Bobby Knight Prepared Me For Auto with Jason Stein

September 27, 2022
From the outside looking in, auto is a curious industry. Whether it's the dealership dialect of tech and service or that dealers bring home a variety of makes and models, retail auto is unique. And once you’re in and you’ve caught the bug, it stays with you. That’s the story of Jason Stein. He traces his journey from newspaperman to Automotive New Retail Forum to where he is today at Flat Six Media. And along the way, he shares insights about the reputation of the industry and the speed of change that it’s experiencing.
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What we talk about in this episode:
0:00
Intro with Michael Cirillo, Paul J Daly and Kyle Mountsier.

4:17 Jason worked as a sports writer in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He covered the Indianapolis Colts, Notre Dame and Indiana University. Eventually he started a car column because there was nothing about cars in the newspaper he worked for.

11:16 The last 2 years have been more impactful than the previous 20 years, according to Jason, in the way dealers have had to shift and grow.

“The last two years have shown that the changes can be even more remarkable than we imagined, not necessarily in a bad way. And actually, the value of the American car dealer is greater than ever. I would argue against the direct selling method, but they've learned to become just better direct sellers in general. And they've learned to connect with their communities in a better way and a deeper way. They've learned how to provide service in a way that maybe they didn't realize before. And you know, now they're more successful than ever.”

14:38 Car dealers have a similar reputation to dentists, for whatever reason. Jason talks about the strides dealers have made to change that reputation and what more they need to be doing.

20:03 The transition to EV is an opportunity for the car dealers to show their value to the consumer. Jason argues that most local shops will not be equipped to service EVs and it will be up to the dealers to be prepared and ready to service those vehicles.

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Kyle Mountsier: 0:00Did any of you actually eat a Philly cheesesteak when we were in Philly?Unknown: 0:11

This is Auto Collabs.

Michael Cirillo: 0:13

No,

Paul Daly: 0:14

I, well, I can say I had a few bytes of one. But not from the Geno's. It was one of the catered ones from Xfinity Live, which I might add was really good. It was really good. Like, it's still. It gave me I didn't eat a lot. Like that always happens at events. Right? I just run around frustrating. And I just nibble on this.

Michael Cirillo: 0:36

Because you're always talking about mic, you don't want to be all burpee. Yeah,

Paul Daly: 0:40

it's bad. Either talking to the mic or talking to PB like,

Kyle Mountsier: 0:43

is there a semblance? When you like get sometimes even before we start a pod? And like I've just eaten lunch or something, and you eat and you're like, I better throw some gum in? Yeah. Through the mic, or?

Paul Daly: 0:55

Yes, no, there's definitely there's definitely a thing there. There's definitely thing there, you know, all of the activity around well, all the activity around ASOTU CON, there was the moment when we were on stage, or I wasn't on stage. But Jason Stein, today's guest was on stage. And I had this flashback to the first automotive event that I went to, which was an Automotive News Retail Forum, which actually we found out Jason consent concepted that and started that when he was the publisher at Automotive News. And I remember seeing him on stage at that event and hearing him speak. And he was just so articulate and knowledgeable. And he commanded the authority, and I was like, That dude is buttoned up. Right, I felt like I was at a real thing. And then to see him on the stage at ASOTU CON, bringing that heat in the energy to kind of like a new with a but with a new tone. New questions, like a new vibe understanding things have changed. For me, it was like a moment of like full circle, it was just total full circle.

Kyle Mountsier: 1:51

There was a new tone, that's for sure. It was different. There was definitely a new tone. And I feel like he was willing to push some boundaries. And I appreciate that about a lot of people in our industry. Everyone's kind of like, loosening the belt buckle just have to, you

Paul Daly: 2:05

know, have to Yeah.

