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PROFILE: He sticks to the basics to fuel growth

 

Stephen LeBrun is a man of few words, but when the focus turns to his product and the automotive industry, he opens up.

"Toyota is a great brand," says the 49-year-old co-owner of LeBrun Toyota Scion, "in spite of the recall and everything that happened. The recall notification will probably be the model for the industry."

The Toyota recall, which began last fall with reports of stuck accelerators, has put the manufacturer in the hot seat. Earlier this year the company recalled hundreds of thousands of vehicles, and Toyota president Akio Toyoda publicly apologized for concerns the company had caused its customers.

Though some in the industry say the company was slow to recall products-indeed, the company paid a $16.4 million fine levied by U.S. regulators to settle allegations of such-others commend Toyota for initiating a recall before a solution to the problem was found.

What could have been a disaster for Toyota dealers wound up cementing LeBrun Toyota’s reputation among its customers.

"There was an ad campaign addressing the Toyota recall while we were waiting for Toyota to make their decision on how to address the problem," LeBrun says of his company’s decision to be the first among area dealers to go to the media during the turmoil. "We wanted to let customers know there was a recall and we were working to resolve it and if they had any questions or concerns about their vehicle-whether they bought it from us or someone else-please call us and we’ll be here.

"I wasn’t trying to sell a car," he adds. "I was addressing Toyota owners who were worried about their car."

LeBrun general sales manager Jeff Holtz notes that despite the recall and a slight setback for a couple of months, sales at the Canandaigua dealership are up for the year.

"We’ve done it with a large percentage of repeat business," Holtz says. "A lot of our customers were very supportive through all the troubles."

While LeBrun declines to discuss revenues or the number of vehicles the company sells annually, he does note that, like many dealerships locally and nationwide, sales slumped in 2008. But the company has experienced steady growth since that time.

He attributes that growth to loyalty among Toyota customers, as well as the dealership’s philosophy of putting the customer first. It is a philosophy he and his brother, David-who is his business partner-learned from their father, Louis, who started the family business nearly five decades ago.

In the family

Louis LeBrun founded LeBrun Motors in the 1960s. The company sold Austin-Healeys, MGs, Volvos and Datsuns in Waterloo, Seneca County.

After graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1983, Steve LeBrun joined his father and brother at the dealership, working in sales. In 1988 the siblings decided to buy out their father.

"So we made him a deal he couldn’t turn down," LeBrun recalls with a laugh. "We gave him more money to not work than he was making when he was there."

In 1998 the LeBruns purchased a struggling Toyota dealer in Geneva. As part of the agreement with Toyota, they had to relocate the store to Canandaigua by 2001. Shortly thereafter they received the Scion franchise.

LeBrun continues to operate the Waterloo location, but today the site is a Nissan dealership. The company employs some 50 people, with 20 in Waterloo and roughly 30 in Canandaigua.

In addition to loyal customers, LeBrun says, the secret to the company’s success is that he is there every day and is involved in every aspect of the business.

"I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and pitch in," he says, adding that it is not unusual to find him sweeping floors or cleaning windows. "We all work together."

What keeps him coming back for more, LeBrun notes, is commitment and passion.

"I’m a car person," he says.

He says not much about the business keeps him up at night or makes him want to pull his hair out.

"No, I let things roll off my back. Handle the bigger fires, and the small ones let go out," he explains.

While competition is fierce in auto retailing, LeBrun says he looks at it as something that keeps him on his toes.

"I have competition, but it’s healthy," he says.

LeBrun describes his leadership style as hands-on and active but not micromanagement.

"I’m active in all the departments of the store so my management knows they can come to me with anything that they have, to resolve issues," he says. "They do a pretty good job on their own."

LeBrun believes in giving his managers room to do their jobs.

"I step in when I need to, but have found problems are often resolved when you empower your staff with decision-making abilities," he explains. "When mistakes happen we all learn from them, which makes us a stronger team."

One of his strengths is that he does not give up, while a weakness is that sometimes he spends too much time on the job, he says.

When asked about the best and worst parts of his job, he has no concrete answer.

"I don’t think I can define that," he says. "It can vary so much day-to-day."

General sales manager Holtz describes LeBrun as a "regular guy."

"But he’s got a lot of business sense," Holtz adds. "He’s very fair without being too lenient. Always willing to listen."

Adds salesman Edward Scouten: "Everything kind of channels through him at some point in some way. He is hands-on but lets us do our thing. If he goes on vacation, he knows this place is being run and operated the way he wants it run and operated, as if he was sitting in the store."

LeBrun is open to new ideas, says Gloria Smith of Media Connection. She has worked with him and the dealership since 2008.

