California Auto Connection
How Getting Knocked Down Can Make You Better Than Before You Fell
Chris Dospoy has seen his share of ups and downs over the last several years, but unlike many folks who have gone through tough times, his attitude today is positive, his outlook encouraging. Chris was born and raised in southern Michigan but spent several years on the west coast. “I’m originally from southwest Michigan but I moved to southern California in 1985. I fell in love with it out there. Southern California is just plain beautiful. The fact is, one of the hardest things that I ever had to do was to leave California.”When asked why Dospoy returned to the Midwest, he said it was for personal reasons. “My mom had become ill and she really needed someone to take care of her. My wife and I packed up and moved back to the area and provided care for her for the next couple of years. After a while, we put her in a nursing home but, unfortunately, she ended up passing away during that time.”
So why didn’t Dospoy and his family head back to the state that they so enjoyed? “My family was going through a real rocky period at that point. While my mom was in the nursing home my son Jason and his wife had a baby, Jacob. Unfortunately Jason was struggling with alcohol at that time and his wife with substance abuse issues. Jason and his wife split and it wasn't a good environment for a child. Anyway, a short time later my wife and I ended up getting legal guardianship of our grandson. I prefer not to get into greater detail, but that’s what I felt we had to do, so we did it.”
When Chris returned to the Midwest he decided to open a used car store. He had been in the business for years and felt he might have found a niche. “I saw a void in the local market and I realized there might be an opportunity here. The domestic auto market was weak in California so there was not a high demand for those cars out there. However, there was a great demand for them here. I knew, because of my experience in California, that I could get a good enough deal on good domestic vehicles there, and even when I added the expense of shipping them back here, I could still make a decent profit. It was amazing if you look back and see that even my cost for flying was so cheap it was insane. So I would fly out to California, find these really high quality vehicles and have them shipped back here… and still make a nice profit. It was a very, very good thing at the time. And that’s how the name California Auto Connection was created.”
That was great for a while, Chris said, but all good things come to an end. “The problem was, I had to fly back to California every couple of weeks and I would be gone from the family a few days at a time. Eventually that got real old for my wife; it just didn’t work for her anymore. So needless to say I quit going there and buying cars, but by that time, we already had some pretty good name recognition so we kept the name.”
“My business has evolved since that time,” Chris says, “I’ve learned that all car dealers are not created equal. As a non-franchised dealer I found that we need to stretch a little further. We need to go the extra mile for our customers. So that’s what we do.” So how exactly does he go that extra mile? “First, we are really, really good at finding quality cars... and that’s all I buy. I’ll go to the auction early and really check out the cars before I’ll bid on them. I look for quality and if the car is going to give me or my customer problems, it is never a good deal regardless of what price you get it for." Chris continued, “Next we service every single car before we sell it. We make sure that it is in excellent condition or we don’t put it out to be sold. I’m not saying we are perfect… we’re not perfect. We try to be as good as we are able to be, and we sell the best cars we possibly can.
According to Chris, people will notice the difference between California Auto Connection and other dealerships. “Hopefully, when potential customers come to us they meet our guys. It helps them to understand the way we do business. When people come in and meet our sales guys they will immediately start to understand how we are different.”
Reputation is another part of what Dospoy believes to be one of his advantages. “I think we have a very, very good reputation in the community. There is certainly a stigma in this business. I feel like it’s because of the nature of the business. It’s our own fault as an industry. Certain dealers choose to do business in a certain way and their model is contradictory to what customers want… and contradictory to the way we do business.
Chris shared his views on why that stigma exists. “It started when dealers used to roll back odometers and re-groove the tread on the tires to make them look like they had more than they actually did. This is where it all started. At least from my perspective, it started with greed. Then it just grew from there because to keep up with the next dealer you almost had to do some of these things.”
Another issue that the industry still faces today, according to Dospoy, is the turnover at dealerships. “Guys continually come and go. They do whatever they have to to sell cars – it doesn’t matter that they cheat people or that they are not honorable. They know they’ll just move on to another dealership and do the same thing later. The whole thing gives the industry a bad reputation. Plus, many of the dealers cheat people or are dishonest about things like their sales tax collection, or they take advantage of people and don’t worry about their store’s reputation, because after a while they just close it up and open somewhere else under another name.”
