As one of 13 dealerships in Central Florida’s Ferman Auto Group, Ferman Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of New Port Richey is part of a business that has been around for nearly 125 years but is not afraid to change. Ten years ago, for example, they forbade the use of the word “customer” in favor of “guest,” part of a companywide campaign to maintain a competitive edge at a time when car buyers manage much of the process themselves. They expect dealers to reward their efforts with expert-level product knowledge, finely tuned customer-service skills, and competitive prices for service and maintenance.
This is particularly true of Jeepers, says the dealership’s general manager, Jason Whidden. “They’ve typically done enough research, they’re educated on the product, and they’re intuitive.”
“The only other thing I could consider comparing it to is a Harley-Davidson,” says Mike Hughes, Ferman CJDR’s parts and service director and Jeepin’ Central Florida contributor. “More often than not, your Jeep guest knows what they’re looking for.”
Braving the Aftermarket
Originally founded as a bike shop in 1895, Ferman likely owes its longevity in the transportation business to its ability to adapt — to changing wants and needs, economic booms and busts, the production demands of World War II, and the devastation of the occasional severe hurricane. This evolution is reflected in the Jeep brand, a product of that war, adapted for civilian use but having never lost its utilitarian appeal.
Whidden and Hughes are unapologetic Wrangler wranglers. Paired with the dealership’s sister store in Tampa, Whidden says, Ferman is the largest dealer of new and used Jeeps in the region. Hughes leads a service department so invested in the Jeep brand that it offers customizations and modifications in addition to preventive maintenance and repairs.
Aftermarket work has heated up over the past several years, Whidden says, and the brand’s manufacturer, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, has responded, getting “in the game” with factory-branded lift kits and other accessories.
“In the past, a lot of our guests would go aftermarket because of the expense of Mopar. It used to be three times the cost. Now it’s just as reasonable, and it’s protected by the warranty.”
“To upgrade the tires and wheels on a Wrangler JK, you had to go aftermarket to make the necessary corrections to the computer,” Hughes adds. “Now, the factory offers dealer programming.”
Two Kinds of New
The Jeep driver has evolved along with the brand, a change spurred in part by the 2007 release of the four-door JKU (a.k.a. “Unlimited”) version of the Wrangler. Whidden credits the JKU with entering the Wrangler into a friendly competition with the Grand Cherokee and every other family-friendly SUV on the market. However, he stresses, the Wrangler’s heritage and appearance will always set it apart.
“Way back when, the Wrangler driver was a weekend driver. That’s no longer true,” Whidden says. “It’s an everyday driver, women and men, old and young. But there’s nothing on the market that compares. How often do you see a review comparing a Wrangler to a Ford Fusion? It doesn’t happen.”
Ferman’s sales teams currently finds themselves with an enviable problem: As of this writing, the New Port Richey location alone still has a number of 2017 Wranglers on the lot — “an amazing product, still selling,” says Hughes — and even though they commonly move more than one per day, they are discounting them to make room for the two-door (now “JL”) and four-door (JLU) Wranglers that were redesigned for 2018.
Feedback on the new Wrangler has been “unbelievable,” Whidden says, but available discounts on the 2017s make them nearly as attractive to Jeepers who are willing to stick with the prior generation to get a brand-new unit. “Three Wranglers at one time? It’s an odd position in which to find ourselves, but we feel like we’re able to help anyone who wants a new Jeep.”
It’s a Family Thing
Whidden says Jeep buyers who choose his store are treated like family throughout the buying, financing and ownership cycle. He believes they have earned a reputation in the Central Florida Jeepin’ community, regularly welcoming members from various groups and clubs and planning the launch of a website that will make Ferman even more accessible for off-road enthusiasts. “We want to make it friendly and interactive. It all ties into a Ferman-wide initiative: It’s a family-owned experience that you can’t get at other stores,” Whidden says.
The initiative includes a friendly approach to marketing, a willingness to resolve any customer concern, and a continuation of Ferman’s history of giving back to the community. Whidden notes that the group is home to an improbably high number of long-term employees in an industry know for frequent turnover in sales and other key positions.
Nuts and Bolts
Jason Whidden and Mike Hughes are the general manager and parts and service director, respectively, of Ferman Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram in New Port Richey, Fla., which specializes in sales, service and customization of new and used Jeeps, including Wranglers.
Ferman Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of New Port Richey
Sales: (877) 300-6346
Service: (888) 737-6571
“We have a long-tenured staff. Some employees have been with Ferman 30 or 40 years. We recently celebrated one guy’s 50th anniversary with the group,” he says. “Mike has been here for 18 years, my assistant for 10, some of our finance managers, up to 18 years. You’re going to see the same faces, from sales to service.”
Whidden firmly believes this sense of permanence attracts and binds customers to Ferman. He knows that, even as the car-buying process continues to change, Jeepers appreciate a familiar face when it’s time to trade in, trade up, get service, or just say hello.
“We pass that loyalty onto our guests,” he says. “They buy a vehicle and don’t have to worry about coming back the following week and seeing a different person.”