The 28-year-old San Bernardino native and Arizona St. University graduate in October became general manager of Nissan of San Bernardino, one of three agencies at the San Bernardino Auto Center owned by his father, Cliff Cummings. Michael Cummings spoke with IE Business Daily last week about his first days on the job.
Q: You did a soft opening in October, so you’ve been selling automobiles for three months. That includes December, traditionally not a good time for automobile agencies because people are focused on Christmas. How has your business been so far?
A: I can say that we improved quite a bit from November to December. We went from 45 cars in November to 55 in December, which is a pretty good number for a new agency. I’m very pleased with that.
Q: Being new, you have to get the word out. What kind of marketing are you doing?
A: We went with more old-school advertising: radio, and mailers. We didn’t do newspapers. If we were in Los Angeles and we were marketing like we are here we would probably get laughed out of town.
Q: Larry H. Miller Automotive Operations owned Nissan of San Bernardino for about two years before your father bought it. What has it been like following them?
A: They are a very good company that operates mostly in Arizona and Utah. For the first six months or so they sold a lot of cars and did well. After that, it started to taper off.
Q: What do you think happened?
A: I don’t want to say anything bad about them, but San Bernardino is a niche market when it comes to automobiles. You need to know the market or you won’t do very well. In the case of Larry H. Miller, I think their corporate office had a strong grip on this dealership. I don’t think the people who were running it got to do what they wanted to do.
Q: What do you mean by a niche market? That people in and around San Bernardino prefer a certain kind of car, maybe one that isn’t expensive?
A: Well, it is a blue-collar market, but I’m actually referring to marketing. The high-tech, social media marketing that everyone is doing in other markets doesn’t work here. Toyota did some research and found out that north San Bernardino County is one of the least tech-efficient markets in Southern California.
Q: Is there anything else different or unique about the San Bernardino automobile market?
A: We get a lot of walk-up traffic. I’ve been told that we get as many walk-ups as Riverside Auto Center gets, and they have about 12 dealerships there. So, you need to take advantage of that.
Q: Is a walk-up different than any other potential sale?
A: I don’t know. It could be that a walk-on is more of an impulse buy, but either way, you’re going to show people what they want to see and then let them make up their minds.
Q: What’s been the most difficult part of taking over a relatively new agency and running it for the first time?
A: Probably having to let go of some people on our sales staff. Some of them were Larry H. Miller people who were just there while the agency was being handed over to us, so they were temporary. But some of them weren’t as enthusiastic about their jobs as they should have been.
Q: How much work has it been?
A: It’s been a real effort, working long days – around 18 hours a few times – five to six days a week. The hardest part might be getting enough sleep. But I started working here when I was 18 years old. I’ve had lots of different jobs, and that was good training.
Q: What did you do?
A: I was a sales porter, which means I helped the salespeople. I would find the car they were looking for, either on the lot or at another dealership. I was a salesperson, a financial manager, a sales manager. Basically, it was a step ladder up through the sales division, and I learned how the automobile business works, and how the money flows. I learned the business from the inside, which is the only way you can learn it. You can’t watch from the outside and make a lot of assumptions about how things will work.
Q: Regarding the pandemic, what kind of a year do you expect 2021 to be?
A: No one can say for sure what will happen, but I’m cautiously optimistic. It’s true that the pandemic didn’t really hurt our business in 2020, and we hope that’s the case this year. But I don’t like the way [Gov. Gavin] Newsom has handled this. He makes everyone shut down and then goes to a party where no one is wearing masks. You can’t shut everything down and then do that.
Q: Are you worried about a long, deep recession if the pandemic is not brought under control soon?
A: No, I’m not. I was worried last year when all of this started, but people still had money to spend. The [proposed] $2,000 stimulus would help, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, at least not soon. A lot depends on how much people have left in their savings.
Q: Do you agree with your father that San Bernardino has become a more business-friendly city, that city hall is more accommodating to commerce?
A: Yes, I think I do. We met the new city manager [Rob Field, who took office in September] recently and he seems to have some good ideas. He wants to attract more businesses and to get things done. We have to make San Bernardino a place where people want to live. The city has a lot of problems, but so does downtown Los Angeles, and people want to live there. We need to give San Bernardino the same kind of appeal.
Q: Do you envision taking over Cummings Auto Group someday? Your father says he has no plans to retire, but nothing lasts forever. It seems like a logical succession.
A: That’s not my concern. I’m going to concentrate on running the Nissan Agency. As for running the auto group, I know there are people out there who are more qualified for that job than I am.