With new store, Bob Benoit adopted a new attitude

Bob Benoit was 13 when he started working at his dad’s Sunoco gas station and auto repair shop in Cumberland, R.I., learning the family business as he went.

“I was spending such quality time with my dad that most sons don’t get to have with their fathers,” Benoit said. “He taught me an awful lot.”

By 1983, some gas stations were adding mini-marts, but Benoit’s father decided instead to keep repairing cars and get a dealer license so he could start selling used cars.

He got the license and died six months later. Benoit, then 19, was left with a gas station converted to a used-car lot and two younger brothers and a mother to take care of. Just three years later, his mother died.

“By 23, I had no parents,” he said. “My youngest brother was 14. I had just gotten married, so he moved in with me. My other brother joined me in the business. We hired a mechanic, and I went on the road buying while my brother did the retail selling.”

The Benoit brothers, from left, Brian, Bob and Chris.

Expansion

By 1995, Benoit and his brothers were looking to expand.

“Property at the time was big money, and to buy prime real estate in a prime spot wasn’t really an option then,” Benoit said. So he bought a dealership that had sat vacant for seven years — and got his big break. “Subaru was going around looking for anybody to take the franchise,” he said.

Four months after Benoit got the franchise in 1995, Subaru launched the 1996 Outback with ads featuring Australian actor Paul Hogan. Sales took off.

Anchor Subaru, in North Smithfield, R.I., thrived. Benoit bought the adjoining property and added a Nissan franchise in 2010.

“Like most dealers, at the time, I thought I was doing the right thing,” he said. “Low overhead, sell as many cars as you can, make as much money as you can.” But an outdated building was driving some customers away.

In 2013, Benoit realized his 9,500-square-foot Subaru store, built in the 1950s, needed a remodel. It had seven service bays, a cramped showroom and salespeople talking and walking over one another. Benoit didn’t want to add franchises for others to run, he wanted to fix up what he had. “I have a Subaru store and a Nissan store. If I’ve got another 15 to 20 years left in the business, I’m going to make it a little extra special,” he recalled thinking. But how?

He hit the road. Over three years, he toured more than 100 dealerships across the U.S. and talked to employees about what they did and didn’t like. During business trips or at conferences, others would go to lunch, and Benoit would go to dealerships, taking notes and drawing up floor plans for his future facility.

In New England, an independent distributor stands between dealers and the factory. That meant Benoit didn’t clash with the automaker over the facility’s design, as dealers often do. He used Subaru’s color palettes and size requirements and found that as long as the distributor saw that the tiles and paint he used were appropriate, it didn’t rigidly insist he follow Subaru’s dictates.

When construction on the new building got underway in March 2016, Benoit immersed himself in it. While on-site, he noticed customers often lined up along the fence on the edge of the construction zone, watching as the 27,000-square-foot building went up.

“I’d walk over to the edge of the fence, and these were my customers, people I’d been doing business with for years,” he said. “When I started talking to them, I realized how disconnected I had become in my own business. I’m here every day, but you don’t see what you don’t see. It was amazing, the feeling I started to get as I was just talking to these people who were so excited” about the new building.

As he spoke with those customers, Benoit became determined to make the customer touch point areas as nice as they could be in the new facility. Those conversations drove specific changes to the plans post-groundbreaking and to Benoit’s own approach to work.

“Along the fence, I learned so much about what customers were experiencing coming into the store,” he said. “You can read all the CSI surveys you want, but it doesn’t give you what you need.”

Three-quarters of the facility is dedicated to servicing vehicles. He built a waiting area that now has customers staying well after their cars are finished to complete their work or reading. He built a patio area with timber guardrails for a rustic feel. There’s a grassy, outdoor play area for kids as well as a dog park.

Cleanliness

From visiting other dealerships and talking with staffers, he had learned the importance of cleanliness. Benoit raised the height of the furniture in the store so that mops could easily get underneath. He has a built-in-the-wall vacuum system. Just as Walt Disney personally counted the steps between trash cans in his parks, Benoit found himself counting steps from sinks to paper-towel holders and trash cans to avoid spillage and inconvenience.

He put floor drains everywhere so that he could move the furniture out and power-wash the floors, something he does himself one Sunday a month. He said he has tens of thousands of dollars tied up in floor scrubbers and cleaning equipment so that his mechanics can spend less than 30 minutes cleaning their stations at the end of the night.

“I wanted this place to look like it was its first day open, every single day,” he said. “I wanted to be able to bring a customer back to the service areas at any moment and get the same ‘Wow’ response I did in the beginning.”

The change that Benoit is proudest of revolves around a longtime customer, whom he identified as John, who uses a wheelchair. Benoit had watched John come into Anchor for 18 years. He would go to the service parlor and be confronted by high counters that made it impossible to sign anything or see the computer.

“I remember thinking of that guy and thinking, ‘I’m going to do something for him,'” Benoit recalled.

When the new facility opened, Benoit found John in the waiting room and asked if he could show him something. He took John to the service adviser area and hit a button. Benoit had installed power counters that could be lowered.

“He was blown away,” Benoit said. “I just reached out and shook his hand and thanked him for his business. He had a tear in his eye, and moments like that made it worth every penny to me and made me realize I should’ve done it years ago.”

Changes

Anchor Subaru’s new facility has been open for four months. Benoit said that every single department — new, used, service and finance and insurance — has nearly doubled its business. For example, new-vehicle sales jumped to 822 units in March-September this year, from 565 a year earlier.

His employees have changed, too. They started dressing differently, and their attitudes are more upbeat and excited.

So has he. Benoit, once a self-described “behind the curtain guy,” now has a glass office that overlooks the showroom and service area from which he can see what’s going on all day long. But he doesn’t stay there.

“I find myself out there talking to people all day and shaking people’s hands, all the people that I talked to along the fence. I just thank them,” he said. “I feel it now. I’m proud to work in the facility that I do and do business with the people that I do. This building changed my entire vision of the automobile business.”

In his office, Benoit, now 53, uses his father’s original desk from the Sunoco gas station. He said that he has always felt incapable of running the business on his own. When making big decisions, he always asks himself, “What would my father do?”

He added, “I have faith that someday I’m going to get in front of my dad. Aside from the money I made or the number of cars I sold, but more about how I was with my brothers and my customers, I’ll just ask, ‘How did I do? Did I become the person you envisioned me to be?'” a