A Unique Perspective on Auto Retailing

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Paul Cummings, President & CEO, Grand Touring Automobiles. PHOTO Grand Touring Automobiles

As head of Canada’s leading ultra-luxury retailer, Paul Cummings has a different take on automotive retailing.

As President & CEO of Grand Touring Automobiles, Paul Cummings presides over one of the most exclusive automotive retail networks in Canada.

Having acquired the business in 2009, under Cummings, the business has continued to grow, expanding into new markets and bringing new brands into the portfolio.

Recently, the company announced that it had acquired the Alberta operations of Weissach Group (Automobili Pininfarina, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Lotus, Koenigsegg and RIMAC) as well as two brands from the Dilawri Group of Companies (Aston Martin and Bentley), with Rolls-Royce also acquired from a previous purchase.

Moving forward, this new western operation will be known as Grand Touring Automobiles – Calgary, adding a further footprint to the existing Grand Touring Automobiles retail network.

Additionally, Grand Touring has also obtained retail representation for Bugatti and Koenigsegg across Canada, and currently is the number one volume Bugatti dealer in all of North America.

Given this tremendous success and unique position in the market, Autosphere was curious to find out more and was able to schedule an interview with Paul Cummings focusing on his automotive background as well as the success and future for Grand Touring Automobiles.

Background in the auto industry 

Autosphere: You’ve got quite a prolific background in the auto industry. How did you first get your start?

Paul Cummings: I was quite fortunate in that I was recruited by Ford Motor Company, coming out of university, and went into the finance side of the business with Ford Credit.

I saw the benefit of learning from a very large company which had wonderful processes, so it was a great place to be and a great environment for training programs as well. I was doing everything from collections to repossessions to approving credit for people to purchase a vehicle.

It was a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor and learn the process of somebody buying a car, and Ford was fantastic and had development programs that worked out very well. The company had the resources to make their people better, and there’s no question I benefited from that.

Joining Scotiabank

How did things evolve from there?

PC: While I was with Ford Motor Company, Scotiabank was a big player in the financing arena. A key thing Scotiabank was looking to do at the time was to build their book better with an understanding of vehicle manufacturing side and the credit side of the business.

At this particular time [the early 1990s] we were going through a bit of a recession here in Ontario and Scotiabank wanted to understand where leadership was headed, because if things get tough, obviously there is a vested interest in helping dealers navigate through difficult times. They saw the benefit of having somebody onboard who spoke the same language as the dealers and so I got an opportunity to join them at that time.

In this role, I had the opportunity to work directly with the dealers to make sure they and the bank were on the same page to protect the business and help the dealers navigate through the rough times and continue to grow afterward.

It worked out very well and for me, proving to be an ideal combination of learning more on the financial side as well as getting to know the dealers.

Moving to Volvo Car Corporation

It seems like this gave you a unique perspective in which to move forward, is that correct?

PC: Yes, it proved to be quite an interesting story, for my next step of the journey was with Volvo Car Corporation.

At this time [1992] the company was still relying on the 240 and the 940/960 series and was struggling in Canada. Volvo was looking to reinvent itself with the launch of a new product, the 850, which they saw as the future for the company.

The product was strong, but they were concerned the dealer network wouldn’t be robust enough to support it, so they hired me to do essentially the same thing I had been doing at Scotiabank.

My role was really to work with the dealers to see them through the recession and to the arrival of a new product. When the 850 did land, it proved to be a fantastic opportunity. This particular time was also very pivotal because as a businessperson, it is during the tough times where you really learn the most and also how to celebrate the good times. From there my career grew with Volvo.

I became the national sales manager and national marketing manager and from there I was given the tremendous opportunity to go to the U.S. and work for Volvo down there.

U.S. market

The U.S. is quite a unique market, isn’t it? Can you tell us a little about your experiences working down there?

PC: The one thing I really learned about the U.S., is that has a very aggressive and hardworking business culture, it’s almost cutthroat to a certain extent. So, you have to keep up and you have to learn to swim with the sharks.

I learned a tremendous amount working in the U.S. and really benefited from that experience, so when I came back to Canada as President & CEO of Volvo it was a dream come true.

Experience as CEO of Volvo

What’s it really like being CEO of a car company?

PC: It can be challenging, and it will force you to be the best businessperson you can be.

Essentially, you’re living in two worlds. On the one hand, you are immersed in the retail environment where the focus is on month in, month out, chasing targets and market share, while at the same time ensuring you have a healthy dealer network and good customer satisfaction.

On the other hand, you’re also looking at longer horizons; bringing future products to market and the hundreds of millions of dollars in investment that requires.

And when it comes to future products, you need to help your OEM determine what the market might look like in five years’ time and what will be the price point for the new product and content available so you can effectively compete. And because it typically takes five to seven years to bring a new product to market, you are essentially stretching yourself from a business plan perspective.

