DealerSocket: Sounds like an incredible family. You describe yourself as a senior business leader and champion of diversity. Can you tell our readers about the latter?

Graham: Unfortunately, there’s no short answer to your question, but let me try. I was recruited into the industry in 1993 by what was then known as ADP Dealer Services. At the time, the Big 3 car companies — Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler — really emphasized diversification of their dealer network and had clear definitions of how they defined diversity. The automotive industry wasn’t very diverse at the time, but the Big 3 wanted to change that.

So, when I came to work at ADP, I recognized the opportunity to do the same. I had a vision, came up with a business plan, and turned that idea into a highly successful business. And it was a well-defined plan that included employee resource groups, diversity training, and a mentorship and internship program.

DealerSocket: ADP initially recruited you as a product marketer, correct?

Graham: Yes, I started out as director of product marketing before being elevated to vice president.

DealerSocket: You also ran ADP’s Canadian business, right? I think I read you led the struggling operation to the No. 1 sales ranking in ADP’s portfolio.

Graham: I did. It was a great experience. I spent a little over 18 months in Canada. We had a lot of success, and we had a lot of fun.

But let me add one thing: When I left Canada to become general manager of ADP’s Midwest region, I retained oversight of the company’s minority business and women business. I did the same when I oversaw the company’s Southwest region. Even when I became Chief Customer Experience Officer, they didn’t take my dealers away. And along the way, I started to put more focus on dealerships owned and operated by women.

I mention that because when you start something and you’re growing and building, you become the face of that part of the business.

DealerSocket: I was going to ask about the women retail business you also helped start. How was that different from the plan you developed for minority dealers?

“The two things I’m most proud of in my career are the number of employees I helped develop and grow as a mentor, and, second, that I had experience working with the smallest to the largest dealer operations.”

Graham: Let me start by saying that big companies always try to blur the waters a bit by including women in how they define minorities. I didn’t think that was right. Women deserve their own plan and focus. And I was lucky to have a woman who I worked with for 26 years lead that business.

DealerSocket: So, why did you depart CDK?

Graham: Have you ever gone to a party and promised yourself you’d only stay an hour? Then you end up staying for three. I feel I stayed too long. Many of the people I worked with and counted on to serve my dealers had left, so, again, I stayed too long.

At the same time, I always had it in my mind that I would retire from CDK Global at 55. I overshot that by 12 months before leaving at the end of June 2019.

I also wanted to be closer to my mother and my mother-in-law in Alabama, so my wife and I sold our house in Chicago. My last day with the company was June 30 (2019), and I was living in Huntsville, Alabama, by August.

DealerSocket: What do you consider to be your most significant accomplishment at CDK Global?

Graham: The two things I’m most proud of in my career are the number of employees I helped develop and grow as a mentor, and, second, that I had experience working with the smallest to the largest dealer operations.

DealerSocket: The National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers sent you off in a very nice way before you did, honoring you with its Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual convention that July.

Graham: When I announced my retirement to my dealers, they said, “Tony, we want to recognize you for all you’ve done for us. And you know what? I’m the only individual that’s not a dealer or an official with a car company to receive that award.

DealerSocket: That’s amazing.

Graham: What I will cherish from that night was the presentation. The dealer was so emotional that he couldn’t get through it. He said, “You’re too young; you can’t retire.”

DealerSocket: Was retirement not for you?

Graham: I like to keep myself busy. I founded my consulting firm, T. Graham Business Consulting and Advisory Services, and worked on some business initiatives. I also served as an adjunct professor at Calhoun College. I guess you can describe my short time away from this great business as a moment of reflection. My financial advisor called it a “halftime.”

You spend the first half of your career trying to make a name for yourself. Then there’s the second half, which is more about purpose. What will they write on your tombstone, right? My hobby is helping people, and so many people need help — young people who, based on their environment and family structure, need a positive role model in their life.

DealerSocket: I think I read you dedicated 20-plus years to coaching and mentoring.

Graham: Outside of raising my kids, that’s what I get the most gratification from — to see kids who never thought about college become the first in their family to not only go but finish. So I’ve helped many kids get in and through college, then I helped them find their first job after college. They always ask, “What can I do for you?” My response is always the same: “There’s nothing you can do for me, but you can do for someone else what I did for you. That’s how you pay me.”  In my fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, Inc., we refer to that as UPLIFT.

DealerSocket: The world needs more Tony Grahams. So when did you get the itch to return?

Graham: I knew I wasn’t done, but I didn’t think I would actually come back to work for a technology company in the automotive industry. I started my consulting company and thought that would be my outlet. I guess I realized how much I missed working daily with my dealers, which I call friends.

At the same time, my phone started ringing with several prestigious offers from prominent automotive software companies. I decided to accept the offer from DealerSocket because I believe in the company’s core tenet of dealer-first and because I believe DealerSocket’s software is truly exceptional at helping dealers.

DealerSocket: Were you surprised by DealerSocket’s Auto/Mate acquisition?

Graham: I did have an idea that DealerSocket was going to be making some moves when I left CDK Global. Both DealerSocket and Auto/Mate were growing and taking market share, and I think a lot of people knew something was cooking. So, when the acquisition happened this past February, I wasn’t too surprised.

And I think it was a great move. Auto/Mate adds the missing piece for DealerSocket, which never had a franchised DMS. So, the acquisition immediately elevated the combined organizations, and I’m excited to be leading this because it represents an opportunity for dealers to work with a company that cares, is focused on customer service first and foremost, and spends a great amount of resources on innovation and investment in its software.

“Whether you’re a small dealer or a large dealer, COVID-19 has impacted you. And you had to change the way you conduct business; you had to change the process. You had to get creative.”

DealerSocket: So, what’s the approach?

Graham: That’s a great question. First, let me say that I have a lot of respect for Mike Esposito. He, Larry Colson, and the rest of the Auto/Mate team built a tremendous organization with an incredible culture, core values, and a dealer-first focus on everything they do.

With that said, I think the model is you first have to come in to listen, take in all that information, assess, and formulate a plan. As I said, Mike, Larry, and the other leaders have built a great company with an incredibly dedicated and talented team. So, I want to get to know the people and what drives that organization.

DealerSocket: So, it’s not a matter of dusting off the old playbook?

Graham: Let me answer your question this way: I love sports, but these days I enjoy watching them more than actually playing. Every year in the NFL or NBA, there are about four coaches that lose their jobs. Candidates come in to interview and present what they will do if they are named coach. I think that’s counter-intuitive. If you’re a defensive coach but don’t have the personnel to carry out that scheme, how will it work?

Yes, I have playbooks. But again, the model is you first have to come in to listen, take in all that information, assess, and formulate a plan.

DealerSocket: How does COVID-19 impact things?

Graham: Whether you’re a small dealer or a large dealer, COVID-19 has impacted you. And you had to change the way you conduct business; you had to change the process. You had to get creative.

Now everyone has to position themselves for the post-pandemic, which means the question becomes: How do you ready yourself? And I believe dealers have a window of 18 to 24 months to turn the answer to that question into a strategy powered by technology.

Dealers need to embrace technology more than they ever have, because it can be a competitive advantage. But here’s what I know about dealers: They do want innovation, good tech. But what they value most is service and support.

That’s why I’m proud to join a company that was proactive in its support of dealers through the pandemic. These are exciting times, and I’m ready to get to work. But at the end of the day, I’m back with my friends — my dealer friends. And they are going to be glad to see me.

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