What Drives John Cueter?
Fox Grand Traverse's leader has been in dealerships
since youth, but isn't a predictable "car guy"
Given the hundreds of TV commercials featuring his face each month, John Cueter might just have the most recognizable face in Traverse City. But unlike other local auto dealers, Cueter doesn't have Traverse City roots that are decades old, nor is he a typical "car nut" with motor oil in his veins. But what John Cueter lacks in local connections or auto obsessions he makes up for with enthusiasm and focus.
Cueter runs northern Michigan for Fox Motors, handling the Ford, Lincoln, Mazda, BMW, and Mercedes dealerships in Traverse City and the Ford, Lincoln, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge dealerships in Charlevoix. In January, a promotion will get him even more responsibility, as he takes over Fox dealerships in Cadillac and the Upper Peninsula.
Fox has grown its northern presence after the initial purchase of the former Grand Traverse Auto from the Sleder family in 2009. Seeking a turnaround in sales trends, Fox President Dan DeVos promptly put John Cueter in charge of its northern operations.
Aided in part by the the federally-mandated "Cash for Clunkers" program and a resurgent Ford Motor Company, Cueter and his team got off to a fast start, growing both new and used car sales and market share versus his local competitors.
Soon after, Cueter was promoted to lead Charlevoix as well.
So what drives Cueter?
"I can't unplug," he admits. "I value my faith, family and job, and I'll admit sometimes the job part moves up to the number two spot on that list."
Cueter was introduced to Fox in 2009 by Ford Great Lakes Market Area Market Manager Kurt Brinkman. Brinkman's job is to supervise the manufacturer's relationship with dozens of dealers and the two had met while Cueter was attempting to purchase a Ford dealership in Stockbridge (Michigan) more than a decade ago.
"He was trying to buy the store, and things just didn't work out. I interviewed him and was extremely impressed with his knowledge of the business and enthusiasm. We hit it off and I kept him in mind," Brinkman said.
Years later, aware of Fox's aggressive northern expansion, Brinkman thought of Cueter and set him up to meet the team.
"Most gratifying for me," said Brinkman, "was the store's [Grand Traverse Auto's] great performance a year down the road, and John called to thank me. He's a class guy."
Fox President Dan DeVos agrees.
"He's a pure quality kind of guy, which is the first thing we look for," he said. "And of course he's dedicated to the store, the customers, the employees."
Cueter's formula for success seems to have four components: a close eye on business metrics, fighting for the highest level of customer service, getting involved in the community and, above all else, just plain enthusiasm.
"John's enthusiastic for sure," Fox BMW General Sales Manager and Cueter's co-worker Glenn Cousineau offers. "He's very focused and seems to have endless energy for this work. It creates a high-energy work atmosphere that I think people like, and one that works."
If it appears being a car dealer comes naturally to Cueter, it's because he's been working at car dealerships since age twelve.
"My dad and a partner owned two dealerships in metro Detroit, and I grew up basically selling cars," he recalls.
Growing up in tony Detroit suburb Grosse Pointe Woods, Cueter's father brought his son into work at a young age, first sweeping floors and washing cars, and working as a service attendant every summer during his teenage years.
"I eventually worked in every department," he says, "and by age eighteen I knew how to clean up pretty good, and I was helping sell cars."
By 21 he was in full-time sales, and eventually secured a college degree in automotive marketing from Northwood University. Following college, he worked at Star Lincoln Mercury in Southfield, where he moved up the ranks and became sales manager and eventually business manager at the ripe, old age of 25.
In 1992, having sold his interest in the other two dealerships, Cueter's father started Cueter Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Ypsilanti and hired his son as general manager. In 2000, Cueter's father retired and his son and a partner purchased the dealership. For the first time, John Cueter owned a dealership — and one with his own name on the sign.
In a strange twist, Cueter Chrysler still operates today, albeit without any Cueters involved. In 2007, Cueter and his partner went separate ways, leaving the dealership, signage with his name, and metro Detroit in the rear view mirror.
"It's strange," he says of the business still operating under his name, "but we had a good reputation. I will say it drives my dad nuts every day."
After a year consulting with a dealer in Pennsylvania the call came from Kurt Brinkman at Ford regarding a possible opportunity at Fox.
"Mary [John's wife of ten years] and I had a cottage in Empire for 10 years, and we always loved Traverse City. So the chance to work for a great organization in a town we loved was a great opportunity."
Three years later, one has to wonder: how much of the Fox Grand Traverse's turnaround is due to Dan DeVos' deep pockets and Fox's infrastructure, and how much thanks to John Cueter's auto acumen?
"That's a good question," Cueter ponders. "I'd say it's 60-70 percent the 'Fox way' that really drives us has systems and integrity, and maybe 30-40 percent is my own style and what I've brought here."
He points to his insistence on spending "a very big portion" of his promotional budget on community and charity involvement, as well as his coaching, training, and enthusiasm as his own contributions to the success.
And does he miss the hustle and bustle of metro Detroit?
"I like the loyalty here. The customers and the employees are just more loyal in this town, and I like that."
He also likes his competitors, something you might not see in a bigger market. Cueter has regularly partnered with Bill Marsh to raise money for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
"Maybe it's odd, but me and Bill [Marsh] and Otto [Belovich of Cherry Capital Cadillac] are fairly close. i love that. Everybody wins if we can be good business people and still get along."
For now, Cueter's main focus remains on expansion. BMW of Traverse City will open an all-new showroom across US-31 next summer, and Fiat has just been added to the portfolio in Traverse City. His new responsibilities in Cadillac and the Upper Peninsula will have him traveling hundreds of miles each week.
And still, despite having the likes of Corvettes, Mustangs, and $100,000 BMWs at his disposal, Cueter drives a modest SUV.
"I have four kids, so it's practical. I love cars, but I'm not a car nut; it's the people. It's what we do every day that i'm a nut about," he says with a smile.