Christian Chia is president and CEO of OpenRoad Auto Group Ltd., a Richmond. B.C.-based company operating 18 full-service automotive dealerships across 15 brands, ranging from Toyota to Rolls-Royce.
I graduated from UBC with a finance specialization and both my brothers and my father were in the finance field. Finance was and is still the place to be if you want to have a successful career – the titans of industry are the financiers. But once I was employed in the industry, what struck me is that I was tasked with analyzing and arranging financing for businesses that would use that capital to realize their goals. I thought: That doesn't make sense. I don't want to be in the industry that supports other businesses – I don't want to be the one that's providing the capital; I want to be the one that's using the capital.
It was really boring. I was bored to tears. Analyzing income statements and balance sheets for thousands of lines of financial statements. That didn't interest me at all.
The opportunity at Toyota came up. On the one hand, I jumped at the opportunity, and on the other hand, I didn't really have any choice. A situation of timing, circumstance and opportunity led me to Tokyo. Not even as an intern or a grunt, I was the lowest of the low. I had to fight to even get business cards. Once I got them, there was no title; you really have no identity there.
As part of any newcomer to Toyota, you are obliged to spend some time in the factory. It was really tough work. There's a lot of physical labour involved. Really, the two-plus years I worked at Toyota were most valuable to me because of the key things Toyota stands for: continuous improvement (kaizen), putting the customer and dealer before the manufacturer. Because I was there at such a young age, I feel that I adopted a lot of those lessons as I was young and impressionable. Because I was there in my early 20s, those have become my DNA.
I expected things to be tough when I started the OpenRoad brand. Three things stand out to me. One of the first strategies we had was to centralize our back office. Most businesses have a centralized back office, but in the retail car business, that remains the exception rather than the rule. Accounting and marketing and HR: people expected those to be within the four walls of your building. We said, "No, guys, let's pull it back, put it in one location and you tap into those services as you need them." Sounds easy, but that was difficult.
We embarked on a growth strategy; we grew from four dealerships to eight dealerships, to 12 and 16 dealerships. When you grow, you lose a little bit of that personal touch, that sense of family, that close-knit sense of community. When you've had that for a long time, that's not easy to accept. People questioned my strategy to grow the organization. I heard "Why?" a lot. We need scale and size – for me, the size and the scale translate to resources to be better in marketing, in training staff, to be on the cutting edge of retail. Convincing people was difficult.
Change is difficult for everybody. Most people prefer a status quo; my story and my vision and message was all about change. The only constant is change. Sometimes you will lose people when people can't keep up with the pace of change. I never like to see that – I always want to build the team.
The time I spend is on growing the business, my mind is on communicating. Every company I know has a vision and mission, and they're all pretty much the same – to be a customer server, to grow the business, to be a leader in their industry. But people within the company don't know what their organization's vision is. I subscribe to the definition of a CEO being a communicator of that vision, of that strategy.
As you grow, one thing that becomes very important is the people you surround yourself with. I don't necessarily look for a certain type of experience. I also don't necessarily look for a particular education profile. You need to want to be an automotive professional – you want to be the very best in the industry, and in the field of expertise you have. I want people that see a bright future in the automotive industry for their careers. I don't want this to be some sort of a transient stop for them. Attitude is much more important than skills and education.
The first letters of company culture are cult. We do try to create a bit of cult. We like to do things together – we have our championship games, we make an effort to send our internal newsletter to people's homes. We have a lot of activities to engage not just our staff but the families of our staff as well.
Our industry is hypercompetitive. It's a small, low-margin, high-volume business. At the end of each month, we dial the counter back to zero. That's not an easy culture to live around because the expectation is so high. We're a competitive organization. We like to win, but I believe we have a shared ownership of those sales targets, of those customer satisfaction targets. We share a lot of our numbers across our organization – people in our organization know what our numbers are – they know what our challenges are, and what our opportunities are.
I think that our industry has the potential to be disrupted in a very major way. Our franchise dealership model, our business model, hasn't changed for about a hundred years. On our horizon the technology-related disruptors are ride-sharing, autonomous vehicles. The autonomous technology is already finding its way into cars today. I actually think mileage will increase as people start really enjoying their cars – a mobile extension of people's homes. Apple and Google – in some ways they will compete with us and our manufacturers. I also see them as a potential collaborator as their technology finds its way into our vehicles. As these services and companies become successful, they will also need partners in regions and cities.
I think passion makes more effective leaders. It's what I look for in building the organization. Personally, it's also what keeps me going, building the business, growing the team. Passion is still at the root and heart of who we are as an organization.
As told to Vancouver-based freelance writer Brendan McAleer
This interview has been edited and condensed.