Michael Cirillo: 2:08

Well, I mean, I hope that shines through in our conversation today. I didn't get a chance to actually I feel like I was running. Man. You boys put me to work. We

Paul Daly: 2:18

he was like, you know, I have another job. Like, Michael, we just need you between the hours of 9am and

3: 2:23

30pm. With interviews on the 20s are that Okay?

Michael Cirillo: 2:29

Let's go. Call me Mr. Miyagi. But I, I'm excited to hop into this conversation with Jason Stein and feel some of that energy. I know it's gonna shine through and we hope you guys enjoy it as well.

Paul Daly: 2:47

All right, this has been a long time coming. But Jason, thank you so much for spending a few minutes with us today on the Auto Collabs podcast.

Jason Stein: 2:54

It is great to be with the two of you, Paul. Kyle, thank you.

Paul Daly: 2:58

So so like you are the face of I feel like retail automotive when I first started paying attention and I went to the Auto News Retail Forum in Louisiana. The last time the show was there. And it was the first time I heard you from stage and I was like, students buttoned up like I felt like I was just like, and I was like,

Jason Stein: 3:21

looking at the right person. I was because

Kyle Mountsier: 3:23

I want to interview and Alex Vetter.

Jason Stein: 3:26

I think that was Carl Sool

Paul Daly: 3:29

it was definitely you. Because at the time I was in the reconditioning business. So this was my first industry event, and I had this feeling like, I am nowhere near smart enough to be in this room right now. And you were just like leading everyone through this half day event. And I was just struck with the poise and that everyone you spoke with I was like, he knows everything about everybody and everything that they do. And so that being good

Jason Stein: 3:55

research team, it was a it was a great research name.

Paul Daly: 3:58

But my question is it follows that it's like how did you get to that spot? Like how did you get into what you were doing with Automotive News like what path in automotive lead you lead you there?

Unknown: 4:10

Well, to two hands on the steering wheel, ironically enough, and quite literally. So how I got on that path was by starting my own car column in Fort Wayne, Indiana when I was a sports writer covering Bobby Knight and Indiana University basketball and watching him choke people and get fired. Throw chair chairs the whole thing, similar industry similar. You know what I was totally prepared for automotive once I dealt with Bobby Knight. Because, you know, red red sweaters or not you know, the very similar styles. And I was covering Peyton Manning's first year a disastrous first year is the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. And Bob Davie's terrible exit out of Notre Dame football so there must be more. There's got to be more here some Where and it was two hands on the wheel. And what it was we started my own car column. And the newspaper at the time did not have a car columnist for its Sunday paper. This was I said newspaper, remember that? Remember the days of a newspaper? That's where

Kyle Mountsier: 5:15

I started the smell. Oh,

Jason Stein: 5:17

I know sound when you go on an airplane, and everybody would be reading a newspaper? handing it to, you know, it'd be like, Oh, are you done with that sports section? Because, you know, I know it's tucked into the pocket in front of you. But I really liked to see what the scores were last night.

Paul Daly: 5:31

Oh, my gosh, I barely have enough room for like my phone in my elbows these days, how in the world would that even work?

Jason Stein: 5:37

I just like, you know, crossing over with the newspaper in front of everybody.

Kyle Mountsier: 5:42

a spoof of that like four people across an airplane. Yes.