"He’s not afraid to think outside the box. I think that’s what separates him from other types of businesses," she says. "He’s proactive. I probably saw the real strength in Steve during the Toyota recall, because he was willing to reach out to his customers. He didn’t bury his head in the sand."

LeBrun’s mentor in the business was his father, who no longer actively participates at the dealership. He learned from his father’s three decades in the business to work hard and earn his way.

Scouten calls LeBrun caring, outgoing and fun and describes the atmosphere at the dealership as family-oriented.

Smith describes the atmosphere as upbeat and friendly.

"Everyone always seems to be pretty happy," she says. "You don’t go in there and feel high pressure. It’s not a high-pressure dealership. It’s got that nice, warm feeling."

Scouten adds, "I know a lot of (customers) in this business never meet the owners, and I know a lot of (customers) here who have met Steve LeBrun. He’s sociable."

Staying the course

As for getting over the hurdles of running a business in a recession and working in an industry reeling from myriad changes and struggles, LeBrun says the company has stayed the course by prioritizing customers and listening to their needs and concerns.

"I believe in the basics of business: putting customers first and having the best employees," he says. "By being responsive to our customers’ needs and trying to provide the best service possible, we’ve been fortunate to have tremendous customer loyalty, which helps us to weather any storm."

That attitude is reflected in the company’s short- and long-term goals: Take care of customers every day.

Holtz says the company’s success is due to a "daily commitment to accomplishing the customers’ goals for them."

That commitment-and the company’s low turnover among its employees-breeds customer loyalty, Holtz and Scouten say.

"This place thrives on repeat business," Scouten says. "Repeat and referral."

But loyalty and repeat business do not necessarily eclipse what has happened in the economy and within the auto industry in recent years, as product lines have disappeared, manufacturers teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and car sales nationwide reached 15-year lows.

LeBrun says one of the biggest challenges in the industry is government intervention.

"The political landscape in this country, with each passing day, is changing and reshaping business and commerce at every level and sector, affecting all industries, not just automotive," he explains. "The free marketplace as we once knew it is vaporizing right before our very eyes."

LeBrun adds that while it is important to have fair and sensible legislation to ensure responsible business practices and to protect consumers against unethical business practices, he is troubled by increasing regulation and government intervention.

"That only serves to stifle competition, decrease economies of scale and productivity, and place inefficient burdens and barriers that bog down business operations and add to the overall cost of doing business," LeBrun says. "Ultimately all of these burdens and costs get passed on to consumers."

Of whether the auto industry has hit rock bottom and is on the upswing, LeBrun says he is unsure.

"It’s all going to depend more on the global economy now," he explains. "There are so many variables in this industry, with interest rates, the country’s debt, the cost of oil and any political movement."

Holtz, however, thinks the worst has passed.

"Everybody drives a car in America. They’re not going away," he says. "Cars eventually wear out. I think there’s going to be a steady, strong demand for years to come."

That will help the company continue in its goal to grow steadily yet slowly, Holtz says.

"Steve has constantly run the place with the idea of growing year by year. He’s never been a guy who wants or necessarily demands that we jump by leaps and bounds in one year," Holtz says. "That helps us to be able to grow and at the same time still be able to serve the customer well. A steady growth pace has been the key for us."

LeBrun says if he were to pass along a piece of advice to other entrepreneurs, it would be this: "Know your niche and be good at what you do."

Driving that point home, LeBrun Toyota this year earned Toyota Motor Sales’ President’s Award, an honor that rewards dealers who have demonstrated high customer satisfaction. It is the fifth time the dealership has won the award.

"That’s not something I did by myself," LeBrun says of the accomplishment. "That’s done by everybody here."

At home

LeBrun, who was raised in Waterloo, now lives in Canandaigua. He has a daughter and two sons.

In his spare time he enjoys motorcycles and classic cars and works to keep business separate from home life as much as possible. LeBrun says he is very focused when he is at the dealership so that, when at home, he can focus on his family.

Media Connection’s Smith describes LeBrun as dedicated, driven, honest and passionate.

"Steve is not the type of person who seeks the limelight. He doesn’t have the ego," she says. "That’s one of the things I really like about Steve. He’s not interested in himself; he’s interested in doing what’s right for his customers and his employees."

Stephen LeBrun

  • Position: Partner, LeBrun Toyota Scion
  • Age: 49
  • Education: B.S., business administration, 1983, Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Home: Canandaigua
  • Family: 1 daughter, 2 sons
  • Hobbies: Motorcycles, classic cars
  • Quote: "I step in when I need to, but have found problems are often resolved when you empower your staff with decision-making abilities. When mistakes happen we all learn from them, which makes us a stronger team." 

6/4/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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