In The Trenches During The AutoTrader Acquisition Of VinSolutions

Originally published May 20, 2011 [LINK]

As I’m sure you’re probably aware by now, AutoTrader announced Wednesday that they had reached an agreement to acquire VinSolutions.


I was in the unique position to actually be with most of the executive leadership and employees of VinSolutions when the news broke. I was also with HomeNet Automotive when the rumors started that AutoTrader was working to acquire HomeNet Automotive. I also came really close to working directly for AutoTrader as they attempted to recruit me and, ironically, I was actually at an event in Colorado that Chip Perry was in attendance when I was informed by the Autotrader recruiter that I was “not worthy” (their loss). I like to think that AutoTrader is following me around acquiring companies I work for simply because they actually want to “acquire” me. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)


After my initial shock passed, as an employee of a media company, the investigative part of me started paying attention. What I expected to see was executive management in a celebratory mode making plans to roll around in the pile of money they must have just made. I expected phone calls being made and Internet leads being submitted for new Ferraris. I expected VinSolutions employees to be anxious about their future employment and having a feeling that this company, that they all were very proud to be a part of, was at an end. I saw none of that.


What I saw was quite the opposite. Executive management and VinSolutions employees were still talking to dealers. VinSolutions employees were excited. The entire team was customer focused, not acquisition focused. In fact, it really seemed as if VinSolutions had acquired AutoTrader rather than the opposite. They weren’t feeling as if this was the end, quite the contrary. They felt like this was the beginning. They were excited about the incredible resources and value now available to VinSolutions to make their product(s) bigger, better and faster than they ever were able to before.


What makes this acquisition a historic moment is that this is the first time in our industry’s history that a non-DMS company has acquired a company that does what VinSolutions does. VinSolutions wasn’t interested in being acquired by a DMS, because several trends inevitably happen: the acquired company immediately loses half their market share, but they also fall into this virtual black h*** eventually disappearing never to be heard from again.  AutoTrader “could” make VinSolutions the hub of their operation powering and integrating with ALL of the AutoTrader/Cox owned properties acquired in recent history.


With all of the properties that AutoTrader owns, they are in the unique position to dominate the automotive market. All of these properties, prior to their AutoTrader acquisition, had stellar reputations within the industry and with their customers. AutoTrader “could” leverage these properties to offer an unprecedented value to their customers. Whether (and how) they do this is still up in the air.


Not discounting the incredible value and loyalty that current VinSolutions customers have, ultimately VinSolutions is more than just another company. In fact, the people DEFINE VinSolutions. Yes, they have innovative solutions and offer the power and convenience of a completely integrated solution to dealers. VinSolutions could easily be named “Mike-Sean-Matt-Kendall-Solutions,” but that would certainly be hard to create a marketing campaign for. Why? The reason is simple. Mike Dullea, Sean Stapleton, Kendall Billman and Matt Watson ARE VinSolutions. Without them, AutoTrader would now own air. I sincerely hope that AutoTrader recognizes this (if they don’t already) and just like a NFL team, these people were signed to 20-year contracts. If you buy the Colts, you make sure Peyton Manning is included in the deal. Yes, VinSolutions’ integrated dealer solution offers great value to their customers. They are continuously looking to improve the value VinSolutions offers to their customers. The dedication and passion that these people, along with the entire VinSolutions team define VinSolutions.


As I talked to VinSolutions’ dealers that are attending this event, their concern had nothing to do with money/price increases, etc. It was completely focused on how AutoTrader would change WHO VinSolutions IS, and who they are is the key to their success. Yes, there are other people who can be a CEO. Yes, there are other people that can run a sales team. Yes, there are other programmers. Yes, there are other people who can be the “website” guy. The fact is that there is NOBODY that can replace these people, perform with the passion, dedication and experience that they have and perform at the level that they do. Disregarding the standard “business as usual” statement, VinSolutions truly has a culture of family. That family makes them who they are.


In my eyes, AutoTrader didn’t acquire a company; they acquired the equivalent of the Justice League of America. Take away any member of that team; the Justice League ceases to exist. JLA without Superman isn’t the Justice League of America. What made the JLA the powerhouse that they were was the collective power that they all brought to the table.


Does the competition need to be worried, absolutely, but not because all of a sudden VinSolutions is now owned by AutoTrader, but because AutoTrader acquired Superman, Batman, the Flash and the Green Lantern and, most importantly, a family.

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Comment by Kathi Kruse on May 23, 2011 at 11:06am
Great insights Arnold. I'm always cautiously optimistic when these mergers happen. I do hope that AutoTrader recognizes the value in the "family" relationships they paid for. The customers, their current and future dealers, will reap the benefits. Thanks for sharing your story--direct from the front lines.

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