A Sixth Sense For Business

Knowing all about business - and people - is the secret of success, says Jack Jackson of the Jackson Auto Group. OK, that and super deals

Susan Sunderland
Friday - November 04, 2005
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Jack Jackson
Offering straight talk and great deals
is the motto for the Jackson Auto Group,
says Jack Jackson

If Jack Jackson were writing an autobiography, he’d call it The Contrarian. With luck, timing and hard work as the laurels of his 35-year automotive career, Jackson is a graduate from the school of hard knocks. What he knows about life and succeeding doesn’t come from textbooks and Harvard MBA programs. His teacher is conventional wisdom.

Not that Jackson, 58, president of the Jackson Auto Group, doesn’t value formal education. It’s just not the way it was for him. But then learning the inner workings of the car business really happens from the ground up. “You can’t do it any other way,” Jackson says.

As Jackson Auto Group celebrates its seventh anniversary, we asked its chief executive to look in the rear-view mirror to recall his journey to business success. What drove him? Were there any detours when the going got rough? What keeps him on course today, and how will he maneuver into the future?

Fasten your seat belts for a fascinating ride.

Clarence “Jack” Jackson is from Little Rock, Ark. He is one of nine children and “the only one to leave the nest.” He was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base and remained in the Islands to marry a local girl. “That keeps you here,” he says with a smile. After his military stint, he got a job at Mike Salta Pontiac as a “lot technician.”

What’s a lot technician?

“He washes cars,” Jackson answers. That was in 1970.

“Twenty-eight years later, I bought him out,” Jackson says of his former employer.

Thus the Jackson Auto Group became the Lincoln, Mercury, Isuzu and Pontiac dealership, based at a three-acre site on Nimitz Highway.

In 2001, at the most inauspicious time, Jackson was being nudged by Ford to add Volvo to his representation of their luxury cars. TheoDavies Euromotors was looking to sell its Volvo dealership on Ala Moana Boulevard. Jackson took a leap of faith and decided to make the purchase.

Then Sept. 11 happened.

“I was to close the deal that day,” Jackson recalls with trepidation. “It was throw-up time. I thought, ‘You’re absolutely nuts.’ I could have walked. But I had gone so far down the road, there was no backing out.”

Jackson signed the papers on Sept. 12. “I just pinched my nose and jumped into the water,” he says.

Four years later, Jackson can happily report that “it’s been a good ride.” Volvo has integrated well into his dealership, and next year he’ll open Volvo’s first neighbor island location in Hilo.

Following the Volvo purchase, the company’s annual sales nearly doubled, hitting a record $67 million last year.

Not bad for the prophet of conventional wisdom and what Jackson calls having a “sixth sense” about business matters. “I have botched a few businesses,” he admits. “I’ve had good and bad experiences, and you learn from them.”

That sixth sense extends to judging people, both the ones who buy cars from you and the ones you hire to work for you. “You can’t run a business this size (135 employees) unless you’ve got talent,” Jackson says.

Among those on his management team are sons Marc, who’s assistant general manager, and David, who’s a “knock-around.” We assume that’s several levels higher than a lot technician and a versatile in-field utility player.

Jackson emphasizes, “People are important. Economics - knowledge of money and finance - is important. And so is credibility. “

Realizing his industry is notorious for its least-trusted reputation - next to politicians - Jackson brands his company as “Straight Talk. Great Deals.” It’s the way he sold cars when he was earning $35 commissions and the way he sells them today.

“The car business is very sophisticated today,” Jackson says. “We’re so regulated, it’s second only to a nuclear power plant. When I started out, there were three pieces of paper to sign - a motor vehicle registration, a buyer’s order, and a credit contract. Today, there is three inches of paper work.

“Buying a car is like buying a house. You’re transferring a collateral asset, so it’s documented endlessly. The intent (protecting all parties) is good, but it’s gotten out of hand,” he asserts.

“There’s always been this arms-length transaction with auto deals, perpetuated by horror stories from people who think they’ve been ripped off,” he says.

However, Internet use has leveled the playing field. Consumers do their homework. They are wiser, sharper and have more “business moxie,” he claims. “It makes it easier for us.”

“Adaptation is a selling style that I’ve gone through over the years,” he says. “I’ve always considered myself resilient yet adaptable to handle different ways of marketing my product. All are relative to customer relations.”

For instance, he reflects, “In the old days, the service department’s attitude was ‘We’ll get you in when we can get you in.‘Today, we take walk-ins. Sometimes that becomes horrendous, but it’s how the public perceives us ... and perception is everything in our business.”

The more things change in the industry, the more they remain the same, according to Jackson.

“Americans have a love affair for cars,” he waxes philosophically. “They value mobilization and independence at the wheel. Car manufacturers design and build what the consumer demands. It’s based on what the public perceives to be the priority of the decade - room, safety, environment, luxury. It’s fuel efficiency at this time - a migration back to the mid’70s when drivers were bad-mouthing Detroit gas-guzzlers. Then when the economy improved in the late ‘90s and gas was reasonably priced, people bought what they wanted to buy.”

Jackson adds buyers are currently in a wait-and-see mode. “Our business is cycli-

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