Oregon store focuses on family-centered culture

Josh Christenson, a 19-year-old lot attendant, says he values the atmosphere at Capitol Auto Group: "They've always been very supportive of my career plans, even though they know that this job is a stepping stone for me."

Josh Christenson, a lot attendant at Capitol Cadillac-Chevrolet-Subaru in Salem, Ore., wants to become a firefighter and emergency medical technician. He needs flexible hours. He's got tuition bills. He needs to stay in shape for future firefighting tests.

His employer helps him with all three.

Third-generation dealer Scott Casebeer and his wife, Carrie, offer their 230 full-time employees reimbursement for up to half the cost of any outside course work. So Christenson's tuition fees for his firefighter training courses are subsidized. And a gym-membership subsidy knocks his monthly fitness-center membership down to $30, from $65.

As nice as those perks are, Christenson, 19, who started at the company as a 16-year-old washing cars, says he most values the family atmosphere at Capitol Auto Group. It includes a Toyota-Scion store on the same 25-acre property.

"They've always been very supportive of my career plans, even though they know that this job is a stepping stone for me," Christenson says. "They've just said, 'If you change your mind, we're not going anywhere.'"

A family-centered, tight-knit culture is the hallmark of Capitol, employees say, despite the relatively large size of the operation. The group sold about 2,900 new vehicles last year.

Casebeer: Collegial place to work

Capitol Cadillac-Chevrolet-Subaru ranks No. 1 among large dealerships, defined as those with 100 or more employees, in this year's Automotive News list of the 100 Best Dealerships To Work For.

It has always been a collegial place. But since moving to the campus on the north side of Salem two years ago, there has been a conscious effort to fortify the culture, says Scott Casebeer.

"I told our employees I didn't want to just take the same old Capitol business plan and relocate it to these three new buildings," Casebeer says. "It was clear that there was going to be a significant shift in the approach and our corporate culture."

One big part of that: Daily "lineup" meetings, where each department gathers for five or 10 minutes to discuss the day's events. Managers also use the meeting to remind employees of one of 15 standards that were adopted in conjunction with the move to the new digs. "Uncompromising levels of cleanliness" is one. "We're always on stage" is another one.

Charley Engelfried, Capitol's head of human resources and customer relations, says the meetings reinforce customer service but also foster collaboration by giving employees the chance to suggest ideas or raise issues. If a lift in the service bay is balky, the problem can be flagged and an action plan made on the spot.

The dealership also created three core values, one of which is to foster "a fun and profitable atmosphere." That's done in part by bringing workers together in more-relaxed settings, including frequent, impromptu barbecues in the new-car delivery area.

In keeping with Oregon's outdoorsy vibe, the dealership offers health-conscious diversions for employees and customers. There's the "Capitol Mile" walking path, a mile-long trail that rings the property. Trekkers can grab a pedometer and a bottle of water to break up their day, "instead of staying sedentary and eating a Snickers bar," Engelfried says.

Employees also can whack some practice golf balls at the floating green built in the middle of an 8-acre pond on the campus. The small range has hosted many friendly staff shoot-offs.

You can reach Mike Colias at autonews@crain.com

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