Tommy Baker, an ex-Marine and graduate of The Citadel military college, is big on training.
The CEO and founder of Baker Motor Co. says his 250 employees at 11 franchises in the Charleston, S.C., area -- including the 143 employees at Baker Motor Co. of Charleston -- get a whopping 300 hours on average of training annually.
That's half-again more than the next closest peer among this year's 100 Best Dealerships To Work For. And it's five times the average of 59 hours reported by the select group.
Baker, 65, says employee training has been vital to the company's growth and stellar customer satisfaction.
Baker Motor has boosted revenue at its stores to a projected $200 million this year from about $50 million five years ago. The group sells between 4,000 and 5,000 new and used vehicles annually. Baker Motor Co. of Charleston sells Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Infiniti, Jaguar, Land Rover, Maserati, Smart and Sprinter. Tommy Baker also owns a Buick-GMC-Cadillac store and a dedicated used-vehicle store.
"Everybody gets training: sales, managers, concierge, technicians," Baker said.
The training is largely split between online courses and a classroom, he said. Employees are expected, to achieve top certification -- whether in sales, finance or service -- from the brands they sell and are rewarded with bonuses, Baker said.
For example, Baker Motor Co. of Charleston has four technicians certified as Gold Technician by Porsche, the highest achievement available for Porsche service techs. Only 100 Porsche technicians across the country have attained that certification, Baker said.
In the Mercedes-Benz portion of Baker Motor Co. of Charleston, all 80 employees are certified by the brand.
Bonuses help motivate employees, Baker said, but so does The Baker Way, the culture at the stores that encourages personal responsibility and professional pride.
"Let me tell you how that works," he said. "When our people get within five feet of a customer at any time, they automatically ask how they can serve them."
He said enlisting in the Marines out of high school put him on the straight and narrow. He said he learned manners there and that "his word was his bond."
He said he got his passion for the car business by selling Toyotas after school while attending The Citadel, a military college in Charleston. He attended the college to play baseball on a nonofficer track, he said. He opened his first dealership at age 26 in the small town of Clinton, N.C., about 60 miles southeast of Raleigh.
Joe Verde, a dealer sales training consultant, said the 300 annual training hours for Baker Motor employees was "about right" at about six hours a week.
He said it's more typical of stores to give their salespeople no training. Verde said too often, sales managers come off the floor and carry with them the old attitude of "hiring someone, telling them, 'See you later and make me proud.'"
That attitude is a prime reason why the average dealership sells vehicles to only two of 10 customers who visit the store, while eight of those 10 will buy a car. "They end up going down the street," Verde said.
Like Verde, trainer Grant Cardone encourages stores to require daily employee training. Baker said all of his employees train daily.
Cardone said 30 minutes of daily online training can prepare employees for difficult customers and situations, thereby helping them to close deals or defuse problems.
For example, managers can't assume that a salesperson knows how to handle a customer who comes in wanting a vehicle but owes more on a trade-in than it's worth or has damaged credit.
Cardone said introducing employees to situations keeps the training interesting and lets them solve problems they'll encounter. "I'd much rather see 30 minutes of training every day than someone cramming three hours of training in every Friday," Cardone said.
Rick Case, who owns 15 stores, makes daily training mandatory for sales staff and managers.
The training, largely online, combines Cardone's situational training program with Case's emphasis on product knowledge, use of digital tools and the Case culture.
Case said he won't hire anybody who has worked at a dealership. Instead, hires get two weeks of classroom training and work as understudies with senior sales associates before they are allowed to talk with potential customers, he said.
"Training is the best investment you can make," Case said.
Baker feels so strongly about education that his company awards two full higher-education scholarships annually to worthy employees or their family members. The winners are picked by an employee committee.
Similarly, Baker sends an employee every year to the dealer academy of the National Automobile Dealers Association. Said Baker: "It's the track to management."