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November 2012
Proud to Be a Part of It!
By Zenda Douglas

     Natalie Tindol planned and studied to be a cruise director, but the love of her family’s business and the car industry changed her mind. Now she spends her time helping car buyers cruise out of her dealership in Ford and Subaru automobiles.

     Through all of the challenges of first-time business ownership, 9/11, a flailing car industry, and the downturn of the U.S. economy, she has led Tindol Ford in Gastonia to be one of the most successful dealerships in the Charlotte region and the Southeast.

     “We sell about 180 cars, trucks and SUVs per month,” says Tindol, who is the company’s dealer principal and owner. “We’re not the biggest and not the smallest, but we work hard to be the best.”

     Tindol Ford is a full-service Ford and Subaru dealership serving the Hickory, Gastonia, Charlotte and Concord areas. The dealership also includes commercial sales, finance and parts departments as well as a body shop.

 

Family-sized

     Many Gastonia area residents will remember Tindol Ford’s early days when Earl Tindol, Natalie’s father, came to town in 1974 and bought the dealership on Franklin Boulevard.

“We were always at the dealership” remembers Tindol.  “There’s lots to do when you’re the dealer’s kid—paint the curb yellow; pick up cigarette butts from the lot. The whole family would go to the dealership after church on Sundays. While Dad would get some paperwork done, Mom would wash the bathrooms and water the plants.” Natalie, then 9 years old, would play with Matchbox cars across the floor with her brother, Chris, when they didn’t have chores.

     “By the time I went off to college at UNC Chapel Hill, I was convinced of three things: I was never coming back to Gastonia; never going into the car business; and never living at home,” she laughs.

     Tindol completed her degree in recreation administration in 1987 and set out to work in travel and tourism. She found a job with a Florida hotel. The problem was that there was a gap between graduation and the position’s start date, so Tindol decided to come home and work for her father for the summer.

     “It was eye opening,” she says. “I saw a different side of the business and liked it.” Tindol decided to give the car business a year, and says she has never looked back since.

     Over the next eight years, Tindol worked in every department of the dealership and learned about every position including service advisor, body shop estimator, service cashier, and finance assistant.  “I even learned to change oil and painted the parts department.

     In 1995, Tindol was made general manager, a position she would hold until 2001. “Those were really great years. The job was easy and fun because cars were selling; the economy was good and people were happy.”

     About the same time Earl Tindol was thinking about retiring, Ford Motors Company was suggesting that the dealership build a new facility. The plan became to build the new facility and sell the dealership but, as Natalie pondered what she would do next, she realized that she wanted to stay where she was. In 20012, she bought the dealership from her father.

     “I was deep in debt for the first time in my life, and happy about it! I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says, shaking her head.

 

A sharp turn

     The first big game-changer was 9/11. After the terrorist attacks and the establishment of The Patriot Act, the federal government laid out voluminous new regulations designed to red flag and prevent further attacks.

     “These made buying a car more difficult for the average person and for the dealership,” says Tindol. “What used to take 30 minutes, now takes three hours.”

     At the same time, the auto industry was moving into a downward cycle. There was an influx of Japanese and Korean cars. American manufacturers were losing the race for safety, quality, price, technology and gas mileage.

     “They took their eyes off the ball,” says Tindol. “In Ford’s case, diversification in investments distracted from the goal of building the best vehicles.”

     By 2007 and 2008, credit issues were looming large, banks were getting tighter, and it was much more difficult to get a loan, including car financing. The national SAARS (seasonally adjusted annual rate of sales) rate dropped from a strong 18 million cars per year in 2000 to a low point in 2008 of 10 million.

     Although Ford Motor Company was in serious financial distress, it made the decision not to accept federal TARP (bail-out) funds. This decision called for sacrifice on the part of all the Ford dealerships. Tindol Ford’s staff went from 110 to 70.

     “It was an extremely challenging time,” remembers Tindol. “But, I had fabulous employees, a great management team and strength in the Lord. I knew that no matter how bad it got, it was going to be okay. Even if we didn’t sell a lot of cars, we would still find a way to stay in business.” 

     Although she had faith in Ford’s future, Tindol decided to diversify, so she bought the Lincoln Mercury franchise in 2007 and the Subaru franchise in 2008.

 

Rally cry

     Tindol attributes the major turnaround of Ford  to the vision of Alan Mulally who arrived as president and CEO in 2006 at a time when the corporation was poised to lose $17 billion. With a new strategy, he made the bold decision of adding $23.5 billion in debt, even as profits were going down, to invest in Ford’s product line. Introducing a “One Ford” philosophy, he reset the company’s agenda to making the best cars and trucks and SUVs in the world. He divested the corporation of everything not related to that agenda.

     “He did something that Ford had never done and that’s to maintain the same focus and goal for more than 1 year,” says Tindol. “Now, six years later, we have an incredible turnaround. It’s amazing what one man with a plan and a lot of teamwork can do.”

