Channel | Meet the Executive

An Interview with Steve Burke

By: Staff Writer

An Interview with Steve Burke

Steve Burke entered the automotive world as a teenager, working in the retail car business. By the time he reached his 20’s, he was a dealer. He says the real-life education he received then has had a long lasting impact. In many ways he says he still thinks like a dealer, and brings in former dealers and General Managers as his top marketing executives at Portfolio.

Looking back, Burke says his move into the finance & insurance sector of the automotive business in the 1980s was based on the entrepreneurial opportunity it presented. “Managing F&I products was still somewhat new then. Those years were very instructive and shaped my business philosophy. When my partners and I founded Portfolio in 1989, I insisted that we always treat dealer owners as I would want to be treated as a dealer. That seemed to be what most people really wanted in business. It’s not about how much you can take within the deal, but about how much you can give.” Burke says the core mission upon which Portfolio was established continues to be the bottom line – providing every available, profitable and sensible benefit to their dealer clients.

Portfolio operates exclusively in the reinsurance sector and has been in business for 25 years. They offer nearly all risk-related products and programs on a reinsurance basis. Burke believes the company’s philosophy sets them apart from others in the industry. It includes two key missions: creating wealth for dealer owners, and providing a true ownership experience for their clients.

Burke says “true ownership” is reflected in Portfolio’s structure and management policies, as well as their working relationship with dealers. “We listen to the dealer’s long-term goals and immediate objectives. Then we customize the program based on those goals and objectives. Just as dealerships are all different, and any business reflects the owner’s choices, our customized program results in each dealer’s Portfolio program being unique.”

This ownership principle is evident in the unique features and benefits Portfolio provides to their clients ­– things that Burke says other companies do not offer. “Our benefits and policies all fall under the principle of giving the dealer as much control as possible, not imposing the company’s view on them.”

Some of the ways Portfolio helps their reinsurance companies grow is through quarterly reporting and personal meetings with clients to review results and opportunities for growth and improvement. Burke says, “These meetings are the centerpiece of our advisory role in our working relationship. No other provider does this as rigorously as we do.”

If a dealer decides to move on, Burke says Portfolio stands out from their competitors by respecting the dealer’s ownership. “We don’t throw up obstacles. We never forget that it’s the dealer’s reinsurance company we manage, not ours. We learned long ago that helping our clients succeed makes us succeed.”

Burke says Portfolio has a legacy. “We managed reinsurance companies for dealers long before most other companies decided to enter this arena, but we don’t rest on that pioneering reputation. The retail automotive business demands that we remain on the cutting edge of providing structures and programs that are the best in the industry, in terms of meeting needs. We are fortunate to have superb relationships with top insurers, administrators, technology providers, legal counsel and CPAs to help us accomplish these tasks.”

Company Growth and Commitment to Agents

Burke reports that Portfolio has seen spectacular growth since 2009, even exceeding the overall growth in vehicle sales. Burke believes this is the result of delivering the value of true ownership. “The word is out. We have many dealers who actually grew their business during those tough times by leveraging their reinsurance company assets. Many others did the same to stay in business and see a brighter day.”

Portfolio is committed to the professional independent agent distribution system because they believe it delivers the best of both worlds to their clients. “Agents are the most effective way to ensure professional level service with F&I income development coupled with the personal knowledge of the dealership, the local market and the products that work best for the individual dealer. Dealers are entrepreneurs, so Portfolio representatives should be entrepreneurs too. Good agents are exactly that.

Portfolio is continuously expanding its marketing force, growing in various locales around the nation. To accomplish this growth, they are recruiting more professional agents to help. “Providing the value of professional agents has become an even higher priority as dealers request services and expertise to improve their sales, PVR, and operations,” adds Burke.

Burke says their reference list of hundreds of dealers, some of whom have been with them since the 1990s, is evidence of the excellence Portfolio provides to clients. Burke says they are so confident in the consistent value they deliver, that it is their standard practice to invite new client prospects to call any reference on their list to confirm the success and satisfaction current clients have enjoyed with Portfolio and its local representatives.

