AutoStar keeps used-car dealers hip to high-tech

A. Lee Graham

Allen Dobbins got a firsthand look at the challenges facing independent used-car dealers. Watching his father run L&B Motor Co. in Fort Worth, the enterprising young man eventually would enter the industry – but from another angle. Enter AutoStar Solutions Inc., which Dobbins founded in 1991 to provide software-management solutions for used-car dealers often lacking such technology. “I remember working in his dealership in the summer,” said Dobbins, who moved from Mississippi to Fort Worth as a high school senior. “That’s when he started his business.” Years later, Dobbins noticed that accounting resources were lacking in many dealerships and, in true entrepreneurial spirit, sought to fill the need. With a sparse staff working in cramped quarters along 24th Street on the city’s North Side, Dobbins built a company to provide web-based software that allows clients to automate and simplify accounting while staying compliant with state and federal regulations. Fusion 2 is the firm’s latest offering, an information management tool for independent retail car dealers. The software focuses on the customer, not the sales contract, which is considered the industry’s traditional approach. Fusion 2 allows quick access to a customer’s accounts on a single screen, as well as the ability to update information and post payments to several accounts simultaneously. Dobbins is busy these days and recently showcased Fusion 2 at the firm’s seventh annual Innovate conference in Grapevine. Auto dealers and lenders attending the Sept. 21-24 event got up to speed on the latest in industry compliance and technology issues. But Dobbins still found time to discuss his firm with the Fort Worth Business Press.

Specifically, what services do you provide and how do they make things easier for independent auto dealers? We are a software company that manages everything from the beginning of the transaction to the end. We are a vertical marketing software company dealing in the automotive space. If you make payments to some other creditor externally and the dealer arranges that financing, we manage that financing transaction. Sometimes, the finance company is acquiring auto loans from many different dealers and we load it into our system. That’s a lot of information. One almost wonders how auto dealers survived before software technology reshaped the industry. What makes AutoStar services stand out in today’s crowded field? In the past, you had to do reports by hand and track inventory by hand. Now there are lots of different software providers out there that do what I do. We’re different in the sense that we can actually handle transactions from the cradle to the grave, beginning to end. A turnkey approach? Yes. One of our biggest objectives when [clients] walk in the door is to learn what their business’ functions are and to take what we learn and wrap our project around the way they do things. What we do is take those transactions and learn about what their goals are and build an implementation solution around their processes. There’s a saying: most people will pay for what they don’t know. That’s one of those kinds of things for people to recognize when you own a business. As an entrepreneur, you tend to think the way you do it is the best way. But [customers], you should work hard to take advice from those people because they might have a solution you might not have thought of. Learning from the client? Of course. We make modifications on our software based on what clients are doing. That’s the best way to build software: building solutions those clients need, assuming other clients may need the same things. When did you start the business? Take us back to its origins. I started it in 1991 in Fort Worth. The first office was on the North Side in the Stockyards. It was an old hotel at 24th Street and Llano near the old Isis Theater. It had old hardwood floors. Was it just you at that point? Just me [laughs]. We acquired some staff, but I didn’t have very many. Three people, maybe. My father [Bill Dobbins] is a car dealer on the North Side of Fort Worth. He’s now in the process of winding down his business. I worked for him when I got out of TCU. I saw the value of software vs. by hand [accounting]. We had purchased a software application that did most things we wanted to do, but at the end of the day, it was deficient in a lot of things. So I started marketing it to used car dealers. I got a bachelor’s of science degree in psychology from TCU and studied engineering at Texas Tech. I did business school work there, too, and transferred from TCU’s school of psychology in 1989 [to Texas Tech]. Why did you establish your business in Fort Worth? Did you see a big market for used car sales software? I wanted to stay close to home. My wife worked in Fort Worth. When I started AutoStar, I was 25 years old. I always liked Fort Worth. Our system is installed in 43 states. Do you actually visit clients or do they come to you? A combination of both. On the sales side, we do a lot of sales remotely, but also attend trade shows and travel to clients. We do a site analysis to see a customer’s needs. That’s almost always done on site. Training is available here, too. A decent number of customers use that training. We no longer charge for training in-house. We encourage customers to come to train because we want educated customers. Up next is our Innovate conference. We have customers who are better educated thanks to attending. We were the first business meeting in that Sheraton [Fort Worth Hotel and Spa]. It was still under construction when we were doing our deal, so we were very worried it wouldn’t happen. But the hotel did open on time and the conference was a great success. The conference is [held] to reinforce our brand and to make customers more successful. There are two and a half days of compliance training alone. Customers are required to keep up with laws and rules. There are a lot of them. Our first year was in 2007. We outgrew the Sheraton in the first year. Tell me about Fusion 2. Give me an example of how it helps clients run their businesses better. One of the issues in this industry is that there are so many [regulatory] departments. What we have done is sit down and look at all the processes and combined those into a single application. That way, all the interfaces are all communicating seamlessly across all the product set. It eliminates duplicate work, which is a priority. People did these things by hand. This should take the pressure off staff and make operations more efficient. As soon as a sale is completed, payables are created and no human being has to do that. It happens automatically. In the past, you had to post that sale. What are your goals for the coming year? Do you plan to offer any new services or hire more employees in the coming year? We recently acquired an investment in a startup company called SecureClose. It’s an interesting product. We take it a step further. All sales transactions now happen at a kiosk, where a representative walks the customer through documents section by section and blows it up on a screen bigger. The product and company is called SecureClose. All documents are electronically signed. And employees? We have 78 employees, including independent contractors. Ninety percent are in Fort Worth. Yes, we continue to add staff. In the last six months, we added about 10 people. Eighty percent of our employees are not involved in sales functions. The majority of us are related to support needs of clients. A lot of our budget is spent supporting clients after the sale.