Chapter 12 - Confessions of a Car Dealer: Putting it All Together
Some years ago I became involved, somewhat unexpectedly, in the business of buying and selling cars. This chapter tells my story, and the struggle to express my call to follow Jesus as a car dealer. I hope that my honest reflections will help put some flesh and bones on the issues we have been grappling with.
Now let me say right from the start that I’m fully aware of the low esteem that my “profession” (perhaps this is an overly generous term) is held in. We seem to have done particularly poorly on the “most trusted professions” annual survey, competing with Congressmen for the “least trusted” tag, according to recent Gallup polls.
I’ve also learnt to live with the jokes – like the one that asks when you can tell that a car dealer is lying (answer: whenever he moves his lips!). Given all this, you might fairly ask, how can anyone professing to follow Christ sell cars for a living? In fact, many people might even consider the very phrase “Christian car dealer” to be somewhat oxymoronic.
Well, it certainly had its challenges. But I came to the conclusion very early on that it’s exactly industries like car dealing that God most wants (and needs) to transform.
At any rate, I enjoyed and valued my time in business. While I no longer trade as a car dealer, I am very grateful for what I learnt and for the tremendous opportunities it gave me to work with God. It was a great ride (no pun intended).
How it all began
For much of my adult life I worked for Christian organizations. While financial insecurity was often a reality, my wife and I got by aided by the generous support of family and friends. However, after a few years things began to change. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and when our organization was facing an uncertain future because of financial sustainability, we were really forced to look for small business opportunities. To be blunt, we realized that for the organization to survive we had to find some way of paying the bills.
Buying and selling cars was not something I naturally gravitated to. However, a series of events led to a colleague and I importing some second hand vehicles from Japan. That it would mean eventually becoming a licensed car dealer never even occurred to me. If it had, I would have felt the irony immediately, and backed off.
This is because my one and only experience with a car dealer was very negative. When I was young I spied in a local dealer’s yard a freshly painted 1972 Holden (GM) Kingswood. Mid-blue in color, it looked the part. For the first and last time in my life, I purchased a vehicle from a car dealer. Things were fine for the first six weeks, and then it happened – the paint began to bubble in various places. Soon vibrant shades of rust brown appeared across the body, showing evidence that the panel shop job had been substandard.
There was little I could do about it, but it did reinforce my growing stereotype of used car dealers. Back then I resolved never to buy a vehicle from any of them again. In fact, that one and only experience of sales yard antics convinced me that used car salesmen were about as useful to the economy as the polar icecap.
The life of a car dealer
And yet, here I was, unexpectedly a member of this despised profession!
Dealing ethically with people in a highly unredeemed industry was one of a number of issues I was soon confronted with. Another was what value I should place on the 20-25 hours per week that I spent running the business. Initially, I confess, I viewed it as a means to an end. My heart was in Signpost Communications, but in order for us to survive we had to earn money.
But deep down I knew that it was inadequate to simply view the business as a place to earn a buck and a preaching opportunity. To be sure, mentally I ascribed to the view that God was interested in all work. But the reality was less clearcut. At first I didn’t find it all that easy to make a connection between my efforts at “God’s work” and my activities as a car dealer.
Part of my dilemma was that I viewed the car industry as one of the key markets fueling our consumerism. I knew that millions were wasted every year on our fetish of driving the latest and greatest fashion. So was it even appropriate that I, a Christian, committed to living an alternative to the great Western dream, should actually get involved in an industry that furthered our consumerist tendencies?
The position I came to on this was … yes, despite the negative way cars were used and viewed, people still needed transport. While our wants may get awfully tied up with our genuine needs, providing people with good-quality, well-priced vehicles that they needed for getting themselves from place to place was still serving people. Some of my toughest dilemmas revolved around how to serve clients who were quite willing to waste thousands of dollars more on a care than they needed to, or who seemed completely unconcerned about the environmental impact of their gas-guzzling SUV! I had to learn not to force my own convictions on them, but rather to find gentle and subtle ways of bringing influence. Short of withdrawing completely from society, there was no way we could divorce ourselves from the systems and structures of our communities.
I came to the conclusion that all industries needed Christians, and it was our role to discover ways of redeeming and transforming those industries – of finding how we might work “Christianly” in them. Especially in industries like the selling of second hand vehicles, where the public desperately needed people they could trust.
The primary question I asked myself through those years of car dealing was, “How can I do business Christianly?” Or to put it in another (and perhaps less clumsy) way “How can I follow Jesus faithfully as a car dealer?”
It seemed to me that doing this would involve much more than being honest and acting with integrity, sharing one’s faith, and giving generously to “Christian causes”. It is not that these issues were unimportant or in any way peripheral. They were, however, insufficient in themselves.
In fact, I soon came to believe that my business should, over time, lead to a quite distinctive way of operating, one that was radically different to the norm. (This is not to suggest that there won’t be some points of commonality to the way other car dealerships were run.) These revolved around issues such as the way I bought and sold cars, how I priced them, the type of cars I sold, how I related to customers, service providers, and other car dealers. Many of the ethical issues I confronted had wider social, economic, and environmental considerations. There were tough issues and tensions to grapple with.
