Lansing auto dealership owner focuses on experience
RAND LEDGE — Sherrill Freeborough hadn’t planned to become an auto dealer.
She actually started her career as a media center coordinator in K-12 schools and worked for a health spa before she took a job with a Chevrolet dealership in a Detroit suburb 30 years ago.
Freeborough liked the industry, it turned out, and she had worked her way up to a manager’s position when she was approached about running a new Saturn dealership in Okemos. That became two when a second local store was built in Grand Ledge in 2000. When they went up for sale about a decade ago, she put in a bid. And won.
Now, Freeborough owns Hyundai of Lansing, a dealership serving Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co. She converted her Grand Ledge Saturn store after General Motors shut the division in 2009 amid bankruptcy.
The Okemos location was sold and now is a dealership for Japanese carmaker Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.
Freeborough, as a dealer, is part of a fraction of women owners in what remains a predominantly male-led industry.
An estimated 7 percent to 8 percent of dealership owners are women, Freeborough said.
But she considers that an advantage.
Freeborough said she has built a culture in her stores that treats customers like friends and family. Many of Freeborough’s sales employees had never sold cars before she hired them.
When people have their cars serviced, they’re always returned washed, with a carnation on the dashboard.
“Those are the things I didn’t give up, even though times got tough,” Freeborough said.
“You develop a relationship. You don’t just try to sell something.”
Q: You started off working on the sales floor and in finance. Why’d you decide to buy the local Saturn dealerships?
A: I felt like it was mine. … I ran them and I hired everybody who was there. Another dealer had bid on them and actually won the bid but then he changed his mind. I was second.
I never tried to be a car dealer, either. But if you work hard, the things come to you.
Q: What is it like being a woman in a predominantly male industry?
A: It’s really hard to find women to come into this industry because of the hours we work.
They do look for women in the industry because they know people gravitate to women. People are recognizing that women are a real value in the auto industry, in dealerships especially, because people trust women.
It does give me a little bit of advantage.
Q: How has that contributed to the sales culture at your dealerships?
A: The men I work with now … are more respectful. It came from Saturn. Focus groups said, “We really hate haggling and hassling over cars.”
I still tell my sales people, “Treat them well and they’ll come back.” And they do. I don’t know why others haven’t learned that yet.
Q: You’ve said you market yourself, not your dealership. Why?
A: The biggest thing they say is, “I like your ads.”
It’s not always about price and payments and jumping up and down. It’s about showing the value of coming to me versus somebody else. Your experience here, no matter what department you’re in, is going to be positive. We make mistakes, don’t get me wrong.
Q: Do you think the auto industry’s post-recession rebound will be sustained?
A: Definitely. People need cars. We’re in a state that has no mass transit. A car is the (second-biggest) thing they’ll buy in their lifetime, outside of the house.
Leasing helps because people trade more often. Cars are being built with more quality and reliability, so people are keeping their cars longer.