And in this corner, the defending champion

Mike Cuzzo, general manager of Jaguar Plano, says that after his dealership was selected No. 1 on the Best Dealerships To Work For list last year, he immediately set out to "defend the championship."

It's tough to be the defending champion.

Mike Cuzzo, general manager of Jaguar Plano in Plano, Texas, used being No. 1 as a rallying cry for his troops after the dealership's top showing among Automotive News' inaugural Best Dealerships To Work For last year.

The store's corporate owner, Park Place Dealerships, of Fort Worth, Texas, also was named one of the 100 best places to work in the region by the Dallas Morning News, so the group has a lot to live up to. Park Place was named the No. 4 best place to work among all large companies, and was one of only three auto dealers named to the newspaper's top 100 list.

Cuzzo admitted to being "shocked" by winning the 2012 Automotive News award, but immediately upon his return to the store he set out to "defend the championship."

"I wanted to win it again. You don't get into this to be fifth," Cuzzo said in a recent interview. "If we finished fifth this year, hey, we still did a great job. But still, you go into it to win."

Cuzzo knew that the pool of talent applying for the honor would be deeper this year, but felt his dealership was up to the challenge.

"I assumed a lot more people were applying, and if we do well, then great. I hope we have gotten better. But you don't know what someone else did to make themselves better, too," Cuzzo said.

The dealership ended up finishing No. 82 on this year's list. But amid more competition, only 28 of last year's 100 repeated on this year's list. (See list of repeats, Page 22.)

Cuzzo used the award as a human resources tool, bringing it up during interviews with job applicants. Some people have left the dealership in the past year, but none went to rival stores.

"We haven't lost a service tech. There's been a little sales turnover, but for a store with 44 people, we're doing excellent," Cuzzo said.

It also helps that Park Place has spent $1 million on renovations since acquiring the store in 2010. In addition to a new showroom, the dealership sprang for new tools, equipment and training.

In 2009, Park Place's Lexus stores won the Malcolm Baldrige organizational quality awards, a national competition managed by the Commerce Department. Now Cuzzo is adding the Jaguar Plano store to the two Lexus outlets in Park Place's attempt to replicate the honor. They are planning on reapplying in two years.

Most of Jaguar Plano's excellence comes from communication and unity, starting with daily meetings among the departments.

"It's not a talking-down. It's a, 'Here's what we got, here's what we need, and what do you need,' meeting," Cuzzo said. "Maybe there's a new service bulletin for the service department. We use it to pump up the sales force, not beat them down with, 'We gotta sell this many cars.' It's an energizer."

The dealership also has paid lunches on Saturdays, and once a quarter there is a companywide "Team Park Place" party that features dunk tanks and employee awards.

On the financial side, the dealership is much improved as well.

Through August, Jaguar Plano profits have improved, and the sales rate is pacing 100 units better than last year's final tally of 330 new cars sold, Cuzzo said. The store is on the same pace on the used-car side as well. That ranks it fifth nationally in new-car sales, and No. 1 in used-car sales, among Jaguar retailers.

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com -- Follow Mark on Twitter: @markrechtin

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