O’Brien Automotive Team
Creative & committed
Business View Magazine interviews Ryan Gremore, President of O’Brien Automotive Team – Bloomington/Normal, for our focus on U.S. Automobile Dealerships
O’Brien Automotive Team founder Joseph D. O’Brien Jr. has been selling cars and trucks for more than 45 years and his company is an automotive industry leader in the sales, service, and leasing of a dozen different brands of cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs. With dealerships in Illinois, Kentucky, and Washington, the firm also provides parts, service, and paint and body work at its state-of-the-art facilities.
His passion to get to work, motivated Ryan Gremore to start his automotive career right out of high school in the late 1990s. In doing so, he spurned opportunities to attend some of the top colleges around the U.S. He started by selling cars at one of Illinois’ first Mitsubishi dealerships in 1998 and quickly rose through the ranks before becoming the operating partner in 2006.
Gremore and his colleagues have helped the O’Brien Automotive Team grow to include dealerships in four cities and three states employing around 500 professionals. Over the years, O’Brien has owned dealerships that have promoted as many as 15 auto brands. Today its dealerships sell a wide range of makes and models for such leading auto manufacturers as Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Genesis, Nissan, Kia, Honda, Lexus, Toyota, and Ford.
“Working in the automotive retail industry can be extremely rewarding but it takes hard work,” Gremore admits. That has never been truer than since March 2020, with supply chain challenges turning the industry on its head. In past years, O’Brien dealerships might have as much as eight months of vehicle supply sitting on their lots when demand was lower. Now, vehicles are sold before they are even delivered. “It’s a completely different environment,” Gremore says, adding that in a perfect world there would be a better balance between supply and demand.
He’s thankful that the dealerships’ customers in all three states are resilient and understanding. But the situation has forced all O’Brien locations to get more creative with their approach to selling. Many customers still want to see and touch vehicles and take them for a test drive before deciding, which can be hard to ensure these days. The O’Brien Team is spending more time than ever strategizing how to display the limited inventory it has. Fortunately, there is always a new technology or feature that excites customers, given how quickly advancements are being made in vehicle electronics every year. “No matter what is happening in the industry, there’s always a challenge that keeps us on our toes,” Gremore says. “But that’s why we like working here.”
These days O’Brien Automotive Team dealers will trade for just about any used vehicle they can sell. Roughly 50 percent of their purchases will include a trade-in but even at that volume, the dealerships are always looking for vehicles to purchase. Being creative on where and how to find used vehicles being sold by consumers and businesses can keep dealers one step ahead of the competition.
For example, dealer managers in Illinois have driven to Ohio to pick up a vehicle purchased from a farmer in the middle of the state. According to Gremore, “If we can sell it, we’ll go get it. We’re blessed to have a great staff that knows what the industry is like and understands what we have to do in this market.”
The O’Brien Automotive Team is an industry leader in the sale of pre-owned cars, trucks, vans, SUVs, and crossovers. Their Certified Best Used Cars must pass rigid standards before they are available for sale. Certified Best Used Cars are backed by a two-week exchange program and a 12 month, 12,000-mile limited warranty – all unique to the automobile dealer industry.
Generally speaking, Gremore expects the supply chain issues with vehicles and parts to remain challenging over the next year, but he hopes that it doesn’t get any worse. Backlogs and purchasing vehicles before they arrive on the lot will be common. Used vehicles will continue to cost more, although he anticipates inflation in the market will gradually cool.
By promoting a healthy work environment, the O’Brien Automotive Team have built a culture that embodies and rewards high-achieving employees with tenure. There is little staff turnover at the manager levels and many long-time employees started their career at entry-level positions, such as porters, or part-time and seasonal positions. If an employee has a better opportunity with a higher salary outside of the group, they are encouraged to pursue them. However, salaries for O’Brien employees are competitive within the industry.
As a result of the low turnover and continued sales growth, the O’Brien Automotive Team remains staffed at high levels. This is true even during the pandemic, when finding qualified new employees is often a challenge for auto dealers. Gremore credits the company’s established networks and relationships with local high schools, career and technical centers, and other employment sources throughout the states where it operates as a big reason for this success. He notes, “We rarely find ourselves short of employees and we’ve been fortunate to keep nearly all of our top technicians and sales professionals.” Selling quality vehicles, providing superior service, pride, and commitment to customers, while also delivering outstanding customer satisfaction throughout the entire organization relies upon a group of employees that believes in the value of expertise.
Those employees receive a wealth of training on a wide variety of topics – from customer service and new vehicle technologies to sales. Much of the training is developed by the O’Brien Automotive Team to ensure best-in-class practices. Other courses are designed by OEMs for their vehicles and are required. Gremore is proud that he and other managers are instructors in the homegrown training courses, rather than outsourcing the training to third parties. He notes, “It shows we have a stake in our own success and are committed to our customers.”
The various O’Brien Automotive Team dealers have collectively supported hundreds of nonprofits and numerous sports teams over the years, not because it was expected of them but because employees are committed to the communities where they live and work. Much of this support has been initiated by employees based on their personal interests and causes. Nonprofit support often comes in the form of helping lower income families and children, and sponsoring teams and events at local schools. Other sponsorships include semi-pro and minor league sports teams who rely on corporate funding to operate. Three well-known nonprofits that the Illinois dealers support on a regular basis are Easter Seals, the Salvation Army, and YMCA.
The O’Brien Automotive Team’s headquarters in Normal, Illinois is based in a metro area of around 150,000 full-time residents, and a seasonal population of college students at Illinois State University. As a result, O’Brien dealers in that region may be active in college-related activities and causes. Gremore attests, “The community has been as good to us as we have been to them, so we are fortunate.” The numerous partners and vendors of O’Brien dealers have also been of prime importance in supporting the business through the years.
Gremore calls it “unbelievable” how vehicles have evolved so quickly in embracing new technology over the past few years, adding that there is no comparison between the number of high-tech safety and connectivity features in a newly manufactured vehicle now versus five years ago. He is unsure how quickly EVs and autonomous vehicles will take hold in the marketplace, but consumers have a clear advantage because “every automaker builds great cars and trucks today. It just depends on your personal taste.”
The O’Brien Automotive Team enjoys watching their own staff grow and evolve over the years. That is true for seeing how the families of their employees grow as well. “Passion for not just your job but your life is important,” Gremore shares. “It’s a great time to work in this industry and we hope our customers feel that when they buy their next vehicle from us.”
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AT A GLANCE
O’Brien Automotive Team
What: New and pre-owned car dealer and parts supplier
Where: Normal, Illinois
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