By Kathy Day
When George Athan III graduated from the University of Southern California in 1994, he took a job selling cars in Kansas City, figuring it would be a good summer job. Now, nearly 20 years later, he’s still in the business as an equity owner and general manager of Audi San Diego.
After six years at a Toyota dealership in Kansas City, where he met his wife, he said he decided to head west again, taking a job with AutoNation. He began at its dealership in Cerritos before moving to AutoNation locations in Phoenix, Las Vegas and the Orange County.
His success caught the attention of Kuni Automotive Group when the Vancouver, Wash., firm purchased Pioneer Centers’ three San Diego dealerships – Audi, Porsche and Land Rover — and two in Denver in December 2011.
Moving to San Diego was an easy decision, he said, since he spent his early years in Oceanside where his parents went to high school. He got his first taste of car sales when his dad worked at Team Nissan in Encinitas.
His new role as an operating partner gives him the ability to manage as he sees fit for the local market, which stretches from Highway 56 to the border and east to Palm Springs. When Kuni assumed ownership, Audi San Diego was the 94th largest Audi dealership of the 250 in the country; in 2012, it jumped to 39th largest, with 100 percent growth in sales, he said.
An interesting point he raised: 20 percent of people buy a car on their first visit to the dealership. Athan and the other new Kuni dealers focused on growing the “import highline” market, which in San Diego is a large percentage of registered owners as a percent of the population. “We want people to drive cars they like,” he said.
In Audis, the variety is great – and growing with July’s introduction of diesels in the A6, A7, A8, Q5 and A3.
“The diesel is a home run,” Athan said, noting that Audi chose to go with a clean diesel versus a hybrid model. “These aren’t the diesels of the past. You could start one up here in the showroom and not even know it.”
Customer service is Athan’s – and Audi’s — byword. Saturday service and later weekday hours were added after Kuni took ownership. Athan also added a fleet of 95 Audis that customers can use while their cars are in the shop instead of rental cars. They even have a concierge service to pick up a customer’s car and leave a loaner, and a technician on call overnight, who can go out to assist a client in need.
Audi San Diego was a sponsor of the recent In Concert for Cancer aboard the USS Midway Museum and is involved with two upcoming events for wounded warriors. And Del Norte and Cathedral Catholic high schools have also been beneficiaries of Audi’s involvement.
Athan said he just worked out a deal that has the world’s No. 8-ranked pro surfer, Josh Kerr, as a brand ambassador, and signed a deal with Saint Archer Brewing Co., which opened in May not far from Audi San Diego’s Miramar Road location. Audi also provides cars to the Lodge at Torrey Pines for guests and has Audi magazines in the rooms.
The local ties – and “steering toward a younger demographic,” as Athan puts it — are indications of how marketing cars has changed and will continue to change as dealers recognize the power of the Internet.
“Our virtual lot gets more looks than our brick-and-mortar lot,” he said. With full disclosure on prices and availability now immediately accessible, it is simplifying the negotiating process, Athan noted. It’s all a part of what the carmaker calls “creating Audi fans.”
—Audi San Diego, 9010 Miramar Road, San Diego, 92126. Sales: (866) 980-4112. Service: (866) 981-2165. Parts: (866) 980-3423. Visit www.audisandiego.com.