Three months have passed since brothers and Minnesota auto dealers Paul and Andrew Walser purchased Wichita’s Luxury Collection, and Paul Walser says he’s yet to try to sell a car. That’s even to a reporter who mentioned recently totaling a vehicle.
“It’s never been my style to be what I would call a sort of aggressive salesperson,” he says. “I guess I feel like if people trust me and want to do business with me, they’ll … let me know.”
Walser says he’s been on a campaign to get to know Wichitans.
“The only problem is it’s becoming a full-time job to chat with people in Wichita,” he says. “There’s a very welcoming spirit around, so that’s been fun. I’ve never done this before where I’ve gone into a new town and bought businesses, so maybe this is the way it is everywhere, but I don’t think so. I have a feeling there’s something special about here.”
Andrew Walser describes Wichita as “Midwest with Southern hospitality.”
The Luxury Collection – a name that will be going away soon when the Walser name is installed – includes Acura, Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Mini, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz brands. The dealerships are on Greenwich just north of 13th Street or soon will be when construction projects are completed.
Q. Paul, you’re 61, and Andrew, you’re 49, so you didn’t really grow up together, did you?
A. Andrew: It’s probably a good thing, though, because we don’t have a natural competition.
Q. You also have an older musician brother and a sister who didn’t follow your father and grandfather into the automobile business. Why did you?
A. Andrew: I didn’t want to be in the business. … (Then) I started making a lot of money. I was like, ‘Maybe I do like this business.’ … This is actually kind of fun.
Paul: It was just assumed I was going to be, and I never argued. … I was with (my dad) and then not with him and with him and not with him. … My dad and I are probably maybe more similar in some respects, and so there was, I think, just more challenges probably with he and I.
Q. The three of you became partners but then split in 2003 in the aftermath of convincing your father to try a no-haggling approach to selling cars. Your research showed it would cause a drop in sales before leading to bigger sales. What happened?
A. Paul: When we converted over to one-price selling and our financial statements took a turn for the worse, my dad decided it was time for him to go somewhere else, so we split up. He was in his 70s at that time, and so that was hard for him to see that reversal of fortune during that window.
Q. Why do you feel so strongly about selling cars this way?
A. Andrew: It’s the way you sell a car to a friend. … Why can’t everyone buy a car like that? … It’s too complicated to try to train somebody to negotiate, and then it’s an uncomfortable thing.
Paul: You have a better retention of your customers because they enjoy the experience better. So you have to gut it out for two to three years. We went from having a record year the prior year to barely making money at all. In fact, we lost money. … It was brutal. … (Then) we got on to a nice trajectory. … We’ve been on an upward path ever since.
Q. What are your different strengths?
A. Andrew: I’m definitely probably more of the people person. … I can’t stand being in an office. … He’s a thinker. More introspective about everything. … I appreciate the fact that he’s always thinking what the next thing is, too.
Paul: I’m very, very super organized … making sure that there’s structure in place, and we’ve got our arms around every single little detail. … When we’ve got to get an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) to love us, he’s the man on the job.
Q. You already sell 17 brands in Minnesota. What was it like to buy so many here all at once?
A. Paul: Scary. It’s a large number that this thing was going to transact for. … An especially big number for us.
Q. Care to give a ballpark on that number?
A. Paul: The real estate alone to finish the build … was $55 million. So that’s a breathtaking number. So, yeah, we were a little bit scared. A lot excited. … I don’t know of anything else like this in the country where you have all of the industry’s finest franchises in one location.
Q. You’re making a lot of changes in addition to switching to one-price selling, right? Like no more ties?
A. Andrew: It can be an intimidating place. … Everyone was very formal and dressed up. … You’re kind of like, ‘Well, maybe I don’t fit in here.’ … My feeling is we can’t play to just 1 percent of Wichita. Everyone … can be part of a luxury experience very easily, but if we intimidate people already when (they) walk in and then we’re dressed like we’ve got $3,000 suits … to me that wouldn’t work in Minnesota, and it’s not going to work in Wichita.
Q. You’re planning to have 70 percent of your inventory be pre-owned luxury vehicles, and you’ll sell trade-ins and do some supplemental buying. Why?
A. Paul: I think they felt like before that if they even had something here that would attract a different kind of customer that they weren’t even excited about having that here.
Q. You’re also very big on having only one person in charge of a customer’s entire transaction. Any other key changes?
A. Paul: We have taken the service pricing and dropped it significantly across the campus. … You have to go, ‘Do we want a strategy for the next 30 days or the next 30 years?’ … I don’t want to just hit a home run the first time.
Q. So, Paul, you drive a Mazda CX-3, and, Andrew, you drive a GMC Acadia. Are you thinking about upgrading now that you have a luxury dealership?
A. Andrew: I’m not driving around an exotic car. … That’s just not who I am.
Q. So why did you want a luxury dealership?
A. Andrew: Not for ego. … They’re all great brands. We didn’t represent any of those brands, and so it fills out your portfolio. It gives you relationships … you would never have otherwise and gives you opportunities for future open points if you … perform well.
Q. Paul, do you not walk by any of these beautiful cars and think well, maybe, I will upgrade from that Mazda?
A. Paul: Well, I do like that little Lexus I saw. … And I saw that Mercedes had a little car. I like little cars. … I’ve never been a car buff. … But I will say that driving these cars down here, I’m gaining a little bit of an appreciation for the fact that there is a difference.
Q. And even though you sell cars approaching – or over – six figures, you think some of what you have is fairly economical?
A. Paul: It is amazing what you can buy some of this stuff for. Maybe you should buy a car from us.
Q. Nice try. So do you know about the other Minnesota Guys? The ones who bought up property in downtown Wichita before running into a multitude of financial and legal troubles?
A. Paul: Oh, no, that’s not good.
Q. I was going to ask if you’re going to try to turn around the reputation of being Minnesota Guys.
A. Andrew: We didn’t know we had to, but now … we have a mission.