Moving Forward

Now that times are good, Burke says Portfolio dealers are wisely creating a safety net for themselves. “This is what our mission of creating wealth is all about. But there is even more; the personal wealth in a reinsurance company, outside the dealership financial statement, gives the dealer something extraordinarily valuable they would not have otherwise.”

Burke predicts the days of the impact printer and five-part paper contracts will soon be coming to an end. “We are on the cutting edge of current technology solutions and have implemented integration with most DMS systems, menu systems and production tracking systems used by dealers. We are educating our people and our dealers on how to use the valuable information from these technologies.“

New products are always being developed and launched at Portfolio, as they consider dealers to be among the most creative business people in the country. Their recent new products have been focused on current market trends such as the increase in leasing, the increasing value of certified pre-owned programs, vehicles reentering the market from prior leases, and the longer terms of vehicle ownership.

They are also on the lookout for acquisitions of entities that either complement their current business structure or add to their marketing capabilities. Burke says it is an exciting time to be in our business.

The Far Side of the World

Burke’s outside interests usually turn into passions. He is an avid outdoors person and enjoys trips to “far off places in the world that are as close to ‘wild’ as possible, getting away from cell phones and text messages.” He has been to the deserts of Namibia, the river valleys of Zimbabwe, and the backcountry of Tanzania and South Africa, enjoying the people, the wildlife and the natural beauty. Often he goes with his business partner of nearly 40 years, Mark Powell, who shares his love for this kind of travel.

Burke says his travels have provided an education as nothing else could. Spending time in foreign countries has allowed him time away to “contemplate and to see the world from different perspectives.”

One of his most memorable trips was to a remote village in Zimbabwe. “When we arrived, all the children were let out of school to sing to us, just as a welcome. We gave them some M&M’s, but the most special treat was giving them Polaroid pictures as we took them. They had seen cameras before, but not the resulting photos.

Burke has also been an amateur baseball umpire for many years. “The smell of the fields, the sounds of the game and the competition all get my blood running and require my focus.”

Burke is married and has a daughter and two grandsons who live next door. He is able to see them daily, and says they keep him young and motivated. “The boys are 13 and 16 years old, so I’d better try to be young! It’s awesome to watch them grow and to provide whatever insight, knowledge, even wisdom that I can as a grandpa.”

Industry Issues Looking Forward

In the future, Burke sees a number of things that are or should be priorities. Preparing for the future is something he finds especially important. “It is important for dealers and companies like ours to build their businesses in the great economic times for the not-so-great economic times. It is vital to remember what we all learned during the most recent recession about business management, commitment and the staying power accomplished by delivering value. Also, being responsible to the employees who help you succeed is a must.”

As government and regulation play an increasing role in the automotive industry, Burke believes it is important to try to minimize government intervention and interference by doing the right thing for clients and the consumer. “We should always remember that legislators and regulators get involved in our business when people complain to them. Consumers deserve a great ownership experience, too.”

Burke sees a need for more young people in the automotive field. He says they generate new ideas, easily embrace the benefits of new technology and provide real energy. “They also provide more experienced guys, such as myself, with real gratification as we see them grow, learn and prosper.”

In addition to young people, Burke has made a practice of hiring more bright young women than men, partly to balance out the nearly all-male business he grew up in, but also because they bring valuable new thinking, discipline, and positive attitudes about client service to the table. And, Burke says he has paid them, along with all his employees, well above industry norms for the value they deliver.

The advice Burke would impart to those considering entering the business as agents is, “The road they will face will be difficult but the rewards will follow. I believe both the dealer business and our business are some of the last truly entrepreneurial fields in which the associated risks and rewards are the same.”

He also emphasizes that the retail automotive business is really the personal transportation business. “It will be with us for generations to come. Today’s opportunities may become as antiquated as the concept of saving for years to pay cash for a vehicle. Fortunately most young people seem to embrace that the business world changes rapidly, unlike so many of my peers.”

Ultimately, Burke wants to have fun and enjoy his business. “Doing that leads to a fulfilled and enjoyable life. The hard work should be part of the enjoyment.”

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