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Vetter

Alex Vetter, who has been an executive with Cars.com since it launched 20 years ago as an online alternative to used-car classifieds, is steering the Chicago company in a different direction as CEO: Tinder for new-car buyers.

Employing artificial intelligence and the still-burning passion of drivers to find the car of their dreams, Cars.com recently rolled out new matchmaking technology, hoping to add “swipe right” — the term and action used to select a suitor on dating app Tinder — to the car shopping lexicon.

The Cars.com platform includes reviews, listings and personalization tools to help buyers navigate brands, models, dealers and even salespeople. As on a dating site, finding the perfect match can mean happily ever after for buyers and sellers alike — at least until the warranty expires.

Founded in 1998 by a group of newspaper companies that included the then-owner of the Chicago Tribune, Cars.com spun off on its own last year as an independent, publicly traded company.

Tronc, which owns the Tribune, ended an affiliation partnership with Cars.com in February, but a multiyear advertising agreement remains in place.

Vetter, 48, was elevated to CEO of Cars.com in 2014.

How has Cars.com evolved over 20 years?

In the past year, we’ve transformed more than in the prior 19. We used to roll out roughly 30 product launches a year, features and enhancements. Today, we’re doing over 300 a month.

We’re able to bring a lot more power to users and a lot more data to the experience.

How does your new matchmaking technology work?

The vast majority of people are overwhelmed with choices. There’s over 30 car manufacturers producing dozens of makes and models. You’ve got over 20,000 dealers all claiming to be the place to buy.

Our technology, our platform, tries to help people consolidate that information so they can make decisions about products, prices, places and now even people that they can buy from.

Cars.com is helping buyers flag the fast-talking car salesman in the plaid jacket?

We want consumers to know that they can get the best experience, and part of that is making sure that they’re finding someone that they feel comfortable working with — someone other buyers have gone through this with and who has been rated highly — as well as the dealerships themselves.

Cars.com users are virtually walking on the lot. How likely are they to buy a car?

Over 80 percent of people using our product expect to buy a car within a six-month window. It’s an even shorter time frame if you isolate for mobile devices.

So we can track when someone is arriving at a dealership, what information they are looking at, and then recommend to them products or services they weren’t otherwise considering.

Who was the first auto dealer to sign up with Cars.com 20 years ago?

Max Madsen here in Chicago was one of our first clients to sign up for the platform. Still a customer today — almost 20 years a partner. We actually brought him to the New York Stock Exchange (on June 5, 2017) to ring the opening bell with us.

What was your first car, and what are you driving these days?

My first car was an Isuzu Trooper with a Chevy engine. My current and favorite car is a 2001 BMW with more than 100,000 miles on it.

Tribune News Service