Culture Leadership How to Lead General Fixed Operations

Take the Pulse of Your Dealership

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Every Monday morning at Capitol Auto Group, the entire 300-person dealership staff gathers to take the pulse of the dealership. Dubbed “pulse meetings,” general managers Alex and Matthew Casebeer (along with their father, dealer principal Scott Casebeer) lead their team in a meeting where they talk about events, birthdays, hand out cash in honor of the employee recognition program and frequently celebrate with a donut or two.

Those meetings—along with the monthly birthday meetings, the daily lineup and the yearly volunteering day (more on those later)—have become hallmarks of the three Salem, Ore.-area dealerships, which has been named (ten times) one of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon by Oregon Business Magazine, 2012 Salem Chamber Business of the Year, nine-time Toyota President’s Award winner, and has been recognized by Toyota, Subaru and General Motors (its three brands) for exceptional service, parts, and customer service excellence.

However, that sense of culture and unity wasn’t always present among the dealerships. Prior to 2011, the dealerships were spread out on a piece of property with aging buildings that the company rented and didn’t meet OEM standards. With mounting pressure from the OEs to update and the benefit of low labor costs and cheap bids due to the economic crash of 2009, Capitol Auto Group decided to move to a 22-acre property (complete with a lake) that kept all of the rooftops on the same piece of land and allowed the staff at all the stores to more closely interact.

That last part was key.

“We wanted to pivot and wanted people to have more pride,” Alex says. “We have these gorgeous new facilities. You can’t show up looking like a shrub and say, ‘Hey, dude, wanna buy a car?’ We need to be adaptive to all of that. We want to be ahead of everyone else. We’re not going to follow.”

So, the Casebeers did the only logical move: They ripped up their company’s mission statement and started over.

In its place, they worked with a customer service consulting company known for working with the Ritz-Carlton, Disney and Four Seasons to develop an overarching vision statement supported by three values and 15 operating standards that serve as the foundation of Capitol’s culture and are revisited every single day by every single employee at the dealerships.

“Employees have always been No. 1 for our dad,” Matthew says. “Way above customers. He tells every new employee when they start, ‘You are No. 1 above all else.’ That has gone back 40 years. He takes very good care of every employee. He knows their wives’ names, their kids’ names; so, that’s just who we are. And we want to build on that.”


The Process

Despite growing up in the car business (Alex has early memories of being sent out to pick up cigarette butts and cleaning the parts shelves), both Matthew and Alex went away for college and considered careers in different industries. However, in 2009, both moved back and realized that although cars weren’t necessarily their passion, business and community was. That passion has fueled how the family (step mom Carrie serves as the marketing director) approached creating their new mission statement.

“We’re not just looking at the car business. We’re looking at hospitality, leadership, motivation. That’s what we’re interested in,” Alex says. “More so than, how can we keep our service retention? That’s just going to follow.”

Carrie, in fact, is the person that discovered Master Connection Associates in the first place. Famed for its work with the most top-line customer service companies, the company came in for a week and hosted focus groups with every single employee. Technicians, lot attendants, the CFO—they all came up with the values and operating standards. Then, a smaller group came up with the vision.  

“That’s something we’re really proud of,” Alex says. “It wasn’t a bunch of executives sitting around. It was all derived from our employees.”***

At the end of that exercise, the staff came up with the following:

The Vision: To be the best at providing a unique, customer-driven automotive experience that includes respect, integrity and innovation.

The vision is an easy-one sentence statement that is the foundation of what we’re about.

The Values:

  • Committed to our customers and each other beyond expectations.
  • Create a fun and profitable atmosphere.
  • Committed to being a respectful corporate citizen through personal service or financial contributions.

The values are more corporate core values that are what we want to be about every day.

Operating Standards:

  • The vision of Capitol Auto Group (CAG) is the driving force of our company. It must be known, owned and energized by all.
  • Company standards and goals are clearly communicated to all employees. It’s everyone’s responsibility to support and advocate the information.
  • Protecting the assets of CAG is the responsibility of every employee.
  • It is the responsibility of each employee to create a teamwork environment and lateral support so that the needs of our customers and each other are met. “It’s not my job” is not in our vocabulary.
  • Never lose a customer. Whoever receives a complaint will own it. For example, when a customer has a concern or needs something special, you should break away from your regular duties, address and resolve the issue.
  • Uncompromising levels of cleanliness at CAG are the responsibility of every employee.
  • We are always on stage. Always maintain positive eye contact and a smile. Use proper vocabulary such as, “good morning,” “I’ll be happy to.” Do not use words such as, “My bad,” “Folks, “Okay,” “Sure,” “No problem,” and “Ma’am.”
  • Be an ambassador of CAG in and outside of the workplace. Always speak positively.
  • Ten-foot rule: Escort customers rather than pointing out directions to another part of the dealership and do a proper introduction.
  • Use proper telephone etiquette and use social media appropriately.
  • Take pride and care of your personal appearance.
  • A safe environment is essential to our success. Safety first!
  • Keep Capitol green. Conserve energy, recycle and protect the environment.
  • Treat customers and fellow employees with courtesy and respect.
  • Strive to be innovative on a daily basis. Look for opportunities to create loyal customers. To see is to sell.

