This year's No. 1 dealership is 'not just a place to work'

Tennessee store employees are always ready to support each other in times of need

When an employee at Friendship Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram of Bristol needed help paying for a medical procedure, other dealership employees stepped up to help her cover the costs.

All employees at the dealership in Bristol, Tenn., in the northeast corner of the state, have the option of contributing part of their paychecks into the Friendship Family Fund, which collects money to be redistributed anonymously to other employees in times of need.

"If any of us ever need help, we're not going to go hungry," says receptionist Shelly Williams, who serves on the committee that oversees distribution of the fund.

In the case of the employee who needed medical help, the fund contributed $300 toward her $1,500 procedure, Williams says.

CEO Mitch Walters gears up for his turn on the zip line at the dealership's annual picnic, held at a farm that offered lots of family activities.

'A way of life'

Though employees at all 11 of the Friendship Family of Dealerships' stores contribute to the fund, a small committee at the Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram of Bristol store handles requests from employees at that specific location.

The Friendship Family Fund is part of the dealership's efforts to support employees in various facets of their lives.

"It's not just a place to work, it's a way of life," says General Manager Tom Hall. "It's a culture where we care about our community."

Friendship Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram of Bristol ranks No. 1 in this year's Automotive News ranking of the 100 Best Dealerships To Work For. It also was No. 1 among medium-sized dealerships, defined as those with 50 to 99 employees.

Part of the dealership's culture is an emphasis on healthy living and physical well being. Tobacco use is banned on the grounds of the dealership, and Friendship offers to cover half the cost of a gym membership for employees. Williams, who has been with Friendship for about a year, says she was able to afford to join the local YMCA because of the dealership's contribution.

Dealer Principal Mitch Walters is in the process of developing a program that will help defer the costs for employees to form activity groups outside of work. He says he imagines there might be groups to go skiing, play tennis or go running.

"You could have a salesman and a technician and a parts guy and an office person that could all be in the ski club, and that's good to build teamwork," Walters says.

The dealership's emphasis on employees' lives outside of work extends beyond physical fitness. Friendship, for instance, provides tickets as often as possible to concerts or NASCAR races. The Bristol Motor Speedway is a NASCAR short track. The dealership also recognizes top performing employees with cash rewards or weekend getaways.

But the annual highlights for Friendship employees are the dealership's Christmas party, at which every employee and family member in attendance gets a gift, and the summer picnic.

General Manager Tom Hall: "It's a culture where we care about our community."

For this year's picnic, Friendship rented out a farm near Bristol, Tenn., that offered hayrides, a zip line and other family activities.

"It's really great because they opened up this whole farm, and for families like me, I can't afford to take my son out and do stuff like that," Williams says. "For us to do that, it probably would've cost $100 for us to do everything that we got to do there, but they opened it up and it gave families an opportunity to have some fun and for it not to cost anything."

The commitment to treating employees well at Friendship extends to the business operations as well. Walters delivers an annual State of Friendship to Friendship Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram of Bristol's 53 employees to update them on the dealership's financial standing. The dealership sold or leased 705 new cars last year.

"They want to have good communication from top down," Walters says. "They want to have communication in addition to a fair paycheck. There's no sense in not doing it this way."

The dealership also offers its employees profit sharing.

Dale Morrell, who works in sales, has been at the Bristol dealership for 32 years under four owners. He says Friendship, which bought the dealership in November 2008, is unique in its commitment to financial transparency.

"I have never worked for an owner that shared that information before," Morrell says.

Walters acquired the store along with partners Hall, the general manager, controller David Snyder and parts and service director Bob Millsap.

'Good to Great'

Together, they've implemented Walters' "Good to Great" management style, which is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Jim Collins. The seven-point philosophy is at the heart of how Walters runs the business, and Walters meets with every new employee to discuss Good to Great.

"You've got to focus on the customer, you've got to focus on each other, you've got to communicate, and you've got to be organized," Walters says. "I do this myself, so everyone has heard that."

Central also to Friendship Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram of Bristol is the philosophy of "servant leadership," which emphasizes putting the needs of others first while the managers do their best to help their employees grow and develop.

Says Walters: "The general manager isn't better or more important than the reconditioning person."

You can reach Joseph Lichterman at

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