Jason Stein: 5:46

And our fingers are definitely cleaner these days, that's for sure. Because you get all that ink all over it. But no, I was definitely ink stained from the start. I grew up in Canada and made my way down to the US. And eventually, as that sports writer who started his own car column, and what I discovered was as a car columnist, lo and behold, manufacturers really liked to bring their vehicles to you to have you drive them and test them and write about them in the Sunday paper so that car dealers who are in the area, will will appreciate the fact that you're testing the new product, and then they can sell, or they can put their ads next to the next to that content, they can sell more cars. It's a wild formula that worked for about 150 years or so, or at least 100 years with the you know, the vehicle. But you know that that that experience gave me all of a sudden, I had five or six different manufacturers of vehicles in my driveway. And of course, my neighbors thought that I was dealing drugs or something of that nature. Because I had all this new product all the time. How do you get this and you explain to people that I'm a car columnist, and they're like, Well, what's that and I said, Well, you can read it in Sunday's paper. So lo and behold, that got me close to the you know, the auto industry closer, it also got me closer with the retail industry because many friends became or many dealers became friends. And it just all started on a path but ultimately led to Automotive News. And the role as a marketing reporter, which was what I was hired in at in 2003. And this beautiful world of automotive was wide open. And all of a sudden, people were calling with story ideas. And I was getting to know many the same dealers who, who you both know, I mean, the successful car dealers who are out there, and I discovered the entrepreneurialism of, of the automotive retail world. And I, I'm still driving the cars and now I just have a different platform. And after 18 years at Automotive News, including the last eight as the publisher, it's been an enormously gratifying ride, so to speak, and, and now here we are, with still a very close connection to the retail world. A radio show on Sirius XM that runs four times a week. And my neighbors still think that I'm dealing drugs. So

Kyle Mountsier: 8:09

my wife actually has like a question sometimes whether I'm in the car business, the CIA or dealing drugs just because, you know, and not me. Talk to No, but it really is, like I remember back, you know, that it's such an the auto industry as a whole isn't, is an industry that a lot of people only get to barely peer into. And because of that there's a very a lot of ambiguity, ambiguity, a lot of ominous feeling to it. You know, I remember, I'll never forget, I this was probably, gosh, eight, nine years ago, and and I had the evening off, and we had a new finance manager, and I was the new car director. And the finance manager calls me up. And he's in Reynolds, we're in Reynolds at that point. And, and he calls me up and goes, Hey, I can't find where to put, I can't remember what data point in is it and my wife sitting across, we're both watching TV, we have it muted, and I go Alright, all you gotta do is Ctrl Shift J moved to the back screen hit K, but you know, and like, I'm walking through this, he goes, What are you? As he's, you know, I'm sure you've had those similar experiences. Fast forward to today, and the experiences are kind of coming at us. And I you know, at least from my perspective, and I've only been in the industry for 12 years, but you know, we were actually just on we recorded with Tom Ryan and and just this speed of new things, hitting new ideas. You know, there's a news story one day that says this and the next you know, chips are up, chips are down, you know, there's inventories up inventories down, you know, approaching this from the perspective of having been in news and now being on you know, the tech and consulting I'd you know, how are you kind of encouraging people? Or how are you approaching these many facets of news and change and the potential realities over the next five years?

Jason Stein: 10:11

It's absolutely crazy. And what I would tell you is that when I joined the industry, I would say full time in 2003, we thought that we were operating at a fairly blinding level at that stage, because it was talked about at that time, and now you think about almost 20 years ago, wow, things really are changing. Wow, this this auto industry, it's never it's never been faster. And and I think back to those days, when really kind of inventory was the only issue, maybe incentives were the only issue. And when I was covering General Motors, they were making more money on their mortgage business than they were on vehicles, which was, you know, that would that would foreshadow a huge problem. But yeah, the what was, what was the you know, the biggest concern, it will, it was not the transition to more of a direct selling method, nobody really talked about Tesla very much. There, there wasn't a concern over chips or labor shortages, or any of the factors that have even just come on. Over the course of the last two years, I would argue the last two years has been more impactful than the previous 20. And it's it's shifted and changed everything. With an inertia that could never have been realized. In fact, one automaker executive told me about a year ago, look, we wanted to go to build to order, and we're at build to order now. But we never could have got there never could have made that happen in the quote the old days. And I think what what COVID taught us was that all that acceleration that was leading up to 2020, just went into hyperdrive. I mean, if it was moving along at five miles an hour, and the industry was making changes, and it was the industry was concerned about autonomous vehicles, or ride sharing, or peer to peer or any of that stuff, any of the things that would really hit the retail network in the stomach, certainly the last two years have shown that the changes can be even more remarkable than than we imagined, not necessarily in a bad way. And actually, the value of the American car dealer is greater than ever. And I would argue against the direct selling method, they've learned to become just better direct sellers in general. And they've learned to connect with their communities in a better way and a deeper way. They've learned how to provide service in a way that maybe they didn't realize before. And you know, now they're more successful than ever. So I would say how to navigate where we are right now. It's all about context. I mean, what speed are we at now what speed where we at in 2003, when I joined Automotive News, it's probably the same type of speed, there's just different issues.

