For many years, Planet Honda customers would come to buy a car, but it was the spaceship in the middle of the dealership that wowed them. The motion simulator ride through space started as a fun way to explain the ins and outs of ownership to car buyers, but for many in northern New Jersey the four-seat simulator became as much of an attraction as the newest vehicle models. Riders would take off and fly into a black hole, where a woman explained their vehicle’s ownership manual, the dealer’s guarantee and the proper maintenance schedule before finishing with a pitch about saving the environment for all the children of the world.

 

“When you came out of the black hole you realized you didn’t want to go back to planet Earth because Planet Honda was so great,” owner Tim Ciasulli Sr. explains. Entire families would come into the dealership asking if they could travel through Planet Honda’s simulated solar system. Getting a ticket was easy, Ciasulli would tell them – they just needed to buy a car. “People would come off this ride almost in tears because of the emotional linkage with what we stand for as a dealership,” Ciasulli says.

The simulator was removed in 2007 after its manufacturer went out of business and Planet Honda could no longer make repairs. But the dealership still carries that spirit of making the car-buying experience exciting and fun.

At 100,000 square feet, Planet Honda is one of the largest single-point Honda facilities in the country, Ciasulli boasts. Maxon Honda opened in 1973 and was one of 47 franchises owned by Robert Ciasulli Sr., one of the original mega-dealers on the East Coast. Robert Ciasulli passed away in 1984, and his will divided his remaining franchises among his children, including Tim Ciasulli, who took over Maxon Honda that same year. Maxon Honda was re-branded Planet Honda in 1996. “One of the things my father taught me was you got to be persistent,” Tim Ciasulli explains. “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”

That approach served Planet Honda well during the economic recession. When automotive sales declined by 35 percent industry-wide in the late 2000s, Planet Honda saw a drop of only 7 percent. Where the downturn caused competitors to retreat and cut costs, Planet Honda saw opportunity and invested more into advertising. The strategy helped the dealership emerge from the recession “lean and mean,” as Ciasulli says, and ready for the market rebound.

 

Service Focus

The dealership reinvested in itself and in 2013 began a $10 million renovation to modernize its look and increase its service business. Planet Honda purchased neighboring property and rebuilt the service department, expanding it from 30 service bays to 65. 

The focus on the service department has continued into 2015, as Planet Honda in April switched to a revolutionary team process with a customer-centric focus. “They don’t get handed off to a disinterested party,” Ciasulli says of the customer service experience. “The one person takes care of that customer virtually from the time they arrive to the time they leave.” 

The additional service space and the new customer-friendly approach led to fixed operations having the best month ever in the company’s 42-year history this past June. “We’ve been working really hard at creating a team effort back there,” Ciasulli says. “Service sells the second car always. So we want to make sure that was going well.”

 

Investing In Solar

The renovation impacted far more than the service department. Planet Honda now has two new showrooms, a customer café, a 2,000-square-foot customer lounge, new floors and even new bathrooms. “Every customer touch point was completely ripped out and redone,” Ciasulli explains. 

But one of the most significant changes is one that customers cannot see: the 40,000 square feet of solar panels that now sits on Planet Honda’s roof. The solar panels can generate as much as 30 percent of Planet Honda’s power needs on a sunny day, and serve as an example of environmental consciousness to customers. In recognition of those green efforts, Honda honored the dealership with the company’s Platinum Environmental Leadership Award.

The investments in its building and in reducing its carbon footprint tie into Ciasulli’s commitment to continuous improvement. The company operates an employee training program called Planet Honda Institute of Technology (PHIT), where each department is responsible for keeping its staff current on the processes and technology they need to know to tailor the shopping or service experience to each customer. To better develop that training, Planet Honda works with a psychologist to create team-building exercises. Further, the company shares financial information with managers to keep them better informed and help employees understand all of the dealership’s operations. 

Ultimately, Ciasulli says Planet Honda’s greatness lies with its people. He credits the company’s ongoing success to the contributions of several key team members. Bill Feinstein, general manager and president of Planet Honda, joined the company in 2009 and has specialized in helping each department buy into the dealership’s objectives. “He has really helped catapult us to all new levels,” Ciasulli says. “He is a detail fanatic.” 

Likewise, Sue Lerch, director of customer service, has been with the company since 1982 and Ciasulli describes her as a “genius” at putting together marketing plans. Every great company has to have a “go to” leader who can jump into almost any job and excel. Service director to facility construction – that’s just what Joe Scibilia has done in his 32 years at the dealership. Then there is Ed Amorin, who was a 19-year-old waiter when Ciasulli hired him to join Honda’s sales team. In 28 years, Amorin has sold more than 100,000 cars one car at a time. “With everything we have going on now he could probably get another 100,000 out,” Ciasulli says.

With so much success, it’s inevitable that Planet Honda will reach new orbits. “We have such good processes and such good customer satisfaction and referrals, we can translate that into more large dealerships with tier one brands,” Ciasulli says. He isn’t ready to announce anything yet, but Ciasulli explains the company could add another franchise in the next 24 months. “Maybe there will be some new planets,” he adds. 

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