Irving Singer opened Merchants Automotive Group 50 years ago, in 1962, with 50 used cars. Today, the Hooksett, N.H.-headquartered company ranks in the top 10 of fleet leasing and management companies, yet it still remains an independent, family-owned operation.
Over the last three years, new leadership and sales operations management have been brought on board, and the company feels it is well positioned to continue its role as a major corporate leasing provider.
Meet the Team
Five years after the company was founded, the next generation (brothers Stephen, Robert, Alan, Jeffrey, and Gary Singer and brother-in-law Michael Sydney) took over the business when their father, Irving Singer, retired.
In 2007, the brothers brought new blood to the executive vice presidency when Glen Villano joined the team. Villano came to the helm with 34 years of financial expertise and, after a successful transition, has taken over as CEO.
“I’m looking forward to building upon the unique blend between this company’s 50 years of experience and a forward-thinking senior management team with broad industry acumen,” Villano said. “When you break down our core business strengths, we want to be recognized not only for our various fleet management programs, but also for our vast industry knowledge, flexibility, and willingness to customize. All of those are critically important, as well as a dedicated focus on delivering world-class customer service. As I look toward future opportunities, it’s that ability to leverage our robust industry expertise with an investment in best-of-class technological innovation and people that’s really exciting.”
A new vice president of sales and marketing also joined Mechants. Tom Coffey has 25-plus years of fleet management experience, almost exclusively within the barony of sales and marketing.
“I hope to bring a new perspective, fresh ideas, and unique strategies that will build upon Merchants’ core strengths of client satisfaction and retention to win new customers, which will lead to continuing this trend of growth and profitability,” Coffey noted.
Coffey believes that one of Merchants’ greatest advantages is financial independence. “Many of the companies in our industry are subsidiaries or sister companies of larger corporations whose financial objectives may not have always been aligned with those of their fleet customers,” he said. “We’re not tied to a third party. We’re able to offer many different financial leasing products and we’re just as comfortable doing closed-end as we are open-end leasing structures. We’re able to offer a customer a fixed lease rate to lock in that rate for the term of the lease.”
Jack Firriolo rounds out the team as chief operating officer. After decades of fleet management financial services experience, Firriolo is the master of creating operational excellence. “My focus is on creating the ability to provide repeatable and reliable processes. So, as the business continues to grow, we want to continue to deliver outstanding customer service by being able to adjust processes that are responsive to changes within the industry and the growth of our business,” Firriolo said.
In addition to those hires, in the last four years Merchants has also brought on a chief financial officer and a chief credit officer. The senior leadership team is an even balance between recent additions and people who have been with the business for many years. This translates to continuity both from an operational perspective as well as at the customer relationship level.
“One of the directors that I was talking to yesterday is approaching her 30th year with the company. It’s that blend of background and experience of knowing what our customers need, and adding some new and different perspectives that is very exciting for us,” Villano noted.
Dennis Cavagnaro, director of marketing, has been with the company for nearly nine years.
“When I started, we were more or less a regional provider located in the New England area. As we became a national provider, we entered the scene with a strong DNA focused on customer service, technological innovation, and customized solutions for our customers,” Cavagnaro said. “We have very active owner involvement that allows us to make decisions quickly and efficiently. All of [our success] comes from listening to our customers; listening to fleet management concerns and trying to identify those particular ways that we can add value that go above and beyond the traditional methods of simply providing a vehicle, a term, and an interest rate.”
In developing the executive team, Merchants looked to outside talent as essential in helping to generate new ideas.
“Talent development has been a strategic initiative at the very top of our list over the past two years,” Villano said. “And, when we looked at the development of the team, we realized that incorporating outside talent was absolutely essential to fostering new ideas.”
According to Firriolo, Merchants has actively sought out professionals with diverse business management skills as well.
“The team Glen [Villano] has assembled obviously has broad fleet industry expertise, but they’re also people who are familiar with taking businesses that are in a stage of evolution, and know how to properly manage, cultivate, and nurture that growth across all of the different products and services that we offer. So, my opinion is that the leadership team has the unique ability to provide outstanding service in a growing and dynamic environment.”
Innovative New Ideas
Merchants also strives to keep ahead of the competition when it comes to innovation and customized solutions for its customers.
According to Villano, “Part of [our goal] is being able to meet the specific needs of customers that don’t necessarily fit into a standard ‘box,’ and more importantly, recognizing that each customer’s needs may require a different approach than may have been done historically.”
For example, Merchants has a maintenance program offered as part of its service contract. The company has its technicians go through and negotiate every maintenance item that might be required on a particular vehicle line by line, in order to maximize what it can provide in terms of service on the vehicle, and recommend what should be done versus what shouldn’t.
Customization is also key to Merchants success.