What I will say, however, is that if you love cars, you couldn’t ask for a better job. I truly loved my time at Volvo, it’s a great company, an inclusive company where everybody is involved in the decision-making process and one that has a great dealer network.

I learned an incredible amount while I was there.

Deciding to leave corporate

Can you tell us a little about the next phase of your career?

PC: As I’m sure many readers know, being President & CEO of a car company, is typically a three to five-year window, and I was fortunate to put some five years in at Volvo.

At that point, the company was planning to move me to the UK, but I had a young family that I wanted to raise here in Canada, and we decided to make the decision to leave the corporate side and go with private capital, so I could stay here in Canada and watch my family grow.

Acquiring Grand Touring Automobiles

And that was what led you to Grand Touring Automobiles, is that correct?

PC: Yes. Grand Touring Automobiles had been previously owned by a gentleman named David Geneen.

David was more senior in years and reached a point where he decided to make a life decision and retire, so he could spend more time with his family. The one thing about retail is that it does consume a fair bit of capital as far as investments in facilities, systems and people.

Grand Touring Automobiles was very much a family-run company and it had great relationships with its customers. In 2009, I could see an opportunity to acquire the company and so we assumed the organization, the franchises and every member of the team there along with David’s customers.

It was a really nice, smooth acquisition and even though now, I was using my own money, not corporate funds, it was a really great opportunity. The portfolio that David had built was fantastic and so was the customer base.

On top of that, he had a great team of super people in place and that’s what really made the difference. If you think about the biggest part of the equation in the automotive retailing business, it is having good people, whether you’re transacting on a vehicle or you are providing service or sourcing parts.

Business growth

Since that time, Grand Touring Automobiles has seen tremendous growth. What do you think has been able to fuel that and drive it forward?

PC: If I had to break it down into a business case on what’s happened, I would essentially focus on two things.

The first one is if you look at those super luxury brands that we represent today, the biggest change has been the expansion in their product portfolios. We’ve seen tremendous growth with every one of them, from super sports cars to luxury sedans, but probably the biggest component is that every one of them now has an SUV as well.

For Canadian customers, this shift is significant because it changed most of these brands from offering a supercar that you can enjoy from April to September, to something you can drive all year round.

For a lot of our customers, that has now provided the opportunity to have two or maybe three vehicles in their driveway from Grand Touring as opposed to just one.

Canada is an SUV marketplace, with an emphasis on all-wheel-drive technology. That is very important to us and with that coming into place, it has allowed us to talk to our customers about really taking care of their complete automotive needs. The other side of the equation is that over the last decade, Canada has enjoyed some good economic growth.

If you’d looked at Grand Touring say prior to 2009, it would have largely catered to established families and old money. Since then we’ve seen more money come from offshore and money generated from good economic times, as well as a transition of wealth from one generation to another.

Essentially there’s been a new generation enjoying their wealth and looking to spend, so when you combine that with an explosion in high-end product offerings it creates an ideal situation for growth in the market.

Sales approach with exclusive and ultra-luxury brands

These are obviously very exclusive brands you work with, such as Aston Martin, Bentley, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce, etc., so we are very curious about your approach to sales and service because you’ve obviously got to take into account specific nuances of each marque, correct?

PC: There is definitely a very distinct heritage and customer base for each brand, and they all have a unique personality and stand for something different, with rich DNA in their design language.

If we look at Aston Martin for example, you can still see design elements of cars like the classic DB5 from James Bond, but then you’ve also got the technology, convenience and infotainment aspect and as well as the evolution of the product into something like the DBX which is Aston Martin’s first SUV.

Even 10 years ago, it would have been very hard to picture an Aston Martin SUV, or a Bentley or Rolls-Royce or Lamborghini SUV. It stretches the imagination, but it also allows each brand to meet the needs of its customers, whether they are families or businesspeople.

It has really been interesting to see that change and for each of these brands to evolve in the way they have.

Flagship store in Toronto 

Looking at your facilities, your Toronto downtown location is truly impressive, can you tell us a little about that?

PC: Opening the flagship store in Toronto was one of the biggest decisions we’ve ever made as far as cost is concerned but it was a logical step.

Given the explosion in new products from the manufacturers we represent there simply wasn’t enough space at the old facility on Dupont Street; it just didn’t have the capacity to take care of our customers. There was also a greater expectation from our OEMs in terms of both showroom space and service capacity.

When we look at the Toronto ultra-luxury market, it really deserved having a flagship dealership to represent these wonderful brands in a downtown location that was a bit of a beacon or destination if you will.

Building the facility was one decision but we also had to staff it with good people as well, and that’s the balance between the two that we had to grow the facility because we had a larger company as far as revenues and production were concerned.

We also wanted to ensure we created an environment that was perfect for our customers as there is a greater expectation from them in having parts for their vehicle in stock so that the technicians can service and repair them. And this applies whether it’s an entry-level vehicle or a supercar.

Everybody wants their vehicle back as soon as possible because they rely on it on a daily basis, plus at our previous facility we were land locked and we just didn’t have the space to park customers’ vehicles for servicing.

