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August 2009
Driven By The Golden Rule
By Casey Jacobus

     Benny Yount has always enjoyed sports cars. Although he grew up in the 1960s when hot-rodders were driving souped up “muscle cars” equipped with large powerful V8 engines, Yount preferred the small high-performance imports. When he was fifteen and about to get his driver’s license, he traded his moped plus $75 for a bright red 1960 MG. It was the first step on the journey that would lead Yount to a career in the auto business and ownership of the only exotic cars dealership in Charlotte.

     “My life is a dream come true,” says Yount. “I have truly lived the American Dream. I am so thankful for the opportunities afforded me.”

     Yount, a Hickory-native, grew up understanding the work ethic. He worked at various odd jobs from the time he was nine years old. One summer, while he was still in high school, he took a job at Paramount Motor Sales, picking up and delivering cars and working in the detail department. Years later, he would purchase the business. In the meantime, he worked for the city of Hickory as a trainee in the engineering and surveying department and played around with used cars in his spare time.

 

Revving Up

     In 1975, when Yount was twenty-two, he had saved $1,000. He rented a gravel-topped car lot in downtown Hickory for $50 a month and opened for business. His inventory consisted of four cars that he had purchased for $600.

     The first Saturday he sold all four cars and made $600 in profit. Since he took in two cars on trade, he still had available inventory and, for the next five years, he continued to buy and sell on his own.

     “It was just me,” Yount recalls. “I bought the cars, cleaned them, did any necessary mechanical work, sold them, did all the paper work, and tried to balance the check book.”

     Although the country was in the midst of a recession in 1975, with unemployment rates reaching a high of 9 percent in May of that year, Yount learned that he could sell cars in the worst of economies, if “the price was right.” He also gained first-hand experience he could count on in the ensuing years.

     Yount soon grew tired of traveling to Baltimore in search of appropriate used cars to sell. He was envious of the new car dealers who had cars delivered to their door. He didn’t want to leave Hickory, so he began looking for a new car franchise to buy. The only one he could find was Peugeot/Renault, which, as it turned out, was as eager to sign him as he was to acquire them.

     “You have to be careful,” laughs Yount, “Sometimes you get what you wish for.” Yount was left empty-handed when the French company pulled out of its U.S. markets a few years later.

     In 1980, Yount saw an opportunity at Chrysler, which had hired Lee Iacocca in an attempt to ward off bankruptcy. Yount invested everything he had in a Chrysler/Plymouth dealership. It was a big gamble, but it turned out well. Despite another recession in 1980-82, Chrysler had success with the small, efficient front-wheel-drive K-Cars and even more success with the minivans, Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, which drove the traditional station wagon out of the market.

     By 1989, Yount was able to purchase Paramount Motor Sales where he had worked as a teenager, and form Paramount Automotive Group.

     “It was a good name, so we kept it,” Yount explains. “Paramount stands for excellence, supreme, something outstanding. And it’s not tied to any one person or place, so it would continue to be meaningful as we expanded.”

     And expand it did. During the next decade, Yount opened and sold a number of dealerships throughout the Hickory, Valdese and Morganton areas. He sold Fords, Volvos, Volkswagens, Cadillacs, Porsches, Lincoln Mercurys, Hondas, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Hyundais and Isuzus.

     In 1993, he acquired Foreign Cars Italia in Greensboro and Hickory’s Kia franchise in 1996. Today he owns two additional Kia dealerships in Asheville, plus a Hyundai and Mazda dealership in Hickory, a Ford and Hyundai franchise in Valdese, as well as the Foreign Cars Italia dealerships in Greensboro and Charlotte.

 

Checking the Engine

     It soon became apparent to Yount that Paramount had expanded to the point of becoming too difficult to manage. In the best interest of all of his operations, he needed to reduce the strain of handling 16 franchises on himself and on his staff. From experience, he had found the middle market the most demanding of his personnel, so in late 2005 he accepted an offer to sell Paramount’s Cadillac, Volvo, Volkswagen, Lincoln/Mercury and Porsche franchises. This successfully reduced the operations to levels that would allow for better management of the remaining dealerships and allow him to spend more time outside the automobile industry.

      In June of 2005, he opened an extension of his Foreign Cars Italia business in Charlotte. For the first time, Charlotte buyers on East Independence Boulevard’s auto row could see and drive Maserati, Ferrari and Aston Martin vehicles known in the industry as “ultra-luxury cars,” with sticker prices ranging from the low $100,000s to $200,000-plus.

     Charlotte is an important market,” says Yount. “While we were doing a good job of serving customers out of our dealership in Greensboro, we needed a presence in the Charlotte market.”

     According to Yount, the biggest problem with the exotic car market is getting the new car product. Manufacturers ship a very limited allotment to dealers. Ferrari, for instance, typically has a three- to four-year waiting list.

     So, in the spring of 2009, Yount upgraded Foreign Cars Italia in Charlotte from a satellite of the Greensboro business to a dealership, and moved it to its present location just off I-77 at Tyvola Road.

