Zanchin Automotive Group – House of Cars
The Zanchin Automotive Group built one of the country’s most successful dealership empires on a philosophy of empowering employees and customers — an attitude driving this dynasty into the future.
Over the past 40-plus years, Joe Zanchin has built one of the most successful automotive businesses in Canada. He’s grown his company from a single dealership in Vaughan into a powerhouse of over 30 locations that represents 15 brands and employs over 1,200 people in Ontario. But when you ask the president and CEO of Zanchin Automotive Group to tell his story, to give insight into how he’s managed to do it all, he’s not interested in talking.
“He’s never at a loss for words, except when it comes to himself,” explains Adrian Bilyk, senior vice-president and general counsel at Zanchin Automotive Group. “He can talk to anybody about anything at any point in time, but he doesn’t like to give himself credit.”
And for this hard-working businessman the reason is simple: “It’s about the people,” Joe says. “You could have a very good brand, but if you don’t have the right people in place you’re not going to succeed.”
Joe attributes his success to his dedicated staff and long-term management team, many of whom have been with him for 20-plus years. This executive team is well versed in the Zanchin approach to doing business. “We are also well known for identifying employees who show talent and promise in one day becoming good management. We mentor them, and we currently have a lot of young talent that we are grooming,” says Joe.
Since opening Number 7 Honda, his first dealership, in 1973, Joe has used this people-over-profit attitude to steer Zanchin Automotive Group toward greatness. Today, this long-standing company, which includes four auto malls, is one of the top five dealer groups in the country in terms of size and revenue. It’s also one of the industry’s most respected. It’s this focus on staff and customers that has been key to garnering such success and admiration, and it’s a trait that the next generation refuses to waver from.
You could have a very good brand, but if you don’t have the right people in place you’re not going to succeed
— Joe Zanchin, president and CEO of the Zanchin Automotive Group
“For us, it’s not really about the numbers,” says Andria Zanchin, vice-president of the Zanchin Automotive Group. “It’s about every dealership being an integral part of their community, about ensuring that a strong management team is at every store to guarantee consumers have a comfortable, no-pressure experience. This has been a staple of the Zanchin brand, and it always will be.”
Despite the massive size of their thriving business, Joe and his two daughters, Andria and Laura, remain very hands-on. They still believe in visiting every dealership with regularity — from as far north as Innisfil to as far south as Oakville to way out east in Kingston — and it’s not uncommon for them to drop in on 15 of their dealerships a day.
While some owners may avoid interacting with their employees, Joe, Andria and Laura prefer to be in the heart of the action. Joe has a famous disdain for boardroom meetings about the financials. He would much rather be on the floor, getting a feel for his people and welcoming customers who have taken the time to come to one of his dealerships.
“When our father sees people in the showroom, it doesn’t matter what store he’s in, he will go up to them, he will talk to them,” Andria explains. It could be a long-time customer that’s in for service on their vehicle or someone who’s walking through the door for the first time, “he makes himself part of the process, and I think customers and employees appreciate that.”
This approachability is essential to the Zanchins. “We want people to feel like they can come up and talk to us at any time,” adds Laura Zanchin, vice-president of Zanchin Automotive Group. They’ll often be mixing it up with the sales agents, joking with technicians and shaking hands with customers. It’s all part of ensuring that everyone, both customers and employees, enjoys the environment of a Zanchin dealership. “We want to know: is everybody happy? What more can we do? Our father has always been that way and we’re determined to carry on that practice.”
Joe is also a man who believes in leading by example. “There’s no job too small, and he doesn’t feel he’s above rolling up his sleeves to help out. That’s one of the great lessons he’s taught us,” Laura adds.
The reason the Zanchins remain so focused on their staff is because they know that a happy employee ensures a happy customer. For Joe, the contentment of his clientele is the whole reason he got into the business in the first place. After he emigrated from Italy to Canada in 1962, with only $20 in his pocket, Joe landed a job at a body shop as a mechanic. Three years later he bought the business. A year and a half after that, with the business prospering, he opened three more. Soon, his eyes turned to dealerships. He recognized that while many dealers were competent at the commercial aspect of the business, there were plenty that lacked people skills.
“There were a lot of people with tremendous trade ability, but they didn’t know how to talk to customers,” Joe recalls. “I said if they can be successful like that I can do a better job.” He adds: “To me, a customer is not just a customer. I like to say they become friends.”
Every one of the Zanchins’ dealerships — from consumer brands, such as Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Mazda, Volkswagen, Scion, Chrysler and Nissan, to luxury lines that include Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti and Acura — fosters a friendly, hassle-free atmosphere where customers can feel comfortable. “We want the transaction of buying a car to be a positive experience,” Andria explains. “That’s why our father got into the business, and we take that to heart with every transaction.”
This focus on people doesn’t end in the dealership, either. The Zanchins have always ensured they’re active members of every community they operate in. They support numerous causes across the province, from smaller grassroots initiatives, such as schools and local hockey teams, to larger health-care foundations, including SickKids in Toronto, the William Osler Health System in Etobicoke and the Mackenzie Hospital Foundation in Vaughan. From its inception, the Zanchin Automotive Group has had a team of riders in the Ride to Conquer Cancer bike ride. The group’s Nissan and Infiniti dealers hold an annual golf tournament with all proceeds going to the cause, and many Zanchin employees and business associates also participate in the ride.
Employees are encouraged to find causes that are near and dear to their hearts, ones that they feel would benefit from the company’s support. Laura explains how one recent program came from a general manager’s passion for children’s charities. During each of the 34 home games this season for the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs, BMW Kingston donated $500 to the local Boys and Girls Club. “In that case, you had somebody in the community who worked for the dealership with a cause that was important to them,” she says. “They came to our father and said we would love to be able to support it, and he was behind it 100 per cent, because that’s what they wanted to do for that community.”
It’s this type of diversity that’s important to the company. “We don’t want to limit ourselves to one cause,” Laura explains. “We have a multitude of customers from different ethnicities with diverse beliefs and cultures. We value their interests and we look for organizations that offer them support.”
One endeavour that the Zanchins are particularly proud of is the Joe Zanchin Academic Excellence Scholarship. Joe started the scholarship in 2010 when the company found they were struggling to find quality technicians and apprentices to work at their dealerships. “We decided, what better way to contribute to our industry than to create a scholarship?” Andria says. The scholarship, which is open to students of varying backgrounds, provides tuition money to recipients who are enrolling in automotive technician programs. “This helps alleviate the financial pressure and allows them to focus on school and becoming what they want to be.”
This type of empowerment has always been at the heart of the Zanchin Automotive Group, and it’s one that will continue to drive the brand in the future. As Bilyk explains, the family has built one of the largest automotive dealer groups in the country, “but no one really knows that. That’s because they focus so much on looking at the community, concentrating on the brand in that particular market and then giving the people who run those dealerships all the tools that they need to succeed. They aren’t about celebrating their own achievements. They’re about the people.”
Although keeping an eye on day-to-day operations takes up most of their time, the Zanchin Group always plans for the future. Besides recently acquiring Mercedes-Benz Durham in January 2016, the group has just recently closed a deal to purchase two additional dealers. With these new opportunities and a mindset focused on people fuelling the company, it’s clear there’s no slowing down for this automotive dynasty.