School bell chimes at AutoNation

Although selling cars is a far cry from slinging burgers, AutoNation Inc. has created a managers’ training program patterned after Burger King University, Burger King Corp.’s school for employees.

The first AutoNation University class was held last week at AutoNation’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., headquarters.

AutoNation modeled its program after the training programs of Burger King and Walt Disney Co. because they are viewed as the best in their class, said Karen McKemie, senior vice president of retailing for the nation’s largest dealership chain.

AutoNation also felt traditional training of dealership managers doesn’t suit its needs. AutoNation is a $20 billion publicly held company with 31,000 employees, in a field populated by a handful of much smaller public companies and thousands of private enterprises.

New AutoNation managers often lack experience working for a public company with federal reporting requirements, and they are not accustomed to working for organizations the size of AutoNation. Also, the company wants to establish operating standards throughout its network of 276 dealer locations in 17 states.

The 2-day program is taught by 10 AutoNation trainers and company executives. Each month, the company will indoctrinate about 20 newly promoted general managers as well as general managers who are new to the chain. Later, the program will be expanded to include managers in various departments.

AutoNation would not reveal the program’s cost.

Previously, the chain’s training for general managers was typical of the industry. AutoNation referred its stores to outside trainers, and there was no consistent formal program.

“The program was extremely thorough and extremely intense,” said Ron Vest, general manager of Mullinax Lincoln-Mercury in Brunswick, Ohio. Vest, one of the first 18 trainees, was a general manager at another dealership group before joining AutoNation eight months ago. “AutoNation,” he said, “looks at business more like a large retailer, like Wal-Mart.”

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