     The new facility, with close to 10,000 square feet and two showrooms, has an elegant atmosphere that caters to the customer shopping for a luxury car. The flooring was imported from Italy and the artwork on the walls could hang in a gallery. The new facility also has a complete service center, so cars do not have to be taken to Greensboro when they need servicing.

     With unique cars like a Lamborghini on display, a lot of people come in just to look at the posh cars and take pictures. Or perhaps, to buy an accessory like a T-shirt or a hat, even if they can’t afford the price tag of a new car.

     “The traffic has increased dramatically since we moved,” Yount says, pleased. “Parents even bring in their children to show them these exotic cars.”

With Foreign Cars Italia in Charlotte and the Kia dealership in Hickory, Yount is focused on the two broad spectrums of the market: the exclusive, higher priced vehicles, and the economically affordable. Yount believes that this is a strategy avoids the middle market squeeze of economic downturns and will pay off when the economy improves.

     Of the current economic malaise, says Yount, “Every segment has been affected in this downturn. Being diverse, we have usually had something that was doing okay. We’ve been able to stay within our corporate structure size. I feel confident that as things become available, we’ll be able to take advantage of the opportunities.”

 

Closing the Deal

     Yount measures his success in the automotive industry against two standards: first, you must be profitable, and second, you must have great customer and employee satisfaction. He believes he has achieved both.

     Never driven by a desire to just make money, Yount has been sustained by a strong religious faith. He says the Paramount philosophy is based on “GR 101” or the Golden Rule: Always treat other people as you would want to be treated and always endeavor to do what is right and fair.

     “If this makes us money, good; if not, that’s okay, too,” says Yount. “Making money has never been my primary motivation. I want to do a good job and excel in every area. There are a lot of things more important in life and business than money.”

     Yount has recently been influenced by a book called “The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: King Solomon’s Secrets to Success, Wealth, and Happiness,” in which author Steven K. Scott reveals King Solomon’s strategies for achieving a life of financial success and personal fulfillment.

     Published in 2006, the premise of the book is that everything you need for success and happiness in your life is contained in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, said to be written by King Solomon, builder of the first temple in Jerusalem and widely respected for his wisdom. Solomon was also quite wealthy and powerful.

     “This is the most important book I’ve ever read, other than the Bible,” asserts Yount. “I’ve given it to my managers and referred to it in meetings. Scott identifies communication as the number one problem in business and life and stresses the importance of being a good listener.”

     Partly as a result of his reading, Yount has adopted, what he calls the “3 Cs”—communication, consistency, and commitment—as the foundation for running Paramount Automotive Group.

     “If we can communicate effectively, it’s good for building consistency in policies and practices,” he says. “We already have a commitment to doing everything in an excellent way. We take pride in trying to do everything 100 percent right.”

     Paramount Auto Group has won numerous awards for customer satisfaction. In addition to being graded every month by the new car manufacturers, Paramount maintains its own Business Development Center. Every customer, whether a buyer or one in need of service, is surveyed on their experience.

     “This helps us keep our attention on the satisfaction of the customer,” explains Yount.

     Yount believes the Charlotte market has dipped to its lowest point and will soon be on the upswing. As one of the few exotic car dealerships in North or South Carolina, Yount says Foreign Cars Italia is well positioned to benefit from that upswing.

     “Our biggest problem right now is the availability of credit for customers,” Yount says. “The banks have tightened lending practices and a lot of people come in wanting to buy and are unable to finance or get terms that fit their budget. But we’re starting to see that turn around a bit.”

     To date, most of the sales in Charlotte have been pre-owned cars. Making use of the Internet to find the car they want, buyers come from all across the country. A CEO in Chicago recently purchased a Bentley, numerous buyers come from California, and Florida is one of the company’s biggest markets. Yount, however, anticipates the current ratio of 70 percent used cars to 30 percent new ones will change as the economy picks up and the manufactures introduce new models.

     Aston Martin has introduced a new DBS Coupe with a price tag of $275,000, as well as a DBS convertible. Yount says a four door sedan with a price of about $200,000 is less than a year away from market. Maserati introduced its 4-passenger GranTurismo in 2008 to rave reviews. And, Ferrari’s newest vehicle, a hardtop convertible is getting a lot of attention. Yount is particularly encouraged that the new Charlotte dealership has received additional allocation from the manufacturers.

     “For the past four or five years, we’ve had a two- to three-year waiting list,” he says. “It’s frustrating not to be able to get people cars when they want them.” However, given the past year, product is more available.

     Paramount Automotive Group has been very successful and it appears destined for more success in the future. Yount, who started out with $1,000, has truly lived the American Dream, but he says he could never have achieved any success alone.

     “I have a great family, great friends and the best employees,” Yount says. And, he believes in giving back to the community which has supported him. Whether it is doing a benefit for the Humane Society, the Ronald McDonald House, contributing to the Salvation Army, working with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, serving on the National Trustee Board of The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or giving away a car to a deserving senior at Catawba Valley High School, he is always looking for ways to live up to the Golden Rule in his life and business.

     He says softly, “Always treat others as you would want to be treated.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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