Skeptical dealer becomes Leaf convert

Automotive News reports on a dealer selling the Nissan Leaf.

Automotive News
5 min read

PETALUMA, Calif.--When he first heard of the plan three years ago, Greg Dexter wasn't thrilled by the idea of selling electric cars at his Nissan dealership.

He was focused on keeping his Petaluma store profitable selling Altimas, Titan pickups, Pathfinders, and 370Zs. He wondered: Where would an electric car fit into that portfolio? Who was out there asking for it?

But after hearing Nissan Motor CEO Carlos Ghosn talk enthusiastically about the mass-production electric car that would go on sale in late 2010, Dexter realized the plan was serious and represented a golden opportunity for his North Bay Nissan store.

He decided to make his dealership a focal point of the California alternative-vehicle community.

"Once I really understood what was coming, I began getting ready," Dexter, 56, said, sitting in a tidy office at his store on a recent Saturday morning. His elementary school-aged son sat nearby watching him. "I decided we needed to position ourselves to be a leader in the market."

He succeeded.

On Dec. 11, a crowd of consumers, media, and dignitaries gathered at Dexter's store to watch as he presented a retail customer with the keys to the first Nissan Leaf sold in the world. Local TV cameras beamed the scene out across the region, and the sale made news around the world.

Bicycle to Leaf

Olivier Chalouhi, the first Leaf buyer, hails from Redwood City, Calif. He had traveled 25 miles north to San Francisco and then another 40 miles north to North Bay Nissan. Chalouhi didn't even own a car, preferring until now to commute to work by bicycle.

The sale represented a major expansion of Dexter's territory.

Petaluma sits between city and country. To the north and east lie agricultural California and outdoor recreation, with a demand for pickups and SUVs. "I've been selling every four-wheel-drive vehicle I can get in here lately," the dealer said.

To the south looms the San Francisco area, with its millions of residents, congested streets, affluence, hip consumer trends, and a zealous attitude about the environment. But Nissan has no dealership in San Francisco proper. Dexter knew the green-leaning megacity market was up for grabs, and he wanted it.

"The people in this area are very environmentally conscious," Dexter said. "So it's an ideal market to sell electric vehicles. That's why we wanted to be the first store with a customer. We want to be the store you come to with questions. We want to market North Bay Nissan as the premier Leaf dealer in the country."

As Nissan gingerly opens the gates for Leaf sales now, scarcity remains an issue for dealers. In the Leaf's first year, Nissan will sell only 20,000 to retail customers. Those cars and 20,000 more in year 2 are all spoken for already.

When Dexter handed the keys to the world's first buyer, his store was already sitting on 120 more Leaf orders.

'Biggest Leaf retailer'

"I'm told that makes me the biggest Leaf retailer in the country," he said, "if not the world." North Bay typically sells 75 to 80 new vehicles and 45 to 50 used vehicles a month.

Dexter has not advertised the Leaf. Few consumers have ever even laid eyes on the car. Nissan North America also has not advertised it--nor does it plan to--beyond a smattering of feel-good TV spots intended to bolster the Nissan brand image as a technology innovator.

"I'm not going to advertise it because I'm probably never going to have rows and rows of them sitting in stock," Dexter said. "I don't know that I'll ever have any Leafs sitting here unsold. But what I am going to do is continue reaching out to the community to make sure they know we're the place to buy a Leaf."

Reaching out was the secret to Dexter's success.

North Bay Nissan spent months flying the flag at meetings of California environmental groups, car-enthusiast clubs, alternative-vehicle events, public discussions of electric infrastructure, and other gatherings around the state where potential Nissan Leaf buyers might come looking for information or conversation.

A North Bay representative would answer questions, exchange unofficial information about the as-yet-unseen Leaf, discuss the details of battery charging and public charging infrastructure, or simply try to help interested consumers who were considering life as an EV owner.

Dexter attributes much of the store's success to his director of e-commerce, Ron Coury, whom North Bay recruited from Nissan North America in 2009.

'A long process'

"Ron came to me and said, 'You know, this is going to be a long process. There won't be any sales from this for a long time,'" Dexter recalled. "He said, 'I think a lot of these people are really at the stage where they just want to talk. They're not ready to buy anything.'

"I said, 'That's fine with me. Just be helpful.'"

To immerse himself in what consumers were thinking and saying about electric vehicles, Coury became involved in such local environmental organizations as the San Francisco Electric Vehicle Association, the California Cars Initiative, and two sustainability nonprofits: the EcoMom Alliance and Sustainable San Rafael. He also became active in Sonoma County's project to create an electric-vehicle charging infrastructure.

Despite the car's short supply, Dexter gave Coury approval to offer a discount on the Leaf--5 percent off the car's $33,600 sticker price, including transportation.

In August, a consumer Internet forum called mynissanleaf.com posted the following message from Coury in answer to some earlier online buzz: "Yes I will give you and anyone in the SF Bay Area group or outside the group 5% off of MSRP...My direct e-mail address is: rcoury@northbaynissan.com."

Hours after making the first sale last month, Dexter and Coury stood in front of San Francisco's city hall amid a crowd of local politicians, environmental activists, and the media.

Standing at an outdoor podium, Carlos Tavares, Nissan Americas chairman, hailed the beginning of electric-vehicle mass marketing in America.

Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, a longtime community proponent of hybrid and electric vehicles, sought out Dexter in the crowd and shook his hand. "I just wanted to thank you for what you've done," Kramer told the dealer. "You're a pioneer in this. I've been sending everyone I talk to up to your store."

In 1976, Dexter entered the car business as a 22-year-old salesman with Novato Datsun, a few miles south of Petaluma. He acquired a 10 percent ownership interest in the store four years later and acquired 100 percent of it in 1988, changing the marquee from Datsun to Nissan along the way. He moved the store to Petaluma in 1996, renaming it North Bay Nissan.

"Our store is 38 years old, and I've been part of it almost 35 years," he said. "And from the beginning, we've used the slogan, 'Where Our Customers Bring Their Friends.' We've never changed that slogan.

"It will be just as relevant to us as we get further and further into electric-vehicle sales," Dexter said. "Referrals will be very important for EVs. We recognize that it won't be enough to market and sell the car.

"We want to focus on the customer. We want to make sure he's so satisfied with us that he comes back and brings his friends."

(Source: Automotive News)