Paul Daly: 12:50

And always right, and always, the velocity always feel fast when you're in it, right until, until you ride the rollercoaster the second time or the third time, and we don't get, we don't get to do that. Right? It's always a new roller coaster. Right? The hell's different, the drop the acceleration, they're all different.

Jason Stein: 13:05

And this and this automotive industry, and the two of you know, this, you know, as well as anybody. It's a different ride every day, for sure. And that's what makes it exciting. Whether you're on the dealer side or the automaker side, or the parts suppliers are the other vendors is that no two days are the same, that's for sure it's turning, whether it's a month long, close, or a new product that's rolling out, or a new challenge to the business coming from some disrupter that's coming from the side that you can learn from. But that's what makes it the best, most dynamic business of any, in my

Paul Daly: 13:40

couldn't agree, couldn't agree. So you mentioned opinion, that, you know, deal. You just talked about dealers being great at serving their communities and learning how to do service better, and learning how to do you know, like, a more streamlined sales process better. But you also have, like, this experience in the retail side, and you have a lot of interaction with the retail side of the auto industry. Right now. The FTC of these proposed regulations that are up for public comment has been a little bit brutal, right, as the public comments have opened up and Kyle and I've been paying attention to like number of YouTubers and content creators that really position the dealers that we know and love so much, because we understand who they are as people and what they do. It's a very different narrative, right? And the kind of the PR problem with franchise retail auto, what is your perspective on how we can maybe start to like communicate the essence of the good side of franchise retail auto to the retail public?

Jason Stein: 14:37

Yeah, I mean, it's a challenge in general, because unfortunately, car dealers have had this stigma for an awful long time and it's got nothing to do with what's happened. Even the improvements even over the last couple of years. There just seems to be this thing, like sort of the dentist. I mean, you know, I don't want to go to the dentist, I don't want to or I don't want to get my car fixed at the dealership. You know, they're all are obviously some bad actors in every field. And, you know, that's that's, that's car dealers or non car dealers or, you know other other industries. But the point is I think that car dealers have made enormous strides over the course of the last few years to really change some reputational issues that that existed prior to, and what's the best way to get out there and tell that story? Well, I think they probably the probably has to be a more concerted effort to tell the consumer that your local car dealer is supporting the local community and the charities and, and is a member of the community. And you're and you're going to see them all over the place helping people. And there are so many efforts that are going on, I'm going to be involved in a in a charity golf outing that occurs next week. That's that benefits the kids of Southeast Michigan and actually, across the US. And there are numerous actors and athletes and superstars coming to that to help support this, and those car dealers don't generally go out there and say, Hey, look at this is what I've done. And they, you know, necessarily run an ad in the, you know, in the local news. But, you know, it is there are really, really, really entrepreneurial, positive forces that are in every community that are the backbone of those communities. And so I think that it's always going to be a PR challenge. The best that that can happen is, is that I think car dealers tell their stories, maybe a little bit better. And, and of course associations like NADA can help that. But yeah, so some of the comments are fairly brutal there, but they're nothing new.

Paul Daly: 16:41

Have you ever seen a concerted effort? Like I mean, a broad scale concerted effort, be effectively deployed in your time in the industry? And I mean, like a broad scale PR campaign to promote the good parts of franchised auto dealers. Have you ever seen anything like that?