Today, we can take the car in and let you know exactly when you’re going to get it back and we can source the parts for it. Another factor was having the space and a great environment for our people to work in.

The current downtown location also provides us with the opportunity to grow and has allowed us to attract good employees who love the brand and enjoy the environment. It’s actually been a win across the board for everybody.

Facilities within the network

What about some of the other facilities within the network?

PC: We’ve seen significant benefits in growing and adding new brands and new locations.

We recently took on responsibility for the Polestar brand and we see it as complementing those we already have in the portfolio. The showroom is on Avenue Road [in Toronto] and feeds from our downtown location because we have such a large service capacity.

We’ve also grown into the Waterloo market, representing Jaguar Landrover and Volvo. It’s a very different demographic from Toronto but is helping us diversify and we just completed a new facility that we opened this year.

More recently, we acquired rights to retail Aston Martin, Automobili Pininfarina, Bentley, Bugatti, Koenigsegg, Lamborghini, Lotus, RIMAC and Rolls-Royce in Calgary. This will likely be the closest thing to what we already have in downtown Toronto, and the model will look very similar.

This acquisition also allows us to gain synergies of having sister companies and operations representing the same brand, giving us an opportunity to grow our market presence. We’ve also added some hyper car brands to the family such as Koenigsegg, RIMAC and Automobili Pininfarina.

These brands offer new hyper cars and we have the responsibility for them across Canada. This has allowed us to expand our portfolio and hopefully offer more to our customer base as well.

Impact of COVID-19 on the business

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted business and are there new features or services you’ve introduced and are likely to keep moving forward?

PC: If you turn back the clock a little bit to about 14 months ago, we were at a point where nobody really knew how to deal with this pandemic.

Everybody was impacted and we all just had to learn along the way. For us here in Ontario, the first step was actually closing our showrooms which created a great deal of concern because as a businessperson, you want to see how you are going to make it thorough, even though it is the right thing to do, for the betterment of the community as well as the health and safety of our own employees and families.

We were quickly designated essential services from a service and parts point of view, so people did have access to their vehicles. We then had to adjust our business to make sure that our customers knew we were there for them when it came to essential needs regarding their vehicle.

So that was step one and allowed us to survive. I will say that I’m very proud that we took steps to do the right thing, sanitize vehicles and prioritize the health and safety of our customers, staff and families. The next step was adjusting to selling cars during a pandemic.

Things actually came together nicely in that regard as we saw pent-up demand and also a greater amount of curiosity as people were stuck at home and were learning more about us through digital tools instead of physically coming to the showrooms.

I think many of them were pleased with what we do and the brands we represent and the opportunity to get to know us better digitally by creating a seamless experience for them online.

It was kind of a new world for us because we have always focused on personal relationships with our clients, but physical interaction just wasn’t allowed during the pandemic, so working with them remotely taught us a lot about doing business this way—how to provide educational tools and gain a better understanding of their requirements and priorities.

The pandemic also provided us with an opportunity to unveil new products online as well as expand our reach because digitally, we could reach potential customers from coast to coast. Having a digital retailing model also allows us to address the most precious commodity for all of us, which is time.

Post-pandemic ultra-luxury retailing experience

How do you see the ultra-luxury retailing experience evolving post-pandemic?

PC: Finding new ways of launching products online has been a wonderful learning curve and our new platform has given Grand Touring Automobiles the opportunity for us to bring intelligence to the consumer, enabling them to make up their mind about what’s right for them.

The best thing we can do is give them the information showing what vehicles and services are available and it can be done in a time-efficient manner through the convenience of their own home or office. As we move forward, I see this virtual technology augmenting [not replacing] the traditional bricks and mortar side of the business.

You still need a real facility that can take care of physically receiving parts and performing maintenance and servicing. Also, having a physical showroom allows the customer to experience the vehicle in ways that cannot be measured digitally.

For example:

  • Does a baby seat fit properly in the back seat?
  • Is there enough distance between the back seat to the front seat?
  • Is there enough shoulder room?
  • Is the trunk big enough to handle your golf clubs?

These are real life questions and experiences that are important, but as far as understanding what the brand is all about and the availability of options, price points and leasing opportunities–all those factors can be done digitally so we can bring a lot more information to you, to see if it’s worthwhile you spending the time to come and see us in person.

In summarizing I see both digital and physical retailing complementing each other going forward.

Final thoughts

Anything else you’d like to mention?

PC: I would say that we’ve seen tremendous growth in terms of Canada as an automotive market. There was a time where it was 15th or 16th, today it is now in the top 10 globally.

That means for retailers, there is more volume and more opportunity to have more influence in product planning at the OEM level for features or equipment that is popular in the market, such as AWD technology and infotainment catered to Canadians.

Because our market is growing in size and importance, hopefully, we can pass those benefits onto our customers, taking care of their needs and offering the best sales and service experience we can.


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