Like many children raised in a family business, Rob Cochran didn't envision a role for himself at the automotive dealership his father founded in North Braddock in 1965. Then he spent a summer during college selling cars and saw an opportunity to diversify #1 Cochran's vehicle brands beyond Pontiac and GMC, and expand its geographic footprint from Monroeville to Pittsburgh's western and southern suburbs.
Despite a recession that left some dealerships closing their doors for good this year, #1 Cochran opened a new Infiniti dealership in Dormont earlier this month. The company sells 18 brands of cars and trucks, has about 500 employees and generated revenues of $400 million last year.
Q: How are you able to expand while the automobile industry is shrinking dramatically?
A: When you look nationally at the industry, it's certainly been a difficult environment. I think Pittsburgh is somewhat more insulated. The brands that speak to value have done reasonably well in this environment: the two Hyundai stores, Kia, Subaru and Nissan. Those brands have persevered.
And there are other parts of our business that aren't related to new car sales. Used vehicle sales have increased over the past 12 months. The service and parts areas continue to do well. Our collision business continues to grow. New cars certainly feed a lot of what we do, but there are other things we have a lot more control over than new cars and what the incentives are on the new car front.
Hometown: Churchill; resides in Indiana Township
Education: Bachelor's in applied mathematics, operations research and management science with second major in industrial management, Carnegie Mellon University, 1987.
Career: Worked part time at #1 Cochran as a college student; joined as full-time sales and advertising manager in 1987; became president in 1992 and chief executive in 1993.
Q: The brands you mentioned that have sold well are all foreign.
A: Yes. Interestingly, from our perspective with General Motors, the Cash for Clunkers incentive program hit right at the time when our inventories were the lowest. So if it had happened a year ago when we were still in the Pontiac game, it would have had a huge impact. But inventories have depleted. Pontiac is being phased out. And Buick is not yet ramped up to a point where there's significant volume.
Q: Did you notice any uptick in your sales as a result of Cash for Clunkers?
A: It stimulated demand. It brought some people out who had not purchased cars in a long time. I think it [ended at the right time]. It was an administratively cumbersome program.
I think the government did the best it could, but they're not set up to administer these types of incentives. It's been taxing just trying to stay in compliance with what they want us to do. Most dealerships, for all the money outstanding, have just gotten paid a very small percentage of what's owed to them. That will pass, I would imagine. We'll get it resolved. It has not been a normal program.
Q: What did you think of the government bailout of the auto industry?
A: We're pretty bullish on where GM is. From a balance sheet standpoint, they're very clean. In a 15 million car market [15 million vehicles sold annually], because of their liabilities, they were losing millions and millions and billions of dollars.
In a 10 million car market, with a conservative market share, they can be profitable. As they're profitable, I think they will gain momentum. There have been a number of dealerships closed or asked to close. We're fortunate because of our locations and our past performance and relationships, that we're not among them. [GM] would be the first to admit they have work to do.
Q: Did you work at the dealership as a kid?
A: Yes. While in college I went through the various departments: parts, service, collision and sales was my last spot between junior and senior years. That was something that helped me grow a lot of confidence. I was successful in selling, and it became clear that it was really just about establishing trust with people. It wasn't what I might have thought five year earlier: that to be successful you had to talk the loudest.
Q: Did you have a mentor?
A: My father certainly was. And there were a couple others. I was fortunate to have a good education and, in some ways, be book smart. The people I've been around in this business were able to teach me some invaluable lessons. My father sticks out.
Q: What would you have done if you weren't in the car business?
A: I would have tried to find something that allowed me to help develop a culture and grow a brand. Maybe not to this scale, maybe smaller. There is a mathematical and analytical side to me, but the things that get me most excited are those two things: growing an external brand and working with a team to develop an internal culture that feeds into the external brand.
Q: You moved rapidly from an entry-level employee in 1987 to president in 1992. Did you expect to be running the company so soon?
A: When I started in 1987, we were just moving into the former Kaufmann's store in Monroeville, and my first year was spent helping with that move. Then my father's right-hand man, our general manager, retired the next year. And not too long after that, my father got sick with cancer. His attendance was inconsistent at best until he passed away in 1993. That was my baptism if you will.
Everything happened very quickly. We had moved, there was the Persian Gulf war and a recession. A lot of people helped me, and I grew up pretty quickly.
Q: Did it feel strange to be in charge in your 20s?
A: It taught me to get organized and to focus on what I needed to do every single day. To this day, I'm organized. I don't worry about things I'm not doing. I don't put my head on the pillow at night and think I forgot something. I have it pretty much down to notes.
Q: Describe your leadership style.
A: Empowering. I try to share opportunities that are out there for our company. I really try to align people around our values. We speak a lot internally about our values: acting with integrity, developing great teams, delivering results, breeding customer loyalty and always improving. I'm a cheerleader for those five staples.
Q: What would you have done differently over the years?
A: We were excited about the Daewoo [a South Korean automobile later acquired by General Motors] a number of years ago, and that wasn't something to be excited about. But as I tell our people, if we can't look back and say we shouldn't have done this or that, we're not taking enough risks. We don't want a perfect record. It says we aren't doing enough.
Q: What do you drive?
A: Right now I'm driving a Cadillac CTS. In the fall, I'll probably go to some SUV because with five kids, it's easier. My wife drives a big SUV because of the five kids.
I'm really not that particular on what I drive. People find that interesting. I like nice cars. But I'm not in this business because of the cars and trucks. I'm in this business because of building a brand and building a culture.
Joyce Gannon can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1580.