Bark's Bites: Who Is Bark, And Why Should We Listen To Him?
For over four years now I’ve contributed to this site and others as “Bark M.” Initially, there was some confusion about who I was, why I had a pseudonym, and if I was possibly Jack Baruth in disguise. I’ve spent that time giving you my insights on the automotive industry, the inside scoop on what goes on at dealers, and everything I know about the car-buying business.
Yet, now and then, somebody who disagreed with me would pipe up: “You don’t know what car dealerships are like,” or “What are your credentials, buddy?” I could never really share anything other than, “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”
Today, I’m here to tell you that my name is Mark Baruth, and for the last four years I worked on the inside of one of the biggest companies in the automotive world. This is my story.
AutoTrader hired me in May 2012 as a Divisional Sales Trainer. My title changed a few times over the years, as did my job focus, but I was originally brought in to work in the field as a sales coach with our Advertising Consultants. Before that, I had worked in sales management and sales training with companies like Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Cricket, Men’s Wearhouse, and Xerox.
I’d always loved cars, of course, but I’d never worked in the car business. I watched my brother struggle through sales jobs at foreign and domestic dealers, and decided that wasn’t the course for me. However, the automotive space always held interest for me. I dreamed of maybe being a trainer for an OEM. One day, in April 2012, I was sitting at my desk at Xerox, where I was the Training and Development Specialist for one of their sales channels, when my desk phone rang. This was particularly odd, because I didn’t even know my desk phone number. Nobody ever called me on it — they always used my cell phone. Nevertheless, I answered it.
It was a recruiter from AutoTrader, asking me if I knew anybody who would be interested in a Sales Trainer job in the Great Lakes area.
When you work in sales training, it’s never “if” you’ll be laid off, it’s always “when.” I had been laid off from Cricket Wireless a little less than a year earlier, along with several other trainers, and I knew that many of them were still looking for work. I offered to pass along the information to my friends, and didn’t think much of it after that.
However, once I received information from the recruiter, I began to realize that it was the perfect job for me; working with sales professionals one-on-one doing consultative sales training, and it was in the automotive field! Not quite an OEM job, but not schlepping used Kias, either. After about a month of interviews and background checks, I started with AutoTrader in May.
My recruiter and hiring manager both warned me there would be a steep learning curve — and they were right. It was a huge crash course in the automotive biz. I was assigned three sales reps per quarter to work with in our “Good to Great” program, which, in addition to being a huge copyright violation, was a program for sales reps who had indicated high potential but weren’t quite top performers yet. My very first quarter, I was assigned to two sales reps who had over a decade of experience as General Managers of large domestic dealerships. While I was supposed to be coaching them on sales processes, in reality, they were the ones who were coaching me on the processes and the inner workings of dealerships.
I learned what happens in an F&I office, how a parts department should be run, how to properly schedule your service techs, why CRM tools are essentially useless, how used cars are priced, and how auctions work. It wasn’t Automotive 101, but a graduate-level seminar for three months. I will forever be grateful to those two gentlemen for my education. I think I helped them a bit, too. They both went from middle-of-the-road performers to being two of the top 10 sales reps in the country.
The rest of that year, I spent three days a week visiting dealerships all across America (by the time I was done at AutoTrader, I would ultimately visit dealers in over 40 states). I began to see how dealers operated differently depending on different factors, such as market size, lot size, and franchise type. I examined the inner workings of independent dealers, too. I helped our consultants craft solutions that fit all of their online advertising needs. I had to be intimately familiar with every aspect of their business, because AutoTrader wasn’t just advertising. We had sister companies that managed inventory, CRM tools, pricing software, website hosting, SEO/SEM and targeting strategies, auctions … you name it. We had our fingers in every part of a customer’s operation.
Of course, along the way, I had access to all of our reporting tools, too. I learned what makes a car sell quickly and, inversely, what makes it celebrate its first birthday on the lot. Eventually, I could analyze a dealer’s entire 200+ car inventory in seconds, and tell them exactly what they needed to do to increase activity on those cars. I watched as dealers either embraced the new digital landscape and thrived, or clung to their old brick-and-mortar ways and died slow, painful deaths.
