The Wheel Deal

Chances are good that anybody who’s shopped a car dealer online has come in contact with Dealer.com

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by Liz Schick

Eight years ago five young men came together to found Dealer.com, an Internet-based company serving the automotive industry. All in their 20s, the founders worked in one small office in the Maltex Building on Pine Street in Burlington. They parlayed an idea and high-tech know-how into a company that today employs 92 people. They work on four of the building’s five floors, in a satellite office in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and out of home offices across the country. 

Dealer.com began as an idea in Mark Bonfigli’s mind. Bonfigli and his brother Andy started Earthcars in Williston in 1994, with the idea of marketing vehicles without salespeople —  a breakthrough concept at that time. He came up with the idea when he was running a business consulting and brokering automobiles, soon after graduating from Jacksonville University in Florida. Even during high school in Williston, Bonfigli was interested in marketing and advertising, and always had some kind of business of his own going.

By 1996, he was using the Internet to drive sales to the dealership. “I was probably thinking of the Internet from the minute we started Earthcars, but just didn’t know how it would work,” Bonfigli says. 

After spending months of 18-hour days online, visiting virtually very dealer website in the country, he knew what thousands of dealers were doing and knew what the few companies supplying Web sites to them were doing. He also knew what they were missing. 

“They didn’t have the ability to make their Web sites automatically follow up and send inventory to customers instead of waiting for the prospect to come to the website,” he says. That was his “ah-hah moment,” but not his “how-to-solve-it” solution.

As fate would have it, Mike Lane came into Earthcars looking for a Volkswagen Jetta he had seen on the dealership’s website. He and Bonfigli began talking about the possibility of developing software that would make the website intelligent, would know the customer’s interests, could profile similar vehicles and continually follow up with the user until a purchase was made, and would allow the dealership to plan its inventory against the prospects’ buying patterns. 

As Bonfigli’s idea unfolded, Lane, with his bachelor’s degree in engineering and management, with minors in marketing and technical communications, had his own ideas about how to create this kind of next-generation Web application. Eager to work with him to design the solution were his three buddies — Rick Gibbs, Jamie LaScolea and Ryan Dunn, former classmates at Clarkson University who were working in the Boston area. 

Testing went on throughout 1997 and ’98, and when Earthcars tripled its business in slightly over a year thanks to the development of the program, they realized this was more than an Internet solution for one automobile dealer; it was a viable business model that could stand on its own. As a result, the five quit their day jobs and the Boston contingent moved to Vermont. Dealer.com was incorporated in March 1998.

photoMark Bonfigli, president and CEO

Bonfigli became president and chief executive officer; Lane, chief operations officer. Gibbs is vice president/chief technical officer; Dunn is creative director; and LaScolea is interface design engineer. 

Here’s how it works. Dealers subscribe to the company’s suite of Web solutions, which include search engine marketing, dealer Web sites, and inventory and lead management tools. “We provide what we call a Web system to them,” says Lane. “We build, launch and support their Web systems so they can change pictures and content on the Web sites, and we build the Web framework to support that.”

Since its founding, the company has grown between 80 and 100 percent each year and, according to Bonfigli, Dealer.com’s 2,500 clients now represent a 10 percent share of the national new car dealership market. 

While Vermont accounts for only 60 of the company’s clients, those 60 represent the lion’s share of the state’s dealerships. Local clients include familiar names such as Automaster, Freedom Nissan, Champlain Chevrolet and Handy Cars. Dealer.com designs four Web sites for the Shearer dealerships. 

