On a recent winter afternoon, Steve VanGorder offered to buy a customer a soda while that customer waited in the lobby of VanGorder’s Beavercreek SVG Motors auto store.
“Hey, I know you from TV,” the customer told VanGorder.
That’s the thing: After assembling eight locations, 11 new vehicle brands, with 230 employees in five years, supported by dozens of television and radio commercials, a lot of people think they know VanGorder.
“People will often come up to me and say, ‘You sell cars,’” VanGorder said. “And I say, ‘Yes, I do.’”
Sitting down with a Diet Coke, SVG owner and President VanGorder, 45, talked to the Dayton Daily News about what he calls “misconceptions” one by one: He is not just a used car dealer. He happily employs humor in television and radio ads, but behind the fun facade is a serious approach to business.
And don’t be fooled by appearances: Selling cars didn’t necessarily come naturally to VanGorder.
“Originally, I was ashamed of what I did,” he said. “Once I got over that, I said, you know what, I want to be good at this. And I want to be proud of what I do, and I want to tell everybody: ‘This is what I do.’”
So what does VanGorder do?
Springboro Mayor John Agenbroad said he has bought four cars from VanGorder over four years — one for his wife and three for his consulting business. And he has recommended that friends consider him, as well.
“I sent several people to buy cars from him,” Agenbroad said. “I normally don’t do that. He has been trustworthy.”
After dealing with VanGorder, Agenbroad said he has had no problems with him.
“I go back to him because he stands by his word,” the mayor said. “He takes care of you. If something goes wrong, you get on the phone, and he’ll take care of it.”
A self-described “military brat,” VanGorder’s Air Force family moved to Dayton when he was a teenager, and in January 1996, Fairborn’s Jack Huelsman Nissan dealership hired him. VanGorder never finished college.
Jeff Schmitt bought the Huelsman dealerships around 2000, and in time, VanGorder hit the public radar in numerous TV ads while he served as general manager for Schmitt.
His signature line — “Did you say something about buying a car?” — fast became a mantra, one that gets quoted to him to this day.
“It was half my life I spent there,” VanGorder said of his time with Schmitt and Huelsman.
In August 2013, Schmitt Auto Group paid $625,000 to resolve 16 lawsuits and five complaints alleging unfair or deceptive business practices. Schmitt declined to comment on the allegations, as did VanGorder, who was listed with more than a dozen other Schmitt employees at the time as defendants in the suits.
At the time, after 20 years with Schmitt, VanGorder launched out on his own, starting SVG with a used car business at 880 E. National Road, Vandalia, in 2014.
“I had to go to the banks to borrow money,” he said. One question he was asked: What’s your value proposition? What separates you from other dealers?
He had to find stores that were near Dayton but often on the periphery. The lots he purchased were sometimes troubled. “Putting out fires” became part of his job, he said.
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But a business philosophy was in clear view the whole time.
“SVG is an acronym for Superior Value Guarantee,” VanGorder said. “It’s not just words. It’s really at the core of our business.”
Today, his chain of stores stretches from Greenville and Urbana to the north, Eaton to the west, Dayton, Beavercreek (his longtime home) to the east and Washington Court House to the southeast.
Particular benefits bring customers back, he believes. He offers buyers three years of free oil changes and a year of paintless dent repair. And he gives buyers seven days to “love” their new vehicles or return them, “no questions asked,” something he called “a risk in our business.”
“Buying a car is a big decision,” he said. “We get it.”
Today, consumers are well informed, approaching fewer dealerships with a detailed understanding of what they want and how much they want to pay. Strong-arm tactics will only drive customers away, VanGorder says.
“If they (customers) aren’t ready, it doesn’t do me any good to pressure them into buying,” he said. “I think we do much better when we say, ‘I’m ready when you’re ready.’”
Although he declined to give exact numbers, he acknowledged spending plenty of money on marketing and advertising, which he sees as essential.
“It’s a lot of money,” he said. “More than I thought I would make in a year we spend in a month (on advertising).”
But he believes it’s money well spent.
“You have to put yourself out there,” he said. “Are there going to be people who don’t like it? You just have to be OK with that. Once I come to terms with that — being on TV or being in front of people — I’m just trying to be myself.”
“If you’re faking it,” he added, “it shows.”
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