All this meant that trying to run a car business with real integrity and see it as genuinely contributing to God’s work, became a fascinating journey of discovery.
Selling cars is essentially a service industry. However, was it even possible to serve people altruistically and still make money from the business?
The answer, I discovered, was a qualified yes. When dealing with people I learnt to carry uppermost in my mind the question, “Am I genuinely wanting the best for this person, or do I simply see them as an opportunity to make a sale?”
I would love to be able to say categorically that my responses were always 100% for the good of the person, but that would be lying! However, I did grow in this area and certainly felt relaxed about serving people at the cost of losing a sale.
How did I serve people, then, through my business? For those wanting to buy a vehicle, I did so by…
- Helping them work out what they needed (this was often a long process, but absolutely critical if customers were to make a good choice).
- Giving them options to explore and suggesting they consider a car more suitable for their needs.
- Selling them a vehicle for a price that was hard to beat.
- Ensuring they knew they could come back to me if there’s a problem.
- Being happy to provide ideas and options without making them feel that they were obliged to buy from me.
I learnt that some widely accepted practices actually worked against serving people well. For example, one was the kind of negotiation tactics generally employed by car yards. I call it the bargaining game. The problem with making a sale this way was that it generally undermined trust in the relationship and played with people’s heads. Plus, it tended to favor those who knew the game and were able to play it well. It was both counter-productive and unfair. For these reasons, I abandoned the practice very early in my business, replacing it with a set price structure.
Another industry practice was the strong encouragement for customers to finance their vehicle. I quickly discovered that there was a huge financial incentive for dealers to do this, as the commissions and kickbacks from the finance companies were a significant money earner for them. The result was that many people ended up buying vehicles they could not really afford, leaving them to struggle with high interest loans on a fast-depreciating asset. My contrasting approach was to do no finance deals and strongly encourage people to buy within their means. If a customer felt they had to get finance, my advice was to go their bank. If they were not prepared to lend you the money, then you definitely couldn’t afford it!
In order to serve people well, I sometimes gave advice that worked against making a sale. For example, I regularly told people to hold onto a good vehicle for a length of time, in order to get the value out of it. Regular changing of vehicles almost invariably makes bad economics, because it will cost you each time you change.
I knew this advice was potentially bad for my business and there were some customers who chose not to change cars because of the advice I gave them! But I had to remind myself – did I want to serve people or take advantage of them?
I also attempted to serve my business associates – the mechanics, custom agents, car groomers, and panel shops whose services I used? How did I do this? By:
- Working hard to make my interactions and dealings with them an enjoyable and fun experience, as well as taking a genuine interest in them.
- Looking for ways we could make doing business with each other win/win situations, and recommending them to others.
- Being open, transparent, and honest in my dealings – striving for integrity.
- Finding ways to help them out; for example, by offering to pay my account early where cash flow was difficult for a service provider, or by offering a vehicle where they needed transport for an emergency, etc.
- Not expecting more of them than what was reasonable.
- Appreciating their work – and letting them know that I appreciated it.
Being in business was a great way to grow relationships – not just with clients, but also within the industry. I enjoyed immensely working with people who were part of the car scene. This resulted in opportunities to build friendships with my service providers – and with other dealers. It was remarkable how often someone would open up to me about their struggles, or ask me about faith issues. I put this down to taking time to be genuinely interested in them – creating the environment for trust to grow.
I also built a strong relationship with my Japanese agent that was tremendously enriching. In fact, we became friends first, business associates second. My occasional trips to Japan were wonderful opportunities to spend time with this man, his workers, and his family. We had intriguing conversations in the car on the way to the auctions and while sitting in restaurants, listening to what was important to each other. At times he questioned me about my Christian beliefs, and why I lived the way I did. This enriching friendship would not have been possible without the business. It provided the context for the relationship.
Being in business also resulted in a great deal of personal development. It forced me into situations where the reservoir of my potential was tapped in unexpected ways. My car sales work prompted responses from me that other roles in my life have never called for. You see, latent within each of us are countless gifts and abilities that God delights in developing. His creativeness knows no limit.
For example, my business provided many opportunities to think laterally and come up with imaginative solutions. I never felt these were natural strengths of mine, but through the demands of my business God often helped me solve problems creatively. Someone might ring up in a panic because his vehicle had given up the ghost, prompting me to find a way to fill his immediate need so he could get by until a longterm solution was found. Or it might be through offering a customer another way of thinking about her requirements. The possibilities were endless and I learnt to delight in little bits of inspiration that dropped into my head just at the right time. I view these as “acts of grace” which helped me to see the way I could work in partnership with God.
Of course, many of these growing skills are transferrable, so as God has developed me in the business I have been able to exercise those same abilities in other roles I now fulfill.
