Surviving, and thriving, against all odds

Suzuki recently recognised it’s dealership in Piet Retief for having the best market share in its area, but Mark Hohls, sales manager at AutoHouse, tells Dealerfloor the award is a just a by-product of surviving against all odds after General Motors’ surprise exit from all its smaller markets worldwide, including South Africa, in 2017.

KZN n9 Auto House Piet Retief

Hohls speaks for all former GM dealerships when he said the announcement came as a shock. “When GM left in 2017, it was like a wife leaving after supper one night, and leaving the dirty dishes in the sink for you. Plus, she took the dog. And both your sets of car keys. But consolation prize, she said her mother can still live with you.”

“It was ugly, and no one saw it coming. People were talking and we couldn’t give the floor stock away. Opel said we could keep selling the product, but that was after Unitrans’s negotiations with Opel Germany, who had just prior to that, been sold to PSA and we had to reapply for the franchise and put lots of money on the table. Plus, they set very high targets – so we said ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

Mark Hohls, sales manager at AutoHouse in Piet Retief.

Hohls said GM’s surprise announcement came barely two months after the Piet Retief dealership had finished a massive revamp. “I don’t think we’d even pulled all the stickers off our new Chev signage before we were told to take it down.”

Many sleepless nights followed, with the small dealership surviving off used vehicle buy-ins while Isuzu stepped into the gap created by the closure of GMSA.

“So started our OEM ‘Tom Sawyer adventure’ – begging for the scraps of a dealership or a franchise. Luckily Suzuki heard our pleas, but as a regional manager said during the initial discussions, ‘We thought you were good for like one unit a month’ Ouch!”

Hohls stressed the Piet Retief dealership has been in “survival mode” since 2017. “We have invested large portions ourselves into the brand because we’ve had no other option. We don’t belong to some large corporate group who print money. It is just us. I am very fortunate my DP Cedric Jones has incredible business sense, and who can keep face in the wildest of storms (he actually quite enjoys it – I huddle in the corner crying).

“Being so close to the edge for so long makes you understand the value in that which you have. Your business relationships, your product, your range, the people who are the face of the company.

The Suzuki dealership is still relatively, but it has grown with leaps and bounds as AutoHouse in Piet Retief worked hard to grow the brand in the region.

Hohls told Dealerfloor he does not know what his current market share is in the Mpumalanga region. “Our market share is a mere by-product – or spinoff – of trying to survive. We’re in competition with no-one but ourselves.

“Suzuki entrusted us with their brand, and we owe it to them to make sure it is never represented as anything short of extraordinary. Our accomplishments speak far greater to Suzuki as an OEM than it does to us as a dealership. Because the truth is, we are not perfect, we drop the ball daily, but in our dealings, we are honest, open and fair. We don’t run away from a problem.

He stressed he has no plans to leave the motor trade, instead the plan is to move from “survival” to “viable” and from there to “growth”.

“So yes, while the future looks bright, that’s only because the sun feels like it is finally coming out. I feel battered and bruised and so, so tired after 2020. This award doesn’t make me feel superior to anyone else, it makes me want to break down in happy tears, because it means we’re making progress.

“We state on our website we are people, just like our customers. I am honoured when people trust us with their business. Some of the greatest business dealings have been on some of the cheapest vehicles, because you are helping that client reach a sense of achievement. We helped make it happen, and that high is why I will never leave the motor trade.”

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