In addition to my in-field coaching, I also spent a great deal of time doing classroom facilitation for our salespeople. I led two-day seminars for as many as 40 reps at a time, coaching them on sales and business development skills. I recorded instructional videos and webinars (as seen above — who can make the best Bark meme with that green screen pic?). Along the way, I kept refining my own skills and knowledge, too. I attended NADA Academy workshops to learn about dealership financials and operations. I read all of Dale Pollak’s books on his Velocity strategies, and was fortunate enough to hear him speak several times. I attended several auctions with our colleagues from Manheim. I went to the NADA conference. I wanted to do everything I could to assimilate into the car-dealer world. Eventually, nobody even asked if I had worked at a dealer before — they all just assumed that I had, because I had dedicated myself to becoming a student of the business.
While I never directly coached or trained dealers, I would invariably be asked for my advice when I visited. They saw me as the “guy from corporate.” I rarely told dealers that I was there to coach their AutoTrader rep, because I didn’t want them to think that their rep needed more or extra help. It was normally the opposite, as I only scheduled myself to work with our strong performers. I remember many times when I would sit with a dealer and go through their inventory with them, one car at a time, making suggestions on what they could do to improve. Sometimes it was little things: maybe the pictures were fuzzy, or they didn’t write good descriptions. Other times, it was a much more serious issue, like they were pricing their cars at 120 percent of the market average. I got kicked out of a few dealers over the years, too, for daring to challenge their methodologies. But I believed that it was my job to make sure that I coached our consultants to challenge our customers to evolve and think differently; to disrupt the business. Over my time at AutoTrader, I visited nearly 2,000 different dealers. (And no, Orlando Kia West wasn’t one of them — but they were a customer!)
Over time, AutoTrader evolved, too. They merged several of their media and software companies under one roof, first calling it AutoTrader Group then, finally, Cox Automotive. Nearly all the leadership roles in the company changed hands during my time there; every single executive officer and VP. As the company shifted gears, I began to feel a shift in culture.
Late last year, I was offered an opportunity to work for another digital advertising company, but the timing just wasn’t right. Even though it was a great organization, the role wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. However, earlier this year, I re-engaged with them on a new opportunity, and I ended up accepting an offer to manage their automotive development strategy. I’m still working in automotive, so I’m still going to be visiting dealers, finding out their needs, and helping our people recommend advertising strategies. My boss says there’s no conflict of interest, so I’m good to keep writing here at TTAC for the foreseeable future.
So there you have it. When I tell you what goes on in dealers, it’s because I’ve spent more time there over the last four years than even most former dealers have. I’ve been involved in discussing every single aspect of the business with GMs and dealer principals, face-to-face. Even though you know my real name, I like being Bark M., so I’m going to keep using my pen name here and elsewhere, and I’ll keep telling you what I know about this crazy business we all love so much.
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- Sooper Toyota already has no new vehicles on their lots; they are just another used car dealership now. So why introduce another model when Toyota appears to be going out of the new vehicle business?
- Tassos There is nothing 'weird' about Finland's fine system. A few other nations have it too. Switzerland maybe, I am not sure.But you do not specify WHAT was that clown's income that required him to pay $120k for a speeding ticket?I am sure that for somebody like ELon Musk, $100k will barely operate his megayacht ONE LOUSY Day.
- Bkojote On paper, GMC is supposed to be the understated, more sophisticated member of the GM truck family.In actuality, GMC is total garbage in the truck world - by the time they're on their second owner they're decked out with amazon wheel spacers, pizza dish wheels, punisher stickers, and really angry opinions about any president who's won the popular vote in the past two decades. And man, these things are ugly as sin too.That's because GM trucks as a whole are kinda the also-rans in the truck category. Yeah, they do sales, but they aren't anyone's first choice. Not as extreme as the Ram, not as category defining as the Raptor, not as well engineered as a Toyota, so you end up with owners who compensate big time to distract others from the endless repair bills. The only owners I know who are worse are the rollin' coal lifted Super Duty drivers. Like you bought a GMC because the guy who sold you your wife's acadia is less scary than having to grovel for a Raptor and you take the Ford guys making fun of you personally.
