Dealer of the Month: The Family That Sells Together

Dealer of the Month is a new series from DCG News to recognize outstanding dealers in the industry for their efforts and contributions. Our August 2019 Dealer of the Month is Shannon Harnish-Cook of the Harnish Auto Family in Puyallup, WA.

Shannon Harnish-Cook started out in the automotive industry in 1994. She had just left a potential career in nursing, becoming the third generation of the Harnish family selling cars in the Seattle area. Little did she know she would still be there 25 years later, strengthening the family legacy and ushering in the fourth generation.

Shannon’s grandfather started out as a Ford dealer and, with a partner, opened the Lincoln store in Puyallup, WA as well. In 1977, Shannon’s father, Keith Harnish, was invited to join the ownership group at the Lincoln store. Keith Harnish would eventually buy out his father-in-law and brother-in-law, and move the Lincoln-Mercury store to a large property about a mile away. In 1993, he was awarded a Saturn store and built the new store on the same property with Lincoln. It was in this Saturn store that Shannon got her start.

Working in what was then-known as customer service, Shannon was actually creating business development for the dealership; interacting with customers and getting them to return to the dealership. Her efforts resulted in Saturn selling several additional cars in the first month of taking on the job, even though that wasn’t her primary focus. She was instrumental in customer retention, so much so that she was able to transition to selling cars exclusively.

Selling cars, especially with such a women-friendly brand as Saturn, came naturally to Shannon and the Puyallup Saturn store was one of the top 3 Saturn dealerships in the country for many years due to its success. 

It’s Not About the Destination

The journey took Shannon from the sales floor to management to General Manager in Puyallup. Meanwhile, in 1996, Keith Harnish and a partner opened a Saturn store in Olympia. In 2002, Keith, Shannon and Shannon’s brother-in-law, Chris, partnered for a Subaru store in Puyallup and added it to the other side of Lincoln. Their success with Saturn prompted General Motors to ask the family to take over the underperforming Renton store, 30 miles north of Puyallup. By coincidence, Keith Harnish owned the building that previously housed the Lincoln-Mercury store in Renton and they were going to ultimately move Saturn of Renton to that location. The Renton store was Shannon’s first time as a dealer principal and majority owner.

The ink was barely dry on moving the Renton store when the Great Recession hit in 2008.

“The whole world turned upside down. We had three of the brands that were in question; everyone didn’t want to go near a Saturn because they were worried about the bankruptcy and the warranty,” Harnish-Cook told DCG News. “We were doing over 100 new a month [and] went to selling 12 a month that October.”

With three franchises on their property plus two more Saturn stores, it was all about strategy in uncertain times. The family was able to get out of the lease on their Renton location and leased the Olympia location to another dealer. In 2009, they picked up a Buick-GMC franchise to expectantly replace the Saturn franchise that was likely to go away. They negotiated with Subaru to temporarily dual the brand with Lincoln-Mercury so Buick-GMC would have a home. Part of the give and take in that deal was that they promised Subaru the store location and team then occupied by Saturn once the latter was terminated. This two-year agreement to dual with Lincoln-Mercury was, and remains, unusual for manufacturers to agree to in the automotive industry.

As we all know, Saturn did go away and Shannon was able to keep her word, moving Subaru into the Saturn location. That Subaru store now does over 150 new car sales per month.

The Twists and Turns

In between all of the chaos, Shannon had applied for everything and networked like crazy because her “babies,” as she put it, were going away. 

“My dad told me, ‘This is where it gets tough. Let’s see if you can shift down from first gear to second gear and make a go of this because right now, you’re going to be a used car dealer.’” 

During the bankruptcy, dealers of General Motors brands all over the country received letters from the manufacturer saying that their services were no longer required. GM was looking to cut what they considered to be “underperforming dealers” from the rolls. President Obama signed a bill allowing terminated dealers a chance to arbitrate and reinstate their franchise. Nearby Chevrolet dealer, Rick Anderson was one that had received a letter and looked to Harnish-Cook to become the majority owner of what eventually would become Chevrolet of Puyallup. Chevy replaced Lincoln when Shannon’s father and brother-in-law sold the Lincoln franchise back to the Ford dealer in Puyallup – Shannon’s uncle, Jerry. 

All of the networking eventually paid off, too. Because Harnish-Cook had top performing brands under her belt, Volkswagen took notice in 2012 and tapped her for an open point she had applied for back in 2010.

With an existing parts building on the premises in Puyallup, they were able to move Buick-GMC and find a home for the Volkswagen dealership. 

Of course, getting all the franchises together on ten acres of property took a lot of creative planning for the family, but thankfully, Harnish-Cook’s husband, a builder, was able to join the family business on the construction side. Keith Harnish redesigned the plans for all four brands to have their own home on the lot. The property now has a parking garage (holding an additional 450 units) plus quick lube facility, all to handle Chevrolet, Buick-GMC, Subaru and Volkswagen, and yes, it’s all image compliant. 

In the middle of all this, they were awarded Chevrolet of Everett and literally rebuilt that store from the ground up. No big deal, right?

A Family Legacy

The story doesn’t end here, though. The next generation is on it’s way. Shannon’s daughter, Haley, is the Sales Manager at their Volkswagen store. After graduating from college in Oregon, she spent five years working in internet and finance for Acura of Seattle and Puyallup Nissan. Haley is not the only Harnish to show interest in continuing the family business. Shannon’s nephew, working part-time while he finishes college, is a shuttle driver for a Subaru store in California.

The Harnish Auto Family website says, “Since opening our doors, Harnish Auto Family has kept a firm commitment to our customers,” and it’s obvious that the company is a testament to going all-in, even when the road has been difficult. It’s always been about family, regardless.