Driven to Grow

How Colin Ford helped guide the Davis Automotive Group as it expanded from a single dealership to 11

Photo by Logan Biesterfeldt
Photo by Logan Biesterfeldt

Colin Ford may not be related by blood, but at the Davis Automotive Group (DAG), he’s just another member of the family. Started in 1975 by patriarch and CEO John Davis (who overtook the business from his father, John Davis Sr., and rebranded it), the company still holds its headquarters in Lethbridge, Alberta. Ford joined when DAG consisted of only one dealership, advancing from controller to CFO just as the Davis automobile empire was beginning to grow. Here, Advantage charts the stats behind Ford and DAG’s parallel evolution.

40 years

While Ford cultivated a passion for finance in high school, eventually earning a bachelor’s of commerce from the University of Alberta, his love for the automotive industry came as a shock. After working in public accounting for 13 years, Ford began to feel disillusioned. “It wasn’t turning the crank,” he says. So Ford switched lanes. He answered a dealership’s ad in the Lethbridge Herald looking for a controller. There, at Davis Automotive Group, Ford rekindled his passion for finance by filtering it through the lens of the automotive industry.

“I found—and still think—that the automotive industry is an exciting, fun, and upbeat industry,” Ford says. “It’s an engine for industry, so it’s usually a good indicator of where the economy is heading.” After almost losing interest in his field of choice, DAG brought it back.

Today Ford has been leveraging his CA designation for 40 years and counting. The designation has given him the ability to interpret financial results and transform them into business suggestions. Whenever DAG contemplates an acquisition, Ford is deeply involved in due diligence, analyses of past results, and projections for the future.

From 1 to 11 dealerships

DAG has deep roots in Alberta’s automotive market, having grown from a single dealership in Lethbridge to 11 dealerships, a service centre, and an auto financing business. Today the empire holds, on average, around 400 pre-owned and 700 new vehicles. But when Ford started, DAG was a much more humble enterprise. “I was the controller and the head of the accounting department,” he says. “My position as CFO evolved as we grew, and because I was the oldest one here, I got to look after the accounting side of things.”

According to Ford, the dealership acquisitions over the years were a direct result of the Davis family and leaderships commitment to family and human relationships. The dealerships that were brought into the fold were friends and acquaintances that, unlike DAG, had no successors lined up. People came to DAG to offer up their businesses.

3 sons, 1 family business

Tim, Mike, and Luke are the three Davis sons—all of whom play integral roles in the organization and carry on the family’s legacy for excellence in the auto industry. Familial ties root every relationship in the organization. “It’s very important to the Davises that all employees have good family lives,” Ford says. “That’s one of the keys.” In fact, almost all the managers of each location have a relationships based on the family. So, during its intense growth period, the biggest challenge was finding qualified people that met the standards set by the Davis family.

10 central accounting employees

Ford leads a team of 10 in the organization’s central Lethbridge office. This includes not only taking care of that branch’s accounting but several other dealerships as well. However, the accounting network doesn’t stop there. Each dealership has one to three focused personnel, depending on size, who report to Ford and the central office.

Because Ford started from the bottom of the totem pole, he is quite hands-on. “I like to help people learn their jobs, just teaching by doing,” he says. Because of this, Ford has no typical day, but one aspect that Ford can count on is the busy period during the first week of every month. This is the time that all dealerships must report their sales results to their affiliate manufacturers.

3 in a row

The Davis family is committed to listening to its employees. From 2013 to 2015, the organization has taken part in Aon Hewitt’s Best Employer survey, taking home top honours each year. “That commitment is key to meeting our other commitment: to give the best possible experience to our customers,” Ford says. Additionally, DAG was named Canada’s 13th best employer in 2014 by Maclean’s magazine.

One of the main reasons for the success is DAG’s Years of Service Travel Rewards Program, which best illustrates the organization’s commitment to employee retention and familial relationships. The program awards employees every five years with a travel package that continually increases in value, culminating in its 25 Years of Service award: a $5,000 tropical vacation voucher. Finally, every December, John Davis and his three sons give thanks by delivering Christmas turkeys and shaking the hands of every employee.

1 perfect process

With its rapid growth finally winding down, Ford and DAG are focusing on an initiative to perfect the company’s processes. “We want to reach a point where our sales, our service, our parts, and our accounting process are the same at all 11 locations,” Ford says. “But as long as we keep our employees and customers as keys, they’ll continue to drive us forward.”