The operating standards are the details of what it means. It’s the minuatie to where we’re going and the small actions that help us get there.


Living Out the Vision

At the beginning of every single shift in every single department at Capitol Auto, the departments get together for a quick 5-7 meeting called “the daily lineup.” At the beginning of the week, the leadership team sends out a week’s worth of daily lineups so that each department has the same information. It’s a quick-hitting meeting that covers one vision, value or standard, a quote of the day, community goings-on, and birthdays or work anniversaries.

“We talk about culture, we practice it and we talk about what’s going on in campus,” Matthew says. “We don’t talk about business or how many ROs are we going to write? This is all about culture and establishing who we are.

“That’s how we’re trying to communicate better to our employees. Communication can kill you. That’s just one tool we have.”

The fact is, the Casebeers say, if you don’t live it and breathe it every day, those carefully crafted vision statements and core values could be easily ignored. That’s why the dealer group has focused so heavily on the word “empowerment” over the past two years.***

“We really want them to feel empowered to handle an issue with a customer without having to ask management,” Matthew says. “Even as far as giving the customer something, whether it’s money or dinner or flowers because we screwed up, we want the employees to know we trust them. Just do it. Just send them flowers. It’s not an issue. Those are hand in hand.

“We’re constantly trying to have employees understand, we trust and love you so much, rather than lead from a position of fear. … The receptionist can pay the customer’s tow bill.”

To do that, here are the top ways that the Casebeers have empowered their employees:

Have honest conversations. It’s easy to tell employees, “You can take care of a customer,” but that doesn’t mean the employee will instinctively know what to do. That’s why they have frequent conversations with employees using real-world examples and explaining how the employee could have handled the customer who was complaining about a $10 cup holder, for example.

“We get a lot of feedback, both good and bad,” Alex says. “We use that to encourage our employees to do the right thing on their own.”

Take care of employees. The entire management team makes a genuine effort to know what’s happening with the employees. The Casebeers know who’s out sick, who has a broken arm, who’s having a baby, etc. They’ve even had people who have been out on medical issues and still keep them on payroll. Each employee receives a turkey at Thanksgiving, as well. Those kind of efforts to go above and beyond breed loyal employees who will want to do right by their employer.

Community Giving. Every employee receives a paid day off to volunteer every single year.

“We care what you’re into and we want to celebrate what you’re into,” Matthew says.

It is something that leadership has to remind employees to utilize at times, he says, but many employees are very eager. In addition, the dealership works with various organizations in the community, such as the United Way, which offers another way to get employees involved in giving back.

Tuition reimbursement for both personal and professional development. Alex says that the company has paid for some employees to take community college classes and even for one person to become scuba certified. The dealership will pay up to $500 for any continuing education classes for employees’ personal or professional life.

Healthy living program. The dealership offers a stop-smoking bonus of $500 (more than 25 employees have quit smoking for over 12 months as a result) and will pay for gym initiation fees.

Employee recognition program. Called “Remarkable Players of the Month,” the chosen fixed ops employee receives $250 and a plaque that goes in the showroom. The recipient is chosen by the service and parts managers, who get together and decide who has made the biggest impact. The recipients have been everyone from the shipping and receiving worker to master technicians.

“It changes and we make a big deal and bring them up in front of the group,” Alex says. “We put pictures on bulletin boards, internal websites, we put it in our newsletter. Fixed ops is a big deal, and it always has been, but especially now, margins are shrinking on the front end. We need our back end big time. We want them to feel appreciated. Especially with the VIO count, we’re growing and growing, so it’s way more important to have a solid crew in the fixed ops side.”

Continual training. Master Connection comes back twice per year to train every single employee, so that, whether an employee is new or has been with the company six years, everyone receives the exact same training on a consistent basis. That training is always different, as well; it began with customer service and hospitality training, then transitioned to the values and goal setting. The theme for this year’s training is “believe or leave.”

“Unfortunately, when we first hired Master Connection and moved out to the new campus, we had some employees who didn’t show up. We asked them to leave. Now we’re to the point where people actually enjoy having Connections in house,” Alex says. “And if you don’t believe, then you need to leave. We want to make sure we’ve got people that believe, they’re here currently and when we’re onboarding and recruiting someone. The people who don’t believe, leave, and we’re replacing them with better people. The Pacific Northwest is forecasting growth for vehicle sales as compared to the nations and VIO, so we need good people.”

Positive reinforcement. During the Master Connection training focused on the values, the employees were tasked with going across the campus and taking photos of examples of the values in action and reporting that back to the group. Recently, after conceiving of the “believe or leave” theme, the company created copper coins the size of poker chips that say “Capitol Auto Group” on one side and “believe or leave” on the other and handed them out for all employees to keep in their pockets.

“I think it’s symbolic and we want people to remember what we’re about,” Matthew says. “Our dad will walk around and ask if the chip is in their pocket. If it is, he might hand them $100.”

In addition, the five managers are awarded a few hundred dollars to hand out over the course of three months to employees who have the chip on hand. All five managers reported back that all employees they asked had the chip with them.


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