Russ Cass has big plans for Hawk Fleet Group. Headquartered in St. Charles, Ill., about 40 miles west of Chicago, the dealership group also has locations in Bridgeview, Forest Park, Joliet, and Oak Lawn. Hawk operates a total of 10 stores representing the Ford, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Volkswagen, Mazda, and Subaru brands.
It’s clear the group has a foothold in Chicago’s auto retail market, but its owners want to make a bigger impact in the commercial segment. That’s where Cass, his wife, Lynn, and their growing team of fleet specialists come in. After more than 40 years with a competitor that recently reorganized, Cass has taken his talents to Hawk Fleet Group.
“After 41½ years, we’re starting fresh,” Cass said. “We’ve got a good name and a great reputation. Rather than walk away from the business, we’re starting again. I love dealing with the fleet side of the business, especially the customers.”
Retail Versus Fleet
Cass’ father, Jim Cass, worked in dealerships starting in the mid-1950s and was the owner of the since-renamed Cass Ford by the time Russ was in high school. Although the younger Cass was more interested in a career as a photographer or a history teacher, when he was weighing summer job opportunities and in need of transportation, his father convinced him to try his hand at sales.
“You didn’t get free cars from my dad. You had to work. It was only a summer job, but it’s lasted 42 years,” he said.
Cass says he did “pretty well” in his six months in the Cass Ford showroom. When his father sold the store, Cass jumped to another dealership, where he would specialize in trucks. After a few years, in 1979, his truck expertise gave him the opportunity to move into fleet. “In retail, you worked 12-hour day, six or seven days a week, with maybe every other Sunday off. Fleet hours were Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. It took about a half a second to decide — though, as the business grew, long hours again became the norm.”
In the commercial segment, Cass found his niche. He committed himself to solving fleet customers’ problem, finding the perfect trucks and vans for their needs and never overspec’ing or overspending. In the 1980s, when other dealers were only willing to deliver off-the-line trucks and chassis cabs, Cass dove into the aftermarket headfirst. He made friends and formed partnerships with upfitters throughout the Chicagoland area and committed to doing whatever it took — including the math — to deliver the complete vehicles his fleet customers needed.
“In the old days, before the computer would do it for you, there were worksheets, and you would do all your algebraic equations to figure out the rolling road speed. The old guys would use slide rules,” Cass recalls. In the ’90s, he spent his own money to invest in a desktop computer and dot matrix printer. He designed a form for fleet quotes and hired Lynn — initially as a volunteer — to manage his office. In 2003, he was named fleet director, a position he would hold for the next 15 years. “Fleet is a great industry. It’s getting more modern, but it hasn’t changed all that much. It’s the same companies, and they still need trucks,” said Cass.
How Hawk Fleet Group Operates
Hawk Fleet Group is owned by four partners, brothers John and Joe Crane, Gus Kreatsoulas, and Gus Babalis. Cass says he was attracted to the group’s family-oriented nature and the partners’ familiarity with the commercial side of the business — and their desire to increase their share.
Hawk already had a commercial sales manager in each of its stores when Cass joined the company, which he says is a “great foundation” for a national fleet sales business. He believes their infrastructure and the experience and expertise his team brings to the table are a formidable combination.
“Our clients are all over the country, and we can drop-ship and upfit all over the country. We are going to bring Hawk’s commercial business into another phase,” said Cass, noting that, for small and mid-size fleets, a strong commercial dealer can offer many of the same services delivered by national and global fleet management companies. For businesses that don’t want to turn their entire fleet operation over to an FMC, Hawk Fleet Group has contacts throughout the industry.
“We have partnered with an all-star team of fleet service providers. We don’t put all our eggs in one basket, and it’s not a ‘fee-for-all,’ as I call it,” Cass said. “You only purchase and pay for needed and wanted services.”