“I came to them after a bad experience with another Web supplier,” says Kevin Bowie, general manager of Shearer Honda. “Not only are they innovative and responsive to my needs and my ideas, but sales went up so dramatically we actually had to create a position to handle the Internet department. That person is consistently our top seller. Web sales account from 15 to 18 sales per month, which is close to 20 percent of our business. It’s definitely due to Dealer.com’s work.”

photoRyan Dunn, creative director

There are so many satisfied customers that finding business to continue the growth trajectory is less of a problem than finding employees with talent and ability. Once employees join the company, Lane feels confident they will be able to grow with it. Dealer.com offers “a great benefits package. We pay 100 percent of health care coverage, which includes medical, vision, dental, and short- and long-term disability. We have a matching 401(k) program, and one of our best employee perks is a half-price pass to ski Stowe.”

“This is Vermont,” Gibbs chimes in, “so there are a lot of skiers and snowboarders in the company.” There are also hikers, bikers and boaters, as one would expect of a company where the average age is somewhere between 30 and 35. The company promotes as much activity away from the computer as possible, and encourages employees to support the community through programs such as team sponsorships and time off for cause-related activities. 

“Quality of life definitely plays a major role in our decision to keep the company here in Burlington,” says Lane. “We expect to not only grow nationally, but globally. Everywhere cars are sold there is a need for our proprietary software systems.”

photoRick Gibbs, vice president and chief technical officer

A big part of the decision to stay in Burlington, certainly for Lane and Gibbs, who are married, is living in a family-friendly environment. Gibbs and his wife, Bethany, live in Huntington and are expecting their first child this summer. Georgia native Lane and his wife, Brandi, and their two children  —  Ashton, age 3, and Nolan, age 2  —  live in St. George. Singles Dunn and Bonfigli live in Burlington; LaScolea lives in Winooski. Bonfigli won’t be single long. He’s getting married this fall to Marisa Mora, who was one of the company’s first employees.

As COO, responsible for overseeing the operations side of the company including human resources, Lane has helped Dealer.com begin to find and train qualified employees by entering into a partnership with the state of Vermont and Vermont HITEC (Health Care and Information Technology Education Center), a 501(c)3 nonprofit whose mission is to create jobs in Vermont for Vermonters.

Vermont HITEC identifies candidates, puts them through a training period and an apprenticeship and mentors the candidates through the apprenticeship program. The organization has conducted similar workforce training programs for companies such as IDX, Fletcher Allen, Husky and C&C Enterprises.

“The city of Burlington was instrumental in connecting us with Vermont HITEC,” Lane says, referring to then-Mayor Peter Clavelle and Bruce Seifer, assistant director for economic development of the Burlington Community and Economic Development Office. 

photoJamie LaScolea, interface design engineer

“We’ve gotten help obtaining funding from the state of Vermont through myriad sources,” says Seifer, “and they have been very successful in the first two rounds of training.” After eight months of planning, Dealer.com and Vermont HITEC developed an eight-week, no-cost training, followed by a 12-month paid apprenticeship program at Dealer.com. The program began over a year ago. Ten people are currently in the training class and 22 are working for Dealer.com. Apprentice employees receive a tiered salary that goes up as performance goals are reached.

Lane points to Sue Cronin, who leads the account management group. “Sue is one of the people who came in through the first training program,” he says. “She has a master’s degree, worked at IBM for years, but stopped to raise her children. When she tried to come back to work a couple of years ago, she discovered that she couldn’t get a job. During her first year of training and learning on the job in the apprenticeship program, we learned that what she had to offer us went way beyond what we trained her to do, so we promoted her.”

photoDealer.com works with Vermont HITEC to identify and train its employees, garnered from a pool of unemployed and underemployed Vermonters. Trainees work at the company’s Maltex Building headquarters.

The same holds true for Dan Jackson, the instructor who is running the training program. He came into the company through the same Vermont HITEC program and is now teaching the next set of people. 

 Everyone involved with the training is more than pleased with the results: the state of Vermont, the city of Burlington, Vermont HITEC, the Vermonters who are being trained for new jobs and, most of all, Dealer.com.

“We’ve always known that Vermont is filled with capable people. Now that we can tap into them as a resource, we should be well-positioned to address some of the growth challenges the company faces now and in the future,” says Lane. •