Digital spreadsheets open door to more information


Jones Chevrolet-Buick-GMC in Warren, Pa., has been in the Jones family’s hands for 100 years. While the retailer has evolved with one generation to the next, some aspects of the business model took longer to adapt to the technological savvy of the 21st century.

Brysten Jones, a fourth-generation family member, changed one antiquated part of the business in 2018 by converting what he called an “old-school analysis technique” — aka handwritten calculations — into sophisticated digital spreadsheets and financial reporting mechanisms.

“The problem we were having — without really knowing it was a problem — was simply a lack of detailed information that led to various inefficiencies,” said Jones, general manager of the dealership now owned by his father, Brent.

“Because everything was in paper format, it was very difficult to keep things organized, could get tedious if you’re trying to perform any detailed calculations and really just resulted in less analysis,” he added.

Despite the dealership’s smaller size — it sells 40 to 45 vehicles on average each month and sold 278 new and 205 used vehicles in 2019 — Jones was looking to gather metrics and performance data beyond total expenses and net profit.

Leaning on his education from the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy program, Jones created a series of spreadsheets through Google Drive, mainly using the Google Sheets tool. The initial inspiration stemmed from the first week of the program, which focuses on financial management and using operating reports to measure how effectively the departments are running, he said.

“We spent a lot of time hand-calculating different [key performance indicators], which was very insightful, but I knew there was no way I was going to sit down every month and hammer them out,” said Jones, who graduated from the six-week program last year.

Instead, he downloaded every monthly operating report dating to December 2009, converted them into Google Sheets and — with some “moderate-level coding,” Jones said — extracted data and devised a way for it to automatically upload into the preprogrammed formulas.

Relevant information — from total and fixed absorption rates to days of cash on hand — is then simultaneously dispersed to each department manager.

“Nothing we had ever measured in the past,” Jones said. “There are probably 80-some calculations and numbers on here.”

The spreadsheets also allow Jones to manipulate the data in various ways, including side-by-side comparisons by month and year as well as a column for averages. Jones also saves time by not having to manually enter the data.

“This gives us the ability to actually spend time trying to fix the problem as opposed to trying to find the problems,” he said.

The amount of time Jones and his staff save from not having to dig for data, shuffle through the numbers and manually input information has been a key benefit of the spreadsheet system.

But beyond improving access to information, the spreadsheets have also helped control unnecessary expenses.

The dealership recently canceled its subscription to vAuto and switched to a less expensive company, as Jones said he was able to create his own spreadsheet that mimics the information provided by the dealership management system. The switch is saving the store $1,500 a month, Jones said.

“I have to add an extra three to four minutes of data input for every used vehicle that we take in on trade, but for the amount of money that we’re saving, it’s absolutely worth it,” he said.

Before implementing the spreadsheets, the dealership took a macro approach to analyzing its departments, asking big-picture questions such as, “How can we increase profits and decrease expenses?”

Now — through the use of spreadsheets and allowing employees to have more access to information — the dealership can focus in on key data and have more productive conversations.

“There’s a lot more detail. It’s amazing how when you start asking people more specific questions, you get better answers,” Jones said. “Better answers, better results.”

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