Meet Tom Kline
Lead Consultant & Founder, Better Vantage Point
I am a third-generation car guy – it’s in my DNA. My grandfather, Irving Kline, took a business risk in 1925 and started the first Chevy dealership in Norfolk, Virginia when Chevrolet existed for only fourteen years. Two short years later, my father, Richard Kline, was born on November 3 (a birthdate fittingly shared with the Chevrolet corporation), and he would go on to pursue a more than fifty-year career as a very successful automotive dealer for Chevrolet and others. Soon, the Klines will proudly celebrate one hundred years in the car business. I am proud of this automotive family legacy, even though it wasn’t always clear to me as a young man that this was the road I would travel professionally.
“Raised around the family business as young men, my two brothers and I were gifted ideological guideposts by our parents: Work hard and value education.”
In this pursuit, we were challenged early in life to leave our community of familiar local friends in Virginia and embrace the unfamiliar at a boarding school. At the age of fifteen, I met the most incredible, intelligent, and interesting fellow students, many of whom later became not only close friends but, indeed, I still consider my extended “family of choice” to this day. These relationships were formative for me and influenced my future goals significantly, taking me quite a distance from the automotive roots around which I had grown up: I followed my passion for the arts into the field of Theatre.
As a serious, driven student, I managed to graduate from Emory University in only three years with a degree in Theatre while working professionally in Atlanta’s arts and entertainment scene. Through producing, directing, and managing, I found professional satisfaction and community in a world very distant indeed from my family’s automotive roots. The familial itch to own and operate businesses did not leave me, though, and I soon found myself working toward other ventures beyond simply theater, including small business consulting, and I purchased a mystery shopping company servicing large multinational corporations such as Blockbuster and Marriott.
Foreshadowing much of what I do today, those companies focused on operational risks such as honesty shopping (checking if employees were stealing products or pocketing a client’s money) and “reducing shrinkage” of inventory.
It was an energizing time, and I cast a wide intellectual net, seeking answers to a wide swath of business questions. Before realizing it, I had accumulated licenses in real estate, stock brokering, and investment banking.
Energizing does not always mean ideal, though. It’s been said experience is a hard teacher in that she gives the test first and the lessons afterward. In that vein, as with many people early in their careers, I gained experience alongside tough lessons. During this time, I had an incredibly intelligent business partner talented in many areas, but one who sadly proved bereft of people skills. This made it nearly impossible to grow the company as clients would often fire us as they quickly tired of dealing with his frequently difficult and mercurial ways. An imperative partnership lesson was learned then, and since that time, I have appropriately valued why the mastery of “soft skills” in a team is vital to any business venture.
In the early 1990s, while I was still scraping and inventing to build out these business ventures, I received the troubling news from home in Virginia Beach, my father, Richard, had suffered a significant health issue. And so, although it was not a professional path I had originally envisioned for myself, the tug of family and the work ethic I had been taught as a child soon pushed me to pack my bags and return to Virginia.
“Immediately, I went to work at the family dealership, gaining experience in nearly every department, including selling door-to- door parts for a year.”
Quickly I found myself able to leverage the business lessons learned during the time I spent away, entirely removed from the automotive world. Innovation and alternative viewpoints were tools I quickly realized played an invaluable role in finding solutions.
For example, I initially scripted and directed a dealership-first marketing video (VHS format!) showcasing how dynamic our parts department could be. I have clear memories of daily traveling door-to-door between body shops and service locations, schlepping a “very fancy,” very heavy VHS/TV combo machine into the offices of decision-makers so I could dazzle them with our extremely slick-for-the-time media campaign illustrating why they should buy from our dealership exclusively.
Chief among those reasons was another improvement initiative I spearheaded: Collaborating directly with UPS. I shepherded a strategy to expand our efficiencies and deliver parts more quickly and cost-effectively to our wholesale clients. (Amazon level service years before the internet.) Methodically, I built relationships and earned the trust of each prospect by visiting their locations multiple times. After earning their trust, it was then our business to lose.