     At the end of 2011, Ford reported $128 billion in sales and earned a net profit of $20 billion. The SAARS rate for the month of September 2012 was back up to $14.9 million; the best performance since the 2008-2009 crisis, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association.

     Through the tough times, Tindol took the time to work with her staff to develop the dealership’s core values of integrity, excellence, growth, family atmosphere, and commitment. She maintains, “When you do the right thing honestly and fairly, it pays off.”

     Tindol describes her sales process as low pressure. “We’re professional, friendly and respectful and give to people the best information we can. Then, we let them think about their decision. When people have been treated well and the price is competitive, they will come back to you to buy.”

     Tindol reports that staff are up to 83 plus 10 part-time positions. These positions are spread out: 30 in sales and finance; 15 in administration; and 45 in service, parts and body shop. “The service side didn’t generate as much activity when sales were going great,” says Tindol. “People would oftentimes buy a new car instead of repairing an older one. When sales dropped, service and body shop rose tremendously.”

 

Showing off

     “I would put a Ford vehicle up against any other vehicle and stand tall,” says Tindol. 

     Tindol will have the chance to do just that at the upcoming Charlotte International Auto Show which is owned and operated by the Greater Charlotte Auto Dealers Association.  Tindol is chairman of the show and she also holds the position of Chairman of the North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association.

     The show, which is made up of 100 dealers representing all manufacturers, comes once a year for four days to the Charlotte area to showcase their new models. The equivalent space of six football fields will be filled with automobiles.  This year the 2012 show is Nov 15-18.

     “It’s wonderful for the consumer who can see all the new models under one roof and learn about the quality, technology, safety, gas mileage and reliability of each one,” says Tindol. The show also features a “History of the Automobile,” exhibit with about 40 vintage cars, a section for eco-friendly cars and a kid-friendly area for family fun.

     The manufacturers are particularly happy to show off their new hybrids and plug-in cars. “Hybrids (gasoline and electric powered vehicles) are increasing in popularity because they are becoming more affordable and more flexible. People want excellent gas mileage, but they also want the peace of mind of knowing they won’t be stranded half way through a trip.” says Tindol. But things are changing. Ford has partnered with Best Buy to install a plug-in station at the homes of new buyers for those autos with electric only options.

     The Charlotte International Auto Show has a dual purpose each year. Not only can consumers see all the makes and models in a non-competitive environment but a huge portion of the proceeds of the event go to charity. Dealerships at the show represent a nine-county area and YMCA’s have a presence in each of these counties, so this year the show has chosen the YMCA to receive all proceeds from the Auto Show Preview Event. In addition, the association will distribute Auto Show proceeds to many other charities.

     “Through this association we’ll give $100,000 or more every year to over 30 charities,” says Tindol.

     In her role as chairman of the NCADA, Tindol serves as a liaison between dealers and the state association and is an advocate for the dealers. NCADA provides support, education and representation to the dealers in the industry. 

     Equally important to her is the philanthropic aspect of her job with respect to the community.

     “We enjoy being community partners and I think it’s a vital part of what we do. If all businesses contributed a little bit it would make the total community stronger,” she says convincingly.

     In addition to her professional affiliations, Tindol is personally involved with numerous community-based organizations and their boards. She also co-leads a Girl Scout troop and teaches Zumba at the local YMCA.

     Tindol Ford’s biggest competition comes from the Internet. “You can shop 10 dealers in about two minutes,” says Tindol, “if it’s all about price.” Tindol says she finds that potential car buyers need more than that. “For most people, it’s the second biggest purchase they’ll ever make, next to their house.”

     Things to consider include help with credit issues, warranty service, and attention from the dealer. “There’s nothing like sitting in it, touching it, feeling and driving it—most people want that. The majority of customers will not buy a car sight unseen.”

      People want safety, great gas mileage and technology, according to Tindol.

     These days fewer dealerships are family-owned. That is an important distinction for Tindol: “Being family owned means you can make decisions from the floor and employees are empowered to help people. We don’t have to wait for corporate to tell us what to do.”

     Tindol believes that working side by side with her father, the way he guided her through the dealership, has had a big impact on her success. “Although I am confident in my abilities, without his tutelage and the opportunities he afforded me, I wouldn’t be the businesswoman I am today. He is a great person and a great businessman. He taught me how to take the high road.”

     Though keenly aware of her responsibility, Tindol credits her employees for the continued success of the dealership. “They are the ones on the front line taking care of folks and representing me and our dealership.  They deserve the accolades for making good things happen.” Tindol smiles.

     “I am proud to be part of a company that provides transportation needs, which is such an integral part of what America is.”

     “We (car dealers] employ a lot of people across the nation and world. I am proud to be a part of that,” says Tindol.

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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