Jason Stein: 16:58

Not really. No, I think, you know, if anything, the franchised car dealers have just stuck to their knitting. I mean, they've sold cars, they've helped members of the community, they've provided jobs. I mean, we ran a program for years, you know, the best dealerships to work for a program that I was a part of, just in the, in the formation of it. It was awesome feelgood program that was that highlighted all of the great things that those dealerships do not just for their employees, but for their communities. And, you know, there are numerous examples of of those efforts. It's just, no, Paul, there's, there's not been a concerted effort to really go out there and say, Hey, look at this is what we're doing. But, you know, the dentists don't do that, either. So, you know, but you got to have, you got to choose

Paul Daly: 17:48

not to go to the dentist, unless you have an emergency, though, the car is like a little bit more of a regular flow of life, you know, well,

Jason Stein: 17:55

we'll see what happens. I mean, unfortunately, with the pricing of new vehicles at record levels, people are hanging on to their cars a lot longer, I had the opportunity to interview the head of SEMA. Just to talk about the aftermarket business in the tuner, business parts and service. And, you know, there's so much of that that's going on now in this in this post COVID world, because, frankly, the affordability issue with primarily the middle class is is evaporating, just with the price of vehicles, and now interest rates being higher. So with that, I think you're gonna see people spending more time at dealerships getting their cars fixed, there's an opportunity there for dealers just just get closer with their customers and to and to explain the kinds of ways that that they can assist.

Kyle Mountsier: 18:44

Do you think that? Like, obviously, if, if, if we're going to change this perception of retail automotive, which I think is, which is necessary, if there's any hope of, you know, of things, not just coming crashing down on the dealer network, and I don't think that that's like an imminent, you know, imminent death type thing. I'm not a, I'm not a fatalist or anything where in three years, we're all going down, right. But where's the where does the hope lie? Does it? Does it lie in just dealers learning to tell their story better? Because I think that, like I was listening to you say, you know, dealers haven't told their story. Well, they don't run ads about the charities that they do. And I understand that, like, I've talked to dealers personally, that, hey, we just, we just get the job done. We just continue to do the good work. We don't praise it. We don't celebrate it. We don't put it in the newspapers, we don't run PR gigs or anything like that. Does that need to shift in order for this cultural perception for it to kind of like be brought out into the light and have you seen, like the best cases of that in the way that dealers go about that communication?

Jason Stein: 19:57

Yeah, I mean, there's gonna be an opportunity For dealers to move forward here anyway, because the transition to electric vehicles is real, whether we like it or not, the technology is going to get much more sophisticated, it's going to be very difficult for you to bring your your new EV or relatively new EV down to the local guy to fix it. Because they won't have the tools that capability that you know, the the technical know how. So dealers are going to rise to the to the forefront, because you're going to have to go to your your local dealership in order to fix that very complicated vehicle that's in your driveway and dealers, good dealers are putting a lot of money and effort into the expansion of service bays and technical training and, and that EV transition is going to create a real chance to to build a closer relationship between the consumer and the local dealer. And I would say examples, you know, I think back to the Bergstrom family that's in, you know, northern Wisconsin area, they they have been ultimate stewards of the family values and the community and have lent so much support. That's actually a group that does tell its story. Well, you know, and they've got, I don't know, 20 to 30 different brands, so they're not beholden to any one manufacturer. But they but they take that kind of northern Wisconsin area, and and they have really made it into that culturally relevant family business and transcended that culture to the community. And everybody in that area knows who the Bergstroms are, and they know how, how solid the business is for the community, what they what they provide back. And so maybe there should be more workstreams in the world.

Paul Daly: 21:52

No doubt, I love.