“The “three touch” rule for sales building and customer retention was solidified for me during these early years, and even now, I revisit the truth in this ideological touchstone almost daily.”
Years passed, and as in many family dealership models, I had opportunities to work in nearly every facet of the business, sometimes through planning and occasionally because “trench warfare” results in battlefield promotions. One such occurrence happened when the dealership’s Collection Manager was suddenly but sternly invited to vacate his post after it was learned he was doing drugs. My brother, Robert, the President of the dealership, unexpectedly anointed me as the new Collection Manager that same day. This was my formal introduction to excuses, bounced checks, and repos.
As the business grew, so did my department. At its height, I trained and managed six (6) collectors plus an in-house attorney, all chasing receivables. This was another opportunity to leverage some of the “exterior to automotive” business strategies I picked up. I tried to inject fun and approachability into the interactions between collector and customer whenever possible, awarding fifty ($50) credits against a customer’s balance owed us for any excuses we hadn’t previously heard. I had the department send out greeting cards with tea bags attached inviting stressed customers in arears to sit down, call us, and let’s just have a friendly chat. De-escalation and open conversation was the path we chose to travel as long as feasible. When necessary, though, I also handled the legal actions for collection judgements.
Over time, the legal experience obtained in those collection proceedings (true on-the-job training) taught me enough about the ins and outs of how real-world court proceedings actually work. I took over project management of all legal and lawsuit-related dealership responsibilities.
When court became necessary, oversight of the legal team and quarterbacking a clear strategy for success was always the name of the game. From a time and cost loss prevention standpoint, though, it was clear to me very early that the true focus of my work should be how to reduce risk and protect the family company, both through standard practices/procedures and the purchase of insurance policies, so court dates would become rare and few.
In 2019 after 30 years of growing, learning, and grinding in the family business, I was ready for a change, as were others. It was important to us as owners that our employees and the dealership, having a distinguished fifty-five-year history at the time, were all well cared for in the future. To that end, we chose to sell to the general manager, a person who himself had worked at the dealership for over thirty years and was well known to the over one-hundred-and-fifty- member team.
Pivoting after the sale of the dealership in January 2020, I enthusiastically launched my consulting business, Better Vantage Point, Inc. It has been the perfect vehicle to meld the experiences and wisdom from three decades of dealership operation, as well as the youthful perspectives and ingenuity gleaned during my early entrepreneurial days back in Atlanta.
Today, we focus on the intersection of insurance coverage, compliance best practices, risk management, and, when necessary, legal response strategies for business leaders. In business community media, this is popularly referred to as GRC or governance, risk, and compliance. We just like to think of it as “We Get You Out Of Trouble… and Keeping You Out Of Trouble.” Better Vantage Point Inc. is the first targeted consultancy to percolate down this broad GRC perspective into a refined offering specifically directed to the automotive dealership space.
Sometimes when people learn my story or hear of my early background in Theatre, they will ask, “Do you miss it?”
“The truth is, I am exactly where I need to be professionally, and I know I am making a positive impact at dealerships.”
What matters to me most are my clients. I know I can solve their problems and challenges, safeguard their assets, and troubleshoot as issues arise. That may not be the exact style of artistry I set out toward in my youth, but it is certainly producing, managing, and directing a very interesting “show” on a stage I enjoy.
And to lean into a very old cliche, the show will very definitely go on!
ACT I: Going forward into 2023 and beyond the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and the states’ Attorneys General will not only continue but are scheduled to increase their enforcement activities.
ACT II: There will always be attorneys who specialize in suing car dealers. It’s literally an industry, and like most industries, it will continue to strive for growth.
Final Stage Notes from Tom Kline, Lead Consultant & Founder at Better Vantage Point:
Consider a regular and routine process for GRC activities at your store.
Remember Mike Tyson’s famous quote, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”