New Cox boss sees a future of innovation

Industry

One thing Steve Rowley said he noticed when he joined the auto industry last summer after more than three decades in telecommunications was how similar the two industries are.

New technology is creating innovation, he said. The industry is competitive. And it’s in growth mode.

Rowley, 55, will draw on skill sets developed in the similarly innovative and growing telecom business in his new role as president of Cox Automotive. in the role in August, after Schwartz was appointed to lead the Cox family’s investments as CEO of Cox Family Office, part of the Cox Enterprises parent company.

Rowley, who previously was executive vice president of the Cox Business unit, inherits a dealership software company focused on digital development and data insights as auto retailers increasingly embrace e-commerce.

He said the company will continue to pursue growth. Cox Automotive this month acquired Fyusion, a San Francisco-based imaging technology company, and Dickinson Fleet Services, an Indiana-based mobile maintenance provider for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Terms were not disclosed.

Rowley, who was born in Kalamazoo, Mich., and now is based in Atlanta, described himself as a car enthusiast with a family connection to the industry, through relatives who worked in auto plants. He spoke with Staff Reporter Lindsay VanHulle about his career, his vision for Cox Automotive and emerging trends in auto retail. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: Tell us about your career.

A: I’ve spent 33 years in telecommunications. I started off in the traditional wireline voice, video, data side of the business, spent a lot of time in the wireless side of the business and then evolved into mobility. And then the last several years, really into the IoT, or the Internet of Things.

What is your vision for Cox Automotive?

I really believe in our core. It’s our customers. It’s our dealers. It’s our OEMs. It’s our financial partners. And how do we continue to grow that in a very fast environment, but always making sure we’ve got a great communication loop and an eye, a lens, on the customer and everything that we do.

So core is critical to us.

I talk about our adjacency — so as we look at the fringe areas of where we can edge out and continue to delight our customers and create value and growth for both of us, that is critical.

And then as we think about the big picture, new growth areas or [the] future, it’s really around that mobility space.

What trends are on the horizon?

It looks as though this pandemic has probably accelerated technology and digital by maybe five or 10 years or so — somewhere in that magnitude, but it clearly accelerated it. Over a very short period of time, we went from a low percent of digital transactions in our Manheim [auction] business to 100 percent overnight.

So it’s those type of examples that you’ve got to be prepared [for] and you’ve got to be ahead of the curve. We see that same phenomenon with digital retailing. What I would tell you is that is an area that I think we will clearly be a leader in.

We clearly understand that customers are looking to have a multitude of options when it comes to digital retail, so we may see some customers that want a full turnkey operation, be able to sit at their home, browse, order a car, purchase the car, have it delivered and have a total seamless transaction. We may see other customers use e-commerce to check that car out and then eventually go into the dealership themselves, so we’ve really focused on an omnichannel approach — meeting the customer in the channels of choice, working with our dealers to make sure that we provide them those areas.

The other areas that I see a lot of trends going on [include] what we call our mobility space. And it’s the electric vehicles — the tens of billions of dollars that are going to be spent between now and 2025 by the OEMs is amazing to me, and we really are thoughtful about that process.

What do you think will be Cox’s role with electric vehicles?

The electric vehicles and the batteries themselves, we want to play a big role in that. And as we think about cars that have been driven for two or three years coming off lease or people trading them in and going to Manheim, how do we create value? And how do we use data so that our customers that are purchasing those cars through Manheim know the value of that car, which is going to be different than the way we value cars today?

So we do want to understand that battery and what are all the components that go into grading those batteries.

The pandemic had an impact on Cox Automotive last year, including employee furloughs and job cuts. Has the business stabilized?

I feel like it’s stabilized. I feel like you’re seeing us back to normal. When you’re able to come out and make two acquisitions at the beginning of the year, it speaks to the fact that things are moving in a cadence that you want them to. So I think we’re running at full speed ahead. The industry is running very hard. We actually have to run faster in certain areas, because as we talked about, this pandemic has created a much deeper focus on the whole digital environment.

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