Touch screen’s ‘new frontier’

Jones’ ideas elevate McDonough dealerships

Photo by Jim Massara
Emanuel Jones of Legacy Ford demonstrates the interface of a service kiosk system he plans to debut at the National Automobile Dealer Association’s annual show in Orlando.

Photo by Jim Massara Emanuel Jones of Legacy Ford demonstrates the interface of a service kiosk system he plans to debut at the National Automobile Dealer Association’s annual show in Orlando.

McDONOUGH — Emanuel Jones may have made his name selling Fords, but he might well make his fortune with a kiosk for car-repair customers that could render service advisors — dealer employees who write up what’s wrong with your car — obsolete.

For Jones, who owns Legacy Ford and holds Ivy League degrees in engineering and business in addition to being Henry County’s state senator, it’s just one more challenge.

When he demonstrates the prototype interface on the computer in his office at Legacy, his face lights up and he smiles. Jones is like a kid with a new toy.

“I love this stuff,” he said, while clicking from one help screen to another. “I really do.”

Jones says he came up with the idea, now patented, when dealerships competing with a failed Chevy store he bought in Columbus kept poaching his best service writers. Computers, of course, can’t be poached so easily.

After he worked up a prototype with a few fellow techies in Columbus, Jones says he pitched the idea to IBM, which was impressed enough to partner with him. Jones plans to debut the kiosk at the National Automobile Dealers Association’s annual expo in Orlando next February.

The kiosk would be much like touch-screen ticketing kiosks at airports or theaters. Customers could choose service options as basic as oil changes or tire rotations, or using a series of screens and car images customers could describe more complex problems. If you think the problem might have something to do with, say, the right front wheel, you could touch the right front wheel on a digital image of your car model to indicate the problem.

While service kiosks aren’t entirely new to car dealerships, Jones’ patent ties the kiosk to the Internet, allowing a customer’s service records to be stored “in the cloud” and recalled at other dealerships if a customer moves. Customers would be notified of service work by “texts, e-mails, tweets and posts,” Jones said.

“To me, this is the new frontier,” he said.

Jones is accustomed to crossing frontiers. An Atlanta native who graduated first in his class at West Fulton High School, he later earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from Columbia University.

He also took his first crack at entrepreneurship while at Columbia — and lost his shirt. A college roommate’s boss was selling his taxi company and the valuable medallions that New York City issued to license them, so Jones bought in to the company. Not much later he and his partner sold out and lost $50,000 between them.

“The mistake I made in that very first business was that I was not willing to drive a taxi,” Jones says. “I tell people now that if you’re not willing to roll your sleeves up and do whatever it takes in your business to make it successful, you’re in the wrong business. And I was definitely in the wrong business.”

After stints with IBM and Arthur Andersen, Jones found the right business when he was accepted in 1988 as a dealer candidate in Ford’s minority program. McDonough’s Ford dealership was bankrupt and available, and Jones, who was looking for an opportunity to return to the Atlanta area, jumped at the opportunity to buy it. With the support of the community and the mentoring of locals Jerry Holcomb and Harold Moore — Jones referred to them as classic “southern gentlemen” — he was able to make the dealership profitable and grow it from 12 employees to about 55 employees today. Jones now owns the Hyundai dealership next door, as well as Chevy and Cadillac dealerships in Columbus.

Proof of his achievement came earlier this month when Legacy Automotive Group placed 16th among car dealerships on Black Enterprise Magazine’s 40th annual list of top-grossing black-owned businesses, with $92 million of business.

Jones’ legacy extends to his sons Emanuel II and Elam, both of whom have worked at his McDonough dealership. Emanuel II just graduated from Johns Hopkins and is in the same dealership-training program his father entered more than 20 years ago.

Although Jones sells several brands and will be working with General Motors on the kiosk project, he says his heart stays with the car with the blue badge on it.

“I started with Ford, and I will always be a Ford dealer. Ford gave me that opportunity when no one else did,” he said. “I will always be a Ford dealer, and I hope to die a Ford dealer.”