What businesses slammed by the pandemic can learn from America’s champion car salesman
It shouldn’t be surprising that America’s champion car salesman saw the pandemic as an opportunity.
It didn’t look like one. With much of the nation in lockdown, millions suddenly jobless, car dealerships ordered shut, and sales plunging, the industry was not rife with optimism. But Ali Reda sees things differently. He sells Chevrolets and Cadillacs at the Les Stanford dealership in Dearborn, Mich., and in 2017, he sold more vehicles than anyone in America had ever sold in a year: 1,530 new ones and 52 used ones. He broke a record that had stood for 44 years. The way he did it, and the reason he saw opportunity in the pandemic, is rich with lessons for anyone in a business that got slammed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Reda, 47, has attained a status that virtually all salespeople aspire to. “I don’t really sell to anybody that doesn’t know of me,” he says. Everybody is a previous customer or has been referred by one.
Since everyone who calls already wants to buy a car from him, he isn’t exactly a salesman anymore. “If it’s a new customer, they tell me what [vehicle] they’re in. If it’s a repeat customer, I already know,” he says. He knows or finds out “who they are, where they are, where they’re coming from, and, more importantly, where they’re going in life. Are they getting married or having a child? Changing jobs? Are they driving more? Or less?”
When he has that information, customers tend to ask what he thinks they should do. He tells them, and they tend to do it. “I’ve really adopted an adviser-type role rather than the salesman role,” he says.
That’s a nirvana that most salespeople never reach, and Reda knows why. “It’s what you’re doing outside of the dealership more so than in the dealership,” he says, using the terminology of his business to make a point that applies broadly. “What I mean by that is earning that trust through your community. The reason why most salespeople fail at it is because they give up prematurely. It takes years and years to develop that type of relationship with the entire community.”
Now we’re getting to why the pandemic looked like an opportunity to Reda. He has been involved for “years and years” with local nonprofits that promote health, education, employment, nutrition, and more in the Dearborn area. To him, COVID-19 was “a great entry point to enter into a community with the right cause,” he says. “And because everybody is involved in it, you actually get more recognition a lot faster than you normally would.”
When PPE was in critically short supply early in the pandemic, his connections enabled him to buy “a couple of thousand masks.” He put out the word through texts and social media, asking health care workers or their families to “please reach out to me personally,” he recalls. “You can imagine how that spread like wildfire. My assistant and I drove to people’s houses dropping off two, three masks, six masks.”
As requests multiplied, he set up a website called DearbornCares asking people to drop off PPE at the dealership, which would distribute it. The site also provided information on COVID-19 testing locations, local restaurants offering takeout and delivery, and other information. At the top of the landing page is a video message from Reda, and if you scroll all the way to the bottom, there, discreetly, is his phone number and email.
“That’s how you get to be known,” he says, “And people are going to be more inclined to do business with somebody they know, somebody who has given back.”
Nothing on Reda’s résumé would have suggested he’d become a record-setting salesman. “I was raised with a single mother in inner-city Detroit. I’m a product of the Detroit public school system,” he says. “I never let where I came from dictate where I was going.” In 2001 he’d been working at a warehouse for 10 years when he realized he needed to move on. A car dealership hired him, “and I just kind of went in, not knowing anything. I quickly learned that it wasn’t about the product they were selling. It was about the people.”
He adopted his community-centered approach when he faced the desperation of the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. General Motors shut down the dealership where he was working. “It may have been the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘What am I gonna do?’” He moved to the Les Stanford dealership, adopted his current approach, “and just grew with the community. I loved them—definitely love —and it was reciprocated.” It took years, but he went from selling 25 or 30 cars a month to averaging 130 a month. In December 2018, he set another record, selling 202 cars in a month.
Reda’s experience in the financial crisis gave him optimism when the pandemic arrived. Once again, auto retailing looked doomed, but he knew it wasn’t. His long list of relationships kept his phone ringing. He appears to be doing well. Like virtually all car salespeople, he doesn’t like to say how many cars he’s selling—that’s competitive information—but the dealership still employs two assistants just to handle his scheduling and paperwork.
Asked for his advice to businesspeople today, his response is short: “It’s just going to come down to patience.” He has demonstrated what works, and it doesn’t happen overnight. That isn’t necessarily bad news. After all, if becoming world-class great were quick and easy, everyone would do it. The encouraging message of Reda’s example is that if you’re willing to do what we already know is effective, you’ll be in a class by yourself.