So what approach does California Auto Connection take to making customers happy or resolving their conflicts to keep their image intact? Chris says it’s different but not difficult to do. “First when a customer comes into California Auto Connection angry, we take just the opposite position. We remain calm and up and let them know that we are going to take care of their issue. That’s all you really have to do is, do the right thing. Maybe a customer has a tire light come on and they come back angry. We just smile and say, 'no problem, we’ll take care of it,' and we do. Fortunately we don’t have angry customers come in very often. In fact, I can’t remember the last time that even happened because we try to take care of problems before they become problems. The fact is, I have never even been sued. There’s a reason for that. Whenever someone has a problem I solve it. That’s the way it has to be with me and our company. This is a big part of the reason for our success. It’s who we are.”
When you visit California Auto Connection you will certainly notice the quality of the vehicles on the lot. There are no ‘junkers’, the cars seem to be clean and well maintained. “You’ll find that our cars are mostly $15,000 and under.” Dospoy states, “The mix of our inventory is 60% SUV and 40% cars. This can change depending on the time of the year, but what never changes is that fact that our vehicles are always clean and well-serviced. I would stand our inventory up against any dealership in this market and I’m not kidding. I personally buy the cars from the auctions. You’ll find me at the auctions at 7:00 in the morning. I’m there looking at cars, driving them, checking them out because at that point I am the buyer, later my customer will be the buyer... but at that moment I am the buyer.”
From what Chris indicates, the company keeps a modest inventory on the lot at any given time – about 40 vehicles. He claims that they sell somewhere between 20 and 25 cars a month. According to Chris, that is not accidental. “Our cars are worth more and we might have fewer cars on the lot but I can tell you, that is very intentional.”
Chris talks about his faith openly. “We don’t hide the fact that we are Christian men and we try to do what we feel is true and try to follow the bible. That may rub some people the wrong way, but that’s okay. We still treat them the same way. We do the opposite of what many people might expect from a used auto dealer.” Chris claims that his faith was unearthed when another event hit him like a train speeding down the tracks. “My wife of almost 30 years decided she didn’t want to be my wife anymore. It was like one day she just walked in and said that… then she left. She left all of us. What followed changed my life, in a good way.” Chris continued, “She said I could probably live with you the rest of my life and be happy, but if I stayed, I wouldn’t be true to myself. And then she was gone."
Chris says that God was speaking to him before that time, but that was the day Chris heard Him. “What helped me get through my tragedy is God spoke to me at my time of it. He told me at that moment that I matter and that I am important. The biggest thing I’ve learned since that time is to be thankful. God taught me to be thankful. That gave me faith… courage… that helped me. It changed my life.
Today Chris believes his biggest opportunity lies before him, “I have a very personal interpersonal relationship with my son and my grandson.” Jacob is living with his mom who is now free from her addiction and his son Jason sees him all the time and is very, very close to him. In fact Jacob stays with both his dad, Jason, or with Chris when school is out for the summer. Jason has been working with his dad at California Auto Connection for approximately 15 years now so they are able to see each other every day. Needless to say things have certainly grown better for all three Dospoys over the last few years. According to Chris, family and business may continue to mix. “My son and one of the other guys that works here will probably purchase California Auto Connection from me down the road. I feel very good about that and feel that the business we are building will continue to be in great hands.”
Presently there are only five people at the company (including Chris) but he prefers to keep it like it is. “I like to keep the company small because everyone has an important part here and they all know it. Everyone is integral to our success. Everyone here counts on each other and if one person screws up we all feel it. Overall, that makes us all accountable to one another. “
When asked what really matter most to the senior Dospoy he responded this way, “If I died today, it would be very important to me to know people thought highly of me. I really believe that if I passed away today, I think that each and every one of the people here would say ‘Chris was an honest man and he cared about us, each and every one of us.’ Furthermore I think that they would say that every single day I talked with them and tried to help them get better at what they do. Mentoring them and helping them get better, that’s a big part of my job and I can do that effectively at this size.” He also stated that he wants to ensure that he stays true to himself. “As I look back on my life, the one thing that I want to make sure of is that I am who I claim I am. More important to me of what came out of my life is actually the way I lived my life.”
Many people fall to their knees and stay there when they are stricken down with tragedy or defeat. Chris Dospoy seems to have stood back up and said, “Hey, I’m good. I’m fortunate. I’m thankful… and I’m standing.”