One outlet I found for expressing my values as well as my gifts, was writing regular newsletters to all my past clients. I was able to provide information on the market, and on some relevant issue such as the true costs of running a vehicle, depreciation, financing, how to get the best value from your car, and so on. People appreciated this service and many commented on how it gave them food for thought.
More than a car dealer!
I am very grateful for the years of car dealing. And I certainly have no doubt that this work counted – it had real value in God’s economy.
However, the car business was at the time only one of many roles I carried during the course of my week. I continued to work part time for Signpost Communications. In addition, there are the numerous unpaid tasks that I do. They included being:
- A husband to my wife, Jill
- A father to our daughters – Maria, Kellie and Melody – and occasional foster children
- Chairperson of the local school Board of Trustees
- Home group member
- Youth group leader
- Church member
- Home owner
Collectively I viewed all these roles as the current expression of my call (or vocation) to follow Jesus. And I considered them all part of my work.
Of course, since those days, many of my roles have changed. Nevertheless, It has taken a few years but I now find myself thinking much more holistically about my day and week. All facets of my work mesh together as part of my vocation of following Jesus.
It has taken a while, but the paid/unpaid distinction now means little to me. Where the money comes from to live on is somewhat secondary to the value of the various tasks I feel called to fulfil. It’s not that money is unimportant (we all have to live). Rather, it’s that the value of work is never determined simply by whether I get paid for it – or how much I get paid.
Nor does the enjoyment I find in the task dictate whether or not I see it as “work”. I’ve come to accept that in every task there will be elements I enjoy greatly and others that I find difficult, monotonous, and uninspiring. If I did only the things I really enjoy there would be a lot left undone! Learning over the years about my motivations, gifts and temperament has helped me make strategic choices about where to put my time and energy. But ultimately I’ve learned the importance of putting at least some effort into tasks in which I’m not naturally gifted or motivated. God has much to teach me and each activity has its place in the scheme of things. Each contributes to my service.
This has forced me to think long and hard about how even the most mundane tasks are connected to God’s work in this world. Because I like order, I rarely lack the motivation to wash the dishes and mow the lawns. But it has taken time for me to understand how doing such work can serve others, express care for creation, and be an opportunity for me to learn discipline. Recognizing this has helped me to take delight in doing these simple, menial chores well.
An integrated view
I’m fortunate. The nature of my paid work over the years, has given me a certain amount of freedom, allowing me to be flexible in the way I use my time. Not everyone is blessed with such flexibility. However, I think all of us can learn to be more integrated in the way we view time and our various roles. We can do this primarily by rejecting the paid/unpaid distinction as the main grid through which we value different tasks. Instead we can learn to recognize how much the task allows us to reflect and further the kingdom of God.
For example, the raising of children is a strategic task. At no other stage of life have I had the opportunity to shape and mold lives more than in those child-rearing years. I look back on them as the most important challenge of my discipleship. When I first began to appreciate the strategic role of parenting “work”, my view of it changed dramatically.
Don’t get me wrong, I still find some roles (and parenting was one of them) more difficult than others. Because of my temperament and gifting, I easily gravitate to those tasks that have a tangible and clear outcome. My utilitarian streak is still likely to complain at the taking of “valuable” time to do something whose benefits are not immediately obvious. “It’s not productive enough. I should be spending my time on things that produce real results!” But I have learnt to allow my value system to be reshaped and to view all effort directed toward God, as work.
This includes relationships. In fact, it especially includes relationships. For people are at the center of our calling to follow Jesus. People are the heart and soul of all work. Relationships do not (contrary to popular opinion) just happen. They are generally the result of working at it in a focused way.
So I am learning to be more flexible with my schedule, and to hold my activistic goals a little more lightly. Frequently, God will bring across my path people who need my time. These are unique opportunities to serve, encourage, laugh with, cry with, and open up to others. My journey of faith requires me to give priority and attention to the small things that God is doing in the lives of the people I meet. Listening to their heartbeat, responding in friendship and love, will not come if I am always focused on the “tasks” I have set myself.
This process of realigning my priorities is still going on!
Up Close and Personal
- If a used car salesman thinks he can work with God, anyone can! What comes out of Wayne’s story that you can identify with? What other observations and solutions can you add?
- Try engaging in the same exercise yourself. Put down on paper ways in which you have come to see your work as connecting with God’s work. Now try to describe this to the group, and invite them to quiz you further. Then offer to do the same for them.
- What do you see as the greatest benefits that might come from realigning time to make relationships the priority? What are possible snags?
Disturbingly, sociologist Robert Wuthnow discovered that for many people with religious faith, ethics in the workplace is essentially viewed as the need to be ‘honest’, and that even this word is thought of in quite narrow terms. As Wuthnow argues, with this truncated perspective “one’s behaviour may contribute to the burning of rain forests and the perpetuation of world hunger and yet, as long as one tells the truth, ethics is not a problem.” Robert Wuthnow, God and Mammon in America (New York: Free Press, 1994), 84.