Canadian who bought U.S. dealerships shares valuable advice

October 19, 2022

“I’m Steve Quinn, and I’m a car dealer,” is how Steve Quinn says he introduces himself. But this serial entrepreneur is also President of the Quinn Automotive Group, and owns several dealerships in Canada and in the United States.

Quinn was interviewed as part of a fireside chat session by Niel Hiscox, President of Universus and Publisher of Canadian auto dealer at an exclusive invite-only information session organized by Dealer Solutions Mergers and Acquisitions (DSMA) at the luxurious Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont. on Monday.

Quinn, a car dealer since 2002, also worked for the Canadian Tire Corp. for years and ran and sold an emissions testing company before becoming a car dealer. Quinn said he doesn’t have a particular fondness for cars, but he likes the business. “It’s a social business,” said Quinn. “It’s a collegial industry. I can pick up a phone and talk to someone in Kamloops I’ve never met before and he’ll talk with me, and we become instant friends. We remember where we came from. A lot of car dealers didn’t come from money and have learned the hard lessons.”

Quinn is one of a growing number of Canadian car dealers who are setting their growth sights south of the border.

For Quinn, he said a dealer has to have a good reason to go south. He identified three possible reasons:

  • You have an affinity for the geography, and want to live in a warmer climate for part of the year;
  • Maybe there’s a local opportunity, for example owning dealerships in Windsor and Detroit, where you can hop across the border and keep an eye on things;
  • Or, there’s a family connection. In his case, he had a family member that wanted to live on the west coast of the U.S. so they went looking around California.

Quinn said that in about 2012 he asked around to see if any dealers had experience buying a dealership in the U.S. and didn’t connect with any. But he soldiered on anyway. And he learned a lot along the way.

“It’s a very different game than in Canada. It’s a great game but it’s different,” said Quinn. “Canadians come down to the U.S. and they get torn up because we are trusting and a handshake is a handshake and a deal is a deal. You want to have your I’s dotted and T’s crossed in the U.S.,” he said.

When bidding on a franchisee or an open point, you are also likely to be competing against a large, well-known and well financed U.S. auto group. But that’s not always a bad thing if you play your cards right, he said. “You are seen as the less aggressive option. That plays well for manufacturers,” said Quinn. “You have to play the ‘Ah Shucks’ game.” Keeping the OEMs is happy if you understand what they care most about: having a beautiful state-of-the art facility, delivering off the chart CSI scores and moving lots of metal.

But OEMs are only part of the battle: there are lots of regulatory and administrative hurdles you have to navigate and in some jurisdictions, like California where he operates, that can be a bit of a nightmare. “You have to understand the landscape,” said Quinn. “I have 17 different government agencies I have to get permits from.”

He said for example, every year he has to prepare and submit a 78-page agreement to the city of Santa Monica explaining why they should let him continue to provide services to the city.

But once you figure things out, there are lot of advantages in the U.S., he said, including:

  • Making “fat” dollars (US dollars)
  • Strong dealership protection from your manufacturers
  • Making lots of money from your real estate
  • American business people react and act quickly
  • There is a big population (access to human or financial capital is unlimited)

“It’s not a bad day at the office when you bring those fat dollars across the border,” he said.

Another thing that he said works to his advantage, is that he can bring a personal touch. With so many U.S. dealerships run at a distance by large groups, they aren’t used to meeting Dealer Principals in their actual stores. “In the U.S. they don’t know who a Dealer Principal is. In the U.S. they aren’t used to that. You can win their hearts and minds over by showing a personal touch,” said Quinn, adding that his dealerships have a 93% staff retention rate.

As his last bit of advice Quinn offered: “put your team together early, decide the area you want to go to, and rely on professionals who do this stuff to help you.”

About Todd Phillips

Todd Phillips is the editorial director of Universus Media Group Inc. and the editor of Canadian auto dealer magazine. Todd can be reached at

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