- Tassos The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I have mentioned this before, and it applies here again.Go to the U of Michigan College of Engineering parking lot. How can you say what car the $300,000 a year (ACADEMIC year of 9 months, mind you, summer pay is extra, and consulting a whole lot on top of that) and what does the $50,000 a year secretary drive?Hint: Teresa was out chair's secretary, started a year ago. She had to resign in just a few months because her 75 mile EACH WAY from her home in Lapeer MI to ANn Arbor MI just KILLED HER when gas prices rose.What car did Teresa drive? Take a wild guess. An F150? A Ram pickup? A Silverado? One of these. In a fee months she had to resign and find a lesser job in the whole lot lesser U of M Flint (but why would she care? she's just a secretary), which halved her commuting distance to a still significant 75 mile round trip every damned day.So the poor keep buying pickups and get poorer, and the rich keep NOT buying them and get richer.
- Cprescott It is ugly enough. But why? You refuse to build enough of your products for your consumers.
Perfect. As a serial car buyer Ialways pay attention to your takes. Now even more so. Thanks for coming out of the closet. So to speak.
The inability to reply to any and all comments on this site p!sseth me off no end. Now, more than ever... So although this probably would go better in the middle of the running commentaries between Bark and DW, I'll just hang it here at the end. First, Bark has interesting points of view. I don't agree with all of them, but all of them, even those I don't agree with at all, are at least interesting, and often well thought out. However, he suffers somewhat from a common syndrome among those who are tasked with teaching and/or coaching others who themselves are fairly high achievers: the belief that one floats above the ordinary world, in some higher sphere. This can be unconsciously compounded when one does so while dwelling in the finest lodgings and while eating in the finest restaurants, as Bark has been able to do by virtue of his recent occupation. It does not mean that Bark is necessarily going to come off as condescending in face to face conversations, but it does tend to make one want to tell everyone else How It Really Is ™, for all of those who lack the experience and wisdom that the Purveyor Of All Wisdom ™ is privy to. But when he offers as absolute truth an opinion that he has, especially one that might not be universally true, and one that might contradict the experience of someone else, he can seem to be a bit pedantic. Still, he is a good writer, and he does offer interesting opinions. I haven't always agreed with him, but I enjoy reading him. We have agreed to disagree about whether or not two button suits have made three button suits totally archaic, for example. Sometimes Bark reminds me of the character in a movie I believe was called Network. In it, a very bright young broadcast journalist is holding forth on something she believes she KNOWS, in contradistinction to the opinions of other, many more senior, co-workers in the room. Another character says somewhat sarcastically, but in a subdued manner "It must be difficult being the smartest person in the room." And she replies, totally missing the sarcasm, "Oh, you just don't know!". Not that I think Bark is clueless like that...just that I can see how, when you have lived the good life, big bucks plus lavish lifestyle at work, for some time, it is easy to unconsciously come to believe that you must be doing something right that is heads and shoulders above and beyond mere mortals. I know that when I was a supposed IT guru on Wall Street and at Park Ave. law firms, I surely thought that my sh!t didn't stink. Ditto when I worked for about a year for a year as an IT audit specialist for a US government agency, and carried a shiny badge that said that I was a "privileged character". In retrospect, I realize that the main thing those experiences did for me was to teach me the value of humility, once I finally managed to obtain a small measure of it by osmosis. But while it was on, it was on. And IQ points did not alleviate the problem. They only aggravated it. So I can understand why Bark may sometimes come off as a bit pompous. Even so, I do not see him as a pompous person, just one who has been placed in a position where he has seen and learned a lit. Just, perhaps, not quite as much as he thinks he has, at least some of the time... Still I like you and respect you, Bark, and hope you keep putting your ideas out there, whether I agree with all of them or not. Bu I also feel the same way about DW, who does a righteous job of filling the role of B&B curmudgeon. The world would be a more boring place without either one them.