From Automotive Retail to Tech Founder & CEO
Hoss Devine is not your typical Tech CEO. While he’s always harbored a passion for technology, his entry into the tech space was more of a calling than a conscious decision. We sat down with the Founder & CEO of Automotive Innovations (and self-proclaimed “High Tech Redneck”) to discuss what led him to the automotive industry and how his career has evolved and incorporated technology to help dealers use it to improve their businesses and succeed.
The Early Days
“If it is to be, it is up to me” is a mantra Hoss embraced early in his life. “I was expelled from high school at the age of 15 and then on the same day, my parents kicked me out of their house,” he says. “I was forced to go out on my own and begin my education from the school of hard knocks. At my 19th birthday party, I watched a friend of my roommate’s walk into the room sporting a stylish suit, shoes, gold chain, bracelet, basically your general car guy appearance package. I immediately approached the guy and asked him what he did for living. This is how I found the car business.”
Once he got a taste for retail and started to thrive financially, Hoss was hooked on the automotive business. “I worked tirelessly to master my craft and spent the next 25 years serving the automotive retail industry in one capacity or another. I was driven and naturally inclined to figure out better or more efficient ways to do things.”
Frustrated with what was available to dealers, Hoss looked to create something himself. “Most of the best ideas come from those who do the job,” he says. “Too frequently ideas on how dealerships should do business come from those who only have a perspective looking in from the outside. It is extremely difficult to understand what an F&I manager needs to succeed in the box if you have never actually sat in the box and worked directly with car buyers. Unfortunately, much of the technology developed to help dealers has been designed by people who have never done the job, and this has led to tools that are not intuitive and don’t deliver the best customer experience and opportunities to maximize profits.”
The “Aha” Moment
“For years, the only way to monitor and improve at the dealership level was to compile tens of thousands of formulas collecting hundreds of data points from retail deal transactions,” Hoss says. “This was a lot of work. It was clear that you either couldn’t get everything you needed from the technology sources available in the store, or the data simply didn’t exist, and it was up to you to create this visibility.”
Dealers were really on their own to manage and improve their businesses, he says. The technology simply did not exist to facilitate this. However, where a need exists so does an opportunity. Hoss created his own blueprint of how to run a successful automobile dealership.
“I called my wife and said, ‘Honey, I’ve got to talk to you!’ I explained that I wanted to start a software company. My bride Diane said, ‘And what’s that mean?’ ‘It means we have to move out of our house, sell and/or store everything we own and move into the fifth wheel!’ She asked how long it would take and I told her one year. I continued working in a dealership 12-15 hours a day before returning home to the fifth wheel to work on a solution for another four to six hours and then to bed for three to four hours. Get up, rinse and repeat. I thought working like this for a year of my life was a small price to pay to realize my vision. Three years later, I had a solution.” In January 2020, he opened the first Automotive Innovations (Ai) headquarters in Kansas City, MO.
The Path Forward
Car buyers have always wanted more transparency in the transaction, but the systems available to dealers have not fostered this, Hoss explains. In his experience, dealers have been convinced that the only way to be profitable is to keep customers in the dark. “I noticed a chance to change some of the industry idiosyncrasies and introduce my own ideas to a larger audience. I typically was the catalyst for change within an organization, but I’ve been fired more times than I can count for being that catalyst for change. Dealers weren’t ready for transparent ways to do business and they didn’t think you could make money being upfront.”
Since Hoss didn’t agree with this way of business, he built a system that allows dealers to never have to leave the presentation. “It allows dealers to make changes to the deal on the fly without having to back into the setup page, restructure it and then go back to the presentation. “When you use a system that allows for a transparent presentation, it builds trust with the customer. The customer tends to buy more product when they are involved versus having something shoved down their throat.”
“When you use a system that allows for a transparent presentation, it builds trust with the customer. The customer tends to buy more product when they are involved versus having something shoved down their throat.”
Hoss also feels that dealers are too bogged down with dozens of log ins and too many open tabs. “What they need is an end-to-end automotive operational software solution that works seamlessly, fully integrated and offers a single sign-on experience,” he says.
He credits his experience working in a dealership as the major influence in shaping a system for success. “Car guys have complained over the years about technology that simply didn’t do what they needed it to do. This is a result of technologists building technology for an industry they know nothing about. Dealers also need to control their data in order to maximize its use. Being held hostage has become the norm in our industry and this must end,” he says.
“Almost every store has a sales log they keep track of their deals for the month with, but it only has 10-15 data points — if you’re lucky. I decided when I built the reporting around this that we capture over 700 data points on every deal. When you have all that data, you’re able to show a dealer where all the profit leaks are in their business.”
“Software today for F&I menus is mainly designed around the paperwork side of the process,” Hoss continues. “Because I did the job for years as well as trained people how to do it, I built SmartChoice around selling. The focus is making sure we can accurately explain an intangible product so customers can make an informed decision.”
Customer expectations have changed dramatically over the years, but the successful dealers of tomorrow will need technology that is simple and provides a transparent customer experience while giving the dealer real-time actionable information.