Kyle Mountsier: 21:55

Like, that is a perfect example, I couldn't have asked it better. I know the Bergstrom organization, and I've seen their stuff. And John. Yeah, and I don't know them personally. But I've watched them do that. And so I do think that it is up to people like us to kind of highlight and bring those to the forefront so that others can just at least have a bird's eye view or at least have at least have a vision for what that looks like both in the community with employees, you know, you've got, there's so many incredible dealers out there that are that are not just doing the groundwork, but also telling their story well, and I think that that's something that that you know, you through your time have have done well for both the OEM and the dealer network. And I really can't wait to have some time in person with you at ASOTU CON and hanging out and listen to the way that you curate these conversations, as Paul said earlier, and just thankful for for you joining us today and giving us a little bit of insight into not just the yesterday, but tomorrow for the automotive and

Jason Stein: 22:54

I'm honored to be part of the program. I look forward to seeing you all in person and I will leave my drug dealer friends behind. Wonderful. Thanks so much, Jason, really appreciate it. Thank you.

Michael Cirillo: 23:12

Can I tell you a legitimate thought that ran through my mind as I listen to this a real second? You just said Jason. Start talk. I mean, well, here it is. I wrote down do all Canadians start in the newspaper industry, because that's certainly how I got started. That was my entry point in automotive. Maybe

Kyle Mountsier: 23:34

every single one of them start that way. I also wrote down even the ones that start as developers start

Michael Cirillo: 23:41

inserting newsprint seriously. I also wrote down that the smell of newspaper gives me anxiety. Like To this day, if I really newsprint I'm like,

Paul Daly: 23:49

Oh, that's funny has the opposite effect on me

Kyle Mountsier: 23:52

complete. It's like calming. And one I was just gonna say that, like, I need a cup of coffee and a great like, outdoor setting. And I'm good

Paul Daly: 24:00

because of this conversation. I am going to read a newspaper this week, on an airplane. Now, not on an airplane. That brings us back to another episode though, that's a really great way to bring it around. You know, Jason, it's interesting to see his career go from newspaper, right and then just this massive impact on retail, automotive, like just broad scale, everyone knew the name knew his face, you know, heard him speak and understood that and then he pivots out to actually like face more of like, toward the retail side of the business like from the consumer facing you know, entertainment, and just like car culture, and now like to see him still like the fact that he still speaks at all these industry events. He's interested enough to be involved with what ASOTU is doing. There, there still is like this, this point of pivot where I think it just iterates that it just gets in your blood and you're always like, gonna be kind of interested in it. What I

Kyle Mountsier: 24:55

love about it is and this is a similar story for me and I think a lot of people that are in auto, it's like, okay, I tiptoe into it, you know, writing maybe a little thing or being in sales, or maybe I'm a part of a tech company and I tiptoe in. And then there's always this moment where it's like, but over there, and then you get, you're right back into it. But by the time you're back into it, you you go deep. And what I love is, you know, and we saw this, even with Steve Greenfield, it's like, got a job, you know, working from for Mannheim. And, and so but now, like, literally shifting and working on the trajectory of automotive in the end to see that as, as a thread for so many of the people that are that are like Jason Stein that are like Steve Greenfield that are going, No, I'm in this and I'm actually invested in in crafting and curating the narrative is so encouraging to me, because it you know, ever I think many people get the imposter syndrome. It's like, how who am I to kind of be a part of that. And Jason and especially in this conversation, he gave me so much encouragement to go, Oh, I just started writing a little column in a newspaper and out, you know, down a little city, and now I'm shifting the narrative by the conversations I'm a part of, and that's an okay place for a lot of people to be in, in our industry. And I think the more people that lean in in that way, the quicker innovation goes and the and the more we can be as a retail automotive industry.

Paul Daly: 26:23

But I feel like the story of Jason Stein's re entry almost into the scrum that is retail Automotive is kind of just getting started. Thank you so much for spending some time with us here today. On behalf of Kyle Mountsier, Michael Cirillo, and myself. Thanks for listening to Auto Collabs. We'll see you next time.

Unknown: 26:41

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