Apple Ford Lincoln of Columbia traces its origin back to 1986, when the typical car-buying process was as boxy as the vehicles themselves.

“We’ve been a little creative with the customer experience since then and with the services we have,” said dealership President Chip Doetsch. “We have grown significantly as a result.”

Originally known as Tower Ford, the dealership spent seven years at an East Baltimore address on Monument Street before Doetsch’s father, George Doetsch, relocated the business to Howard County in January 1994 under a new moniker.

Employee rolls demonstrate the company’s steady growth, increasing from 49 at the beginning to a current count of 186, and now spread among a complex of three buildings.

“One thing we’re thankful that hasn’t changed over time is the high quality of our people,” Chip Doetsch said. “It’s not unusual to see turnover in this business, but many of our employees have been with us for long-tenured periods of time, several as long as 21 years.”

Doetsch himself bounced between five other dealership organizations in his early career before starting as a part-time employee with Tower and eventually taking on a full-time position in 1993.

Pain Relief Widgets

Active in both private and fleet sales, Apple has ranked among the top 100 Ford dealers in the country out of a field of 3,300 for seven of the past nine years.

“We’re also 43rd in terms of certified pre-owned sales for Ford,” Doetsch said, acknowledging a current $155 million top line sales figure.

Apple’s core competency in online sales has helped keep that figure steady.

“As the market has moved in that direction, we’ve gone deeper, which helps us render a better product quickly and pays off in transparency for the consumer,” Doetsch explained. “It’s our goal to be up front and clear with them. We realize they’d rather deal with one person to get approval and not have someone hiding in the back office that they can’t interact with.”

The company’s Internet presence, which started in 1997, has helped drive territory expansion, with 40% of Apple’s sales presently originating outside state lines.

“It led us to introduce our Clear Pricing widget, which can compute the actual on-the-road price of a vehicle regardless of what state the owner lives in,” Doetsch said. “The lack of surrounding information in the old sales process led to a lot of frustration for customers. We’ve made a conscious effort to alleviate some of the pain in the negotiating process.”

Included in that effort is a Reserve It Now widget that can hold a particular vehicle for 48 hours, he noted.

Service Aspect

Of course, sales is just one aspect of what Apple Ford Lincoln does. There’s also a need for carry-on service to maintain the vehicles it sells and keep customers coming back.

“We introduced our Customer For Life loyalty program plan in 2004, which helps customers save money by providing free multi-point inspections, oil changes, tire rotations and alignment checks,” Doetsch said. “We were the first in the country to offer it … and a lot of dealers have replicated the program since then.”

Apple was also among the first dealerships in the state to include a body shop among its list of competencies, he added.

Opened in 2002, the TriState Collision Center offers convenience to customers in need of collision repairs and maintains direct repair relationships with a number of major insurance providers.

Chamber Involvement

Necessity and ongoing customer interaction make automotive dealerships a highly visible business in any community, which in turn conveys a sense of responsibility.

“As a corporate citizen, we naturally want to see our community be and do better over time,” Doetsch said. “There are a number of ways that we can help effect that, and one of the most effective has been through our membership in the Howard County Chamber of Commerce (HCCC).”

Apple Ford Lincoln has been among the leading sponsors of Chamber events over the years, helping deliver value to the local business community and the community at large.

“One of the things the Chamber does best is provide the opportunity for Howard County businesses to have a collective voice in local and state business issues,” Doetsch said. “We’ve found the efforts of their Legislative Committee to be consistently constructive and well received in Annapolis.”

Moreover, he said, the Chamber provides an important venue for exposure and networking.

“It’s one of the most beneficial resources a business can have when you need insight that can only be provided by people who have been active in the market for a sustained period of time and really have a handle on market composition,” Doetsch said.

Aside from sponsorship, Apple has taken an active role in promoting the Chamber from within, including Doetsch’s own past membership on the board of directors.

“Sean Brown, a new car sales representative, is one of the Chamber’s Ambassadors, and Kyle Robson in our Commercial Finance department serves on the Executive Committee of the Chamber’s Young Professionals Network,” he said.

Apple Ford Lincoln’s community relationship ties extend to its support of more than 70 area nonprofit organizations as well.

“Part of our doing well is directly tied to the community doing just as well,” Doetsch said. “It’s not just a responsibility, but an honor to give back to those who play a big role in our success.”