Auto Pilots

Driving an idea to make the car-buying experience easier

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

dealer-policy0918Three years ago, Travis Fitzgerald (left) of Marty’s Auto and Jeffrey Mongeon of Winooski Insurance paired up to create a way for customers to compare insurance offers at car dealerships while seeking to make a purchase. The result, DealerPolicy in Colchester, now works with dealerships in nine states, aiming for all 50 by the end of next year.

In early 2015, Travis Fitzgerald had an idea.

Fitzgerald was the owner, with his father, Martin, of Marty’s Auto in Milton. His family, he says, “has always been in the automotive business.” His dad had started the dealership 35 years before, and Fitzgerald had joined the company after graduating from The University of Vermont with a degree in business. “I had worked there for about 10 years and recognized a problem in the universe we were in, which was selling cars.”

From a dealership’s perspective, he says, insurance is the second largest expense associated with buying a car, the first being the car. “For us as a dealership, there’s a program called ‘indirect lending’ — very common in the business.” He describes how, once a customer has decided on a car and financing is needed, if the buyer does not have prearranged financing, the dealership can connect with a group of lenders, who submit approvals for financing the deal.

“One of the things the buyer needs is proof of insurance — an insurance binder,” he continues, “so insurance was holding up deals.” A lot of the information needed to finance a vehicle is also needed to quote insurance. Fitzgerald visualized a marketplace through the dealership where a person was able to compare insurance offers and receive better pricing.

Enter Jeffrey Mongeon, a former classmate of Fitzgerald’s at Colchester High School, and at the time, vice president of Winooski Insurance in Colchester. Mongeon was the independent agent who wrote the dealership’s commercial insurance.

“I reached out to him,” says Fitzgerald, “and for a few months, he was helping my customers get insurance. We thought we could use technology to improve those efficiencies.”

They began brainstorming ideas on how to do this for the industry. “It didn’t make sense that you could buy travel insurance on Expedia but couldn’t buy car insurance when you purchased from a car dealership,” Mongeon says. The result was DealerPolicy Inc., a company that does just that. Winooski Insurance, which Fitzgerald and Mongeon bought in January 2016, is now part of DealerPolicy, which has grown over the last three years from an initial 14 employees to 101.

The partners share management duties, Fitzgerald as CEO, Mongeon as president. “Jeff’s focus is more in insurance carrier relationships — on the insurance side of the house,” says Fitzgerald, who spoke by phone from the airport on his way with Mongeon to meet a carrier in Ohio. “We’re all pretty expansive on what we do, but I’d say my focus and experience are certainly on the automotive side, sales and distribution. We work together and create a great culture for all our employees.”

It’s a partnership that seems to work.

Mongeon’s father taught English at Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax for 30 years; his mother worked as a medical technician at The UVM Medical Center and, later, in manufacturing at IBM. After graduating from Vermont Technical College, where he played varsity baseball, with a degree in electrical engineering, Mongeon worked at IBM for five years, until he was recruited by his sister to work as a social insurance specialist at the Social Security office in Burlington.

After five years there, he was approached by Joe Burkhard, the owner of Winooski Insurance, who told him, “You should get into insurance; you’d be great.”

“After a couple of years of his working on me,” says Mongeon, “I left a kind of safe job and went into the unknown insurance world.” For the first five years of his insurance career, he worked as a producer, in sales, developing his client base. “Then I became interested in ways to make the industry better.” By 2014 he had worked his way to vice president.

After Fitzgerald approached him in early 2015, they brought on investors, including lead investor Jim Crook, the prior CEO of IDX, who chairs DealerPolicy’s board.

Crook says he was intrigued by “the practical nature of the way their technology improves the work flow inside of an automobile dealership that allows for several parties to win by purchasing automobile insurance. They’ve got a very, very streamlined methodology that allows the car dealership, the consumer, and us to benefit off of employing the technology.”

They partnered with Bluehouse Group in Burlington to develop a “minimum viable product,” Mongeon says, defining that as “getting your technology to a point where it’s usable — really a proof of concept, but could be better,” and launched it for a test in 10 local dealerships.

“We worked closely with them to make our product better, using their feedback, and then launched into our official pilot where we brought on 30 dealerships.

“I got to know Jeff from the time DealerPolicy was very, very new,” says Brian Hoar, the owner of Goss Dodge. “We were one of their pilots. They came in, showed us the idea, tested it first, then rolled it out and shared it with the sales staff. Generally the feedback is very, very positive. Customers have a choice: They can stick with their own agent or we can give them a quote.” Hoar adds that it’s a complicated system, particularly as the technology keeps changing, “but they’re on the leading edge.”

DealerPolicy partners with franchise dealerships such as Ford or Chevy or Toyota throughout New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio currently, with a plan to be in all 50 states by the end of 2019, Mongeon says.

“We’ve been growing so fast it’s hard to even fathom the amount of change on a day-to-day basis. We plan strategically through the year, but growth has been so staggering on a month-to-month basis, we’re constantly making adjustments.”

In mid-2016, to accommodate the rapid growth, Fitzgerald and Mongeon bought the 19,000-square-foot Gateway building at 553 Roosevelt Highway, “then added on, renovated, and made it home,” says Mongeon. One feature of the location is a state-of-the-art call center that currently employs 54.

The company has partnered with Vermont HITEC, a nonprofit education center, to help build the workforce by taking applications and conducting training. The program is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Vermont Department of Labor, and the Vermont Department of Economic Development.

“A hundred percent of the business is done out of our office in Colchester,” Mongeon says, then corrects himself, saying that the division of the company that goes out and signs the dealership, then supports the dealership once the software is live, does have some remote workers. “For example, we might hire somebody in New Jersey to handle that state. But many of our dealership sales folks live in Vermont and then travel a lot.”

That Fitzgerald and Mongeon work well together is “key to the whole thing,” says Crook. “Each one of them is totally competent in their experience, and now, they overlap each other in expertise — Travis in insurance and Jeff in the automobile industry.”

Critical to the company’s growth, Mongeon says, is the ability to bring on “extraordinary local talent, and this includes technology leadership, business, insurance, call center leadership. We’ve been able to attract some outstanding talent locally, and from that base is how we’ve grown.”

He says that development of the product to make it more intuitive and seamless for the customer and the dealership continues. DealerPolicy releases a new version of its software every two weeks, created by its 10 in-house software developers.

It can be a challenge to find time outside of work, but both partners make sure to carve it out. Fitzgerald and his wife, Elizabeth, have two children, Sofia, 6, and Samuel, 2. “My wife snowboards, and my kids do, as well,” he says. “We ski. I also enjoy playing golf, as much as possible, and enjoy reading.”

Mongeon, a three-sport varsity athlete at Colchester High (cross country, basketball, and baseball) has a long history coaching baseball for various teams. Now general manager of the Cannons Baseball Club in Colchester, he was one of its founders at age 22. “It’s a good escape for me,” he says, “and my kids enjoy being outside and around the players.”

He still runs and enjoys hiking and outside activities with his wife, Jessica, their daughter, Aria, 5, and son, Easton, 2. He and Jessica met through her brother, who was playing for the Cannons.

“We definitely love the lifestyle that Vermont provides,” he says. “How many people get to grow up and start a business like this in their backyard? I actually got to hire some of my baseball players, too — to provide some good jobs to people I’ve known for years.”•