A Steady Hand on the Throttle

The Pragmatist: the first in a series celebrating planning and financial pragmatism

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Schumacher Chevrolet CEO Judith Schumacher-Tilton

When faced with life-altering challenges, some people duck back under the covers. Others roll up their sleeves and get going. Judith Schumacher-Tilton chose the second route.

In 1998, after the death of her father, Schumacher-Tilton took over her family’s then nearly 70-year-old GM car dealership in Little Falls, N.J. Through hard work and a deliberate long-term growth strategy, she built it into what’s now the third-largest-volume Chevrolet dealer in northern New Jersey. This was accompanied by the purchase of a second GM dealership in 2008. Her mission from the start was clear: preserve the legacy of her father by keeping the business alive. Says Schumacher-Tilton, a mother of three and grandmother of six: “My father loved this dealership, so making sure the business continued was my way of honoring him and what he built.”

There were hurdles. When Schumacher-Tilton took over, “the business was not in good shape,” she readily admits. The showroom hadn’t been updated and advertising was sparse, making it harder to compete with the sleek dealerships popping up along northern New Jersey’s highways. Adding to the difficulties was the fact that Schumacher-Tilton had no experience selling cars. “I never did more than answer phones at the dealership while I was in high school,” she says. “This was completely on-the-job training.”
With no old habits to break, she threw herself into learning every aspect of the business. “In the beginning, I thought all I needed to do was sell cars,” Schumacher-Tilton says. It wasn’t, so she quickly immersed herself in the operations of the parts and service department, and she figured out the different financial arrangements available to customers for used, new and leased cars.

By adopting a hands-on approach, Schumacher-Tilton was able to establish benchmarks for each department’s profitability while keeping an eye on long-term growth. “You need to have a very efficient and well-run business office, which gives a daily picture of your operations and growth strategy,” she says.

Part of her growth plan focused on the car-buying experience. “A car is typically the second biggest purchase after a home,” Schumacher-Tilton says. “I wanted customers to feel comfortable when they walked into the dealership and to feel a good, positive energy.”

That strategy came in handy during the recession and GM’s Chapter 11 filing. Schumacher-Tilton stayed the course, re-emphasized the importance of customer service, and more than doubled sales during GM’s bankruptcy. “Our customers are middle-class Americans, and they believed in the brand and its ability to come out of this,” she says. The momentum has continued: The dealership has 40% repeat business, and second- and third-generation family members are customers.

Schumacher-Tilton extends the same hands-on, long-term-planning approach to her family. With her two sons in the business, it was important to have a well-thought-out and detailed estate and succession plan. By using the services of a professional, Schumacher-Tilton was able to create an estate plan that clarifies everyone’s role in the business and leaves no questions unanswered. In business—as in life—Schumacher-Tilton believes, “chance favors the prepared.”