“One of our customers came to us with a requirement that, for the contract, they would need a fleet of 200 used vehicles because they wanted to be able to get them at a reasonable price. They also needed delivery within one to two weeks,” Villano recalled. “Since we also have a used retail operation at Merchants, we were uniquely able to provide that type of service in the necessary time frame.”
One new product that was recently launched is the next version of the company’s desktop fleet management tool called FleetAccess 2.0.
“We have an aggressive plan and strategy to go to the next developmental levels with that platform,” Cavagnaro said. “We have taken our customer-focused traits to put together a desktop service that can be customized and easily navigated by not only experienced users, but also companies that have just been introduced to information desktop portal services.”
Additional advancements and announcements on this program will be released later this year.
Villano also commented on the fact that the company is putting the finishing touches on a very significant IT investment.
“This is going to integrate all of our technology together in one platform. One of our value propositions is that we differentiate ourselves — not only in terms of our products and services, but also in ‘how’ we deliver at the ‘best in class’ level in everything that we do,” Villano said. “This platform is going to allow us to pull that all together, have a central repository of information, use state-of-the-art technology to be able to deliver that information to our customers, and ultimately be able to provide a much better experience than we think anyone else in the marketplace can provide.”
Merchants has also successfully positioned itself as an industry “thought-leader.” Fleetcast, for example, is the latest rendition of a strong IT effort that began development four years ago.
“Fleetcast is the latest interactive knowledge resource built upon a foundation of white papers and research surveys that we provide to our prospects, customers, and anyone in the industry that may be trying to learn more about trending topics, such as telematics, making a decision for reimbursement, seeking information on the different types of maintenance programs, and breaking news,” Cavagnaro said. “We’ve created a downloadable series of 10 minute or less vignettes. Executives and fleet decision makers are very busy people. If you have 10 minutes during a lunch hour or on a plane flight, now you can take in a snippet of valuable, objective information regarding a certain topic.”
Fleetcast is a free site, and only requires registration. It can be found by visiting fleetcast.merchantsleasing.com.
While Merchants Leasing has come a long way in the past 50 years, the focus is squarely on the future.
“I think we’re going to be focusing on a number of areas. Certainly, the industry is large, competitive, and presents many opportunities,” Villano noted. “But we’re also committed to growing organically, which is important and we really feel that we’re going to have the ability to service all sizes of customers according to their unique needs.”
Merchants also remains interested in acquisition opportunities going forward. “We’ve completed three acquisitions in the last six years and we’re going to continue to seek companies that offer a chance for us to be both good for them and good for us,” Villano said. “We strive to offer our customers the best services available, especially for customers that want something different and not just an out of the box solution. We want to serve customers who are looking for that type of experience and we think we’ll be a very attractive alternative.”
Long term, Villano sees the corporate perspective staying steady. “The owners have invested a great deal in the past and their plans are to continue to invest in the future of the business. Once again, they’re all very actively involved, so this is something that’s very top of mind to them. We’re also going to continue our efforts in terms of investing in the community, and we’re going to continue investing in our employees. All of those are key pillars within our strategy, and I think we’re certainly going to be very aggressive in terms of growth. The motto here is ‘best in class,’ and as we look at our corporate structure relative to our customers, it’s focused on providing best-in-class service that differentiates us from the rest of the field,” he said.
Committed to the Community
Merchants Leasing is also committed to its community through several philanthropic endeavors. The Singer family, as well as the company, approach these contribution efforts with “as much zeal and focus as we do our regular core business,” according to Glen Villano, CEO of Merchants Leasing. Some of its commitments include:
Salvation Army. Employees are given time (during work hours) to “ring the bell” for the Salvation Army in the two to three weeks leading up to the holiday season. Every year, Gary Singer, one of the company’s owners, rings the bell with the current and former governors of New Hampshire. In addition to employees, local area business partners are also encouraged to participate. In 1995, the company became the “No. 1 Bell Ringer,” and has held the title for the past 15 consecutive years, raising more than $26,000 during the 2010 holiday season.
Blood drive. Merchants Leasing began its annual blood drive in 2004, held in honor of the late Gail Singer, wife of Gary Singer. According to the company, it holds the record for the largest single one-day blood drive in the United States by successfully collecting 1,959 pints of blood. The previous record of 1,835 pints was held by the St. Louis Cardinals and the University of Missouri.
Singer Family Park. Singer Family Park was established in 1998 and spent its first five years hosting festivals, circuses, and events, such as Family Film Night (a mock drive-in) and Riverfest, a summer concert series. In 2005, a 7,500-seat baseball stadium was built to host New Hampshire’s AA Affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Fisher Cats, and the venue was renamed Merchants
Auto.com Stadium in 2006. As of January 2011, it’s now known as Northeast Delta Dental Stadium.