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She’s a single-point survivor
Operations overhaul helps small Detroit-area dealership compete in a Chevy-heavy town

Katie Bowman Coleman, dealer principal at John Bowman Chevrolet in Clarkston, Mich., says strategy changes are working. “We’re already up three levels of sales effectiveness” on Chevy’s regional sales yardstick.
Photo credit: Leonora Andersson

Katie Bowman Coleman and her father John didn’t always agree on how to modernize the family business, John Bowman Chevrolet in Clarkston, Mich.

In fact, Coleman, 49, left the dealership in 2009 and enrolled in General Motors’ women’s retail network program, training to open her own store.

“But the family interceded, and we settled our differences,” she says. She returned in 2011 and replaced her father as dealer principal in early 2012, several months before his death.

The store had done well since John Bowman purchased it in 1976, as Clarkston grew from a sleepy Oakland County suburb 40 miles north of Detroit into a built-out bedroom community in Michigan’s richest county.

But what Coleman took over in 2012 was a single-point operation surrounded by four Chevy franchises less than 15 miles away. And in an era of stair-step factory incentives that reduce the wholesale costs of higher-volume outlets, she needed to grow to compete against larger dealership groups in metro Detroit.

Coleman took swift action. She opened the store on Saturdays, revamped the Web site and advertising, replaced a sales manager, expanded service facility capacity, refurbished the showroom and made the store more inviting for female customers. Expanding the four-car showroom was impractical because it’s landlocked in a busy urban business district.

Through the first half of 2013, sales of new vehicles rose 42 percent compared with the same period last year to 736 units. Used-car sales rose 20 percent to 352. Service business is up 40 percent.

It’s still a single-franchise operation, but Coleman says the store is already more competitive against the big groups, as measured by Chevrolet’s regional sales yardstick that compares the market shares of dealerships within metro areas.

“We’re already up three levels of sales effectiveness,” she says. “The changes are working.”

Opening Saturdays was an easy decision. Virtually all other Detroit-area dealerships are open six days, so joining them both eliminated a business disadvantage and added sales and service capacity without new brick and mortar.

The modest-sized showroom still holds only four vehicles, but after a recent updating it is brighter and seems larger. The solid walls that closed off the sales team’s offices around the perimeter have been replaced by transparent panels.

In the garage, shop foreman Jimmie Roy is overseeing installation of the last of several new, more efficient hoists and wheel alignment rigs.

“Her father always made sure we had all the equipment we needed in service, but Katie is even better,” says Roy, 43, adding with a grin: “She’s going to spoil my guys by putting air conditioning in the break room.”

John Bowman Chevy has 18 service stalls and will add several more as the five-person body shop operation moves into another facility nearby, freeing up space. Roy just hired his 10th full-time technician and has seven who are certified master mechanics.

“We have to keep growing,” Roy says. “We’re just scrambling to keep up with service demand.”

At a glance
Name: John Bowman Chevrolet
Location: Clarkston, Mich.
Dealer principal: Katie Bowman Coleman
Unit sales, Jan.-June: 736 new, 352 used
Service revenue, Jan.-June: +40%

The oldest of three daughters, Coleman didn’t always think her future was in the auto business. She grew up knowing her way around the compact dealership before heading to Granville, Ohio, to study speech communication at Denison University, her parents’ alma mater. She spent the next five years working for the Ralph Lauren fashion house.

“I didn’t officially work at the store until I was 27,” she says. “I started working the parts counter and drove the parts delivery truck. Dad had me on a full rotation through every department — back end, front-end finance, on the sales floor, then accounting in the main office.”

And now back in the family business, Coleman added a master’s degree in finance at nearby Walsh College, attending nights and weekends. And a year after giving birth, Coleman went through the National Automobile Dealers Association’s yearlong dealer candidate academy program.

“We were all about the same age, but I was the only one with an infant, so everybody called me Mom,” she says.

Coleman has long worked to enhance the dealership’s reputation as female-friendly, says Rhonda Jensen, director of service, parts and body shop. Coleman has hired more female sales and service-writing personnel, but in a sense it’s just tweaking a family tradition started by her father, she adds.

“I started as a car biller 23 years ago,” Jensen says, “but Mr. Bowman let me sell cars after I finished my regular work every day, then moved me to service writing and eventually I took over service.”

Coleman has stepped up involvement with the local Chamber of Commerce, including this year sponsoring a “Women in Business” lecture series with outside experts hosted by the dealership.

Making it easier for women to buy a vehicle and get it serviced is only an extension of how to treat any customer, Coleman says.

“But it absolutely is a competitive advantage” when women are the primary deciders on 80 percent of all vehicle purchases, she adds. “Nobody has a larger proportion of decisions of what is bought.”

You can reach Jesse Snyder at

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