Dealers look beyond auto industry for staffers

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Automotive News -- October 17, 2013 - 12:01 am ET
Dan Kurtz of Sunrise Chevrolet hands out a card to potential employees that says, "We like how you present yourself."

Dan Kurtz often browses in cellphone stores -- but not for phones.

As the technology in vehicles advances, Kurtz, executive manager of Sunrise Chevrolet in Glendale Heights, Ill., needs to hire tech-savvy salespeople.

Where better to find those people, Kurtz asks, than by mystery shopping a cellphone store?

"We do that constantly," Kurtz says. "We actually have a card we hand to people that says, 'We like how you present yourself' and to please contact us."

Kurtz, an equity partner with Richard Garber in Sunrise Chevrolet, has hired two of his salespeople this way.

This year's Automotive News 100 Best Dealerships To Work For use an array of techniques to find staff. Some dealerships, such as Sunrise Chevrolet, are constantly on the lookout in their communities. Others partner with agencies to recruit retired military veterans or use social media sites to find talent. Yet others offer college internship programs or seek to hire their own customers.

The most common approach is employee referral, often with the dealership offering cash incentives to those who make a winning recommendation.

Far less common is the traditional help-wanted advertisement seeking experienced auto salespeople. Many dealers want Gen Y or female employees from outside the industry, dealers and trainers say.

"Ten years ago the industry hired primarily from within," says Kate Sullivan, owner of Sales Assist, a sales training company in Detroit. "Management in dealerships was very slim and they didn't have the luxury of recruiting and training."

Now, many dealers will invest in training because they realize someone with good qualifications from outside the industry can be taught nearly any dealership job, Sullivan says.

"You have to be really open now. If you go to a restaurant and get extremely good service, that's a really good possibility for a hire," Sullivan says. "Dealers are not hiring from the field anymore, but from their environment instead."

Dealer Dave Wright is always on the prowl for people who are the best in their field.

Wright, 46, recognized talent in Marc Wallace when the two met in early 2007. Wallace called on Wright to sell the dealer advertising time on a local cable TV station.

Vaughn: Using social media

Tenacity


"No matter how horrible you told him his station was, he had a solution for it," says Wright, owner of Dave Wright Nissan-Subaru in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I loved his tenacity."

Wright pursued Wallace, 37, for more than a year. But Wallace says he was reluctant to join the dealership because he believed TV sales offered him a better shot at a career.

"I told Dave what my intentions were and he made clear his interest in me," Wallace says. "I was looking to make a career commitment and I was looking to grow."

Wallace started selling cars for Wright in September 2008, Wallace says. With Wright's training and mentoring, Wallace is the sales manager today.

"Dave helped me actualize my potential and what he saw in me," Wallace says. "If you had asked me five years ago if I would have hoped or imagined this was possible ... I feel like I'm in an amazing dream. Don't pinch me."

Wright also tries to hire Gen Y employees by offering internships.

Gen Y individuals, sometimes called millennials, are those born between 1975 and 1995.

Wright started using interns in his service department about 10 years ago, he says. One of his top service technicians today was an intern before Wright hired him full time eight years ago. In 2011, Wright expanded the internship program to include digital marketing and other parts of the dealership.

High-school interns


Wright pays his interns $9 an hour. They set their own schedules, usually about 20 hours a week. He requires a two-year commitment. He recruits them from the University of Iowa, which is 25 miles south of his dealership, a nearby community college and even the local high school.

"You get a lot out of these kids," Wright says. "They work from home and one dad told me his son was up until 2 a.m. He completely rebuilt my parts e-list online."

Wright says he hopes that his interns will consider a career with his dealership after they graduate.

"I'm just putting interns in any positions they have interest in to get them exposed to the dealership," Wright says.

Another way to attract good help is by keeping an eye on the Internet, says Josh Vaughn, general manager of Performance Acura in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Vaughn's store is within 25 miles of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University. But Performance Acura wasn't taking advantage of social media to attract young employees until about two years ago.

Social media recruiting


"We are getting better now," Vaughn says, because "we are able to communicate better on Facebook, Twitter and other social media."

Vaughn, 36, posts articles by third parties about the dealership's employee and customer best practices on its Facebook page and then writes, "We'd love to speak with anyone new," he says.

Vaughn also has started to direct prospective hires to third-party dealership endorsements to help solidify their decision to join the dealership. He got that idea when he started conducting informal "entrance interviews" with new hires about a year and a half ago. During those interviews, he learned that most hires accepted the job because they had researched the dealership's online customer reviews.

When they learn from those reviews that the dealership takes good care of its customers, "then they know we represent a good brand and the employees are happy," Vaughn says. "Gen Y'ers want to read reviews on Amazon before buying a product and they go on Facebook and get everyone else's opinions before making a decision. They do the same thing with where they want to work."

Vaughn has hired eight Gen Y employees full time since upping his social media use and monitoring the store's reputation management in the past year. Four of them are women, he says.

"We are very conscientious of our online reputation, but it's always been on the customer side of it," Vaughn says. "We never realized that managing that would be a big determining factor for prospective new hires."

Adam Arens, 53, owner of Patriot Subaru in Saco, Maine, started recruiting employees from his customer base about 10 years ago.

"We let [customers] know we are growing and if there is a time they'd like to look at something in our business, to talk to us," Arens says. "They get a full tour of the dealership and see how we behave."

It has worked. In 2005, Gen Y customer Vinnie Martorano bought a 2004 WRX STI from Patriot Subaru. Martorano, 38, was then working as a port captain for a small cruise line in Maine.

"I'd be coming in for service," Martorano says. "I'd chat with these guys and they'd say, 'You should work here.' But I had a good job that I hated to leave."

A few months later, Martorano changed his mind as the cruise line company appeared unstable. He talked with Arens, expressing his desire for a career. Martorano was impressed with the company's benefits, he says. Martorano hired on as a salesman, and today he is a sales team leader.

"When I came in, they trained me on how to do things," Martorano says. "As time went on, the more I worked here, the bet- ter I understood Adam's thought process."

Martorano says he feels "as though I've grown with the dealership."

Arens has hired 20 former customers to sales, parts, manager and service technician jobs, he says. About 15 still work for him, including one woman, Jackie Parker, 36.

"We try to share what we're about with our customers," Arens says. "You can't BS people, so just be what you are and they will be attracted to it when the time comes or they will think about it for someone else in their family."

Arens offers flexible hours and job sharing to accommodate Gen Y and women with families. He doesn't want to just attract good hires, he wants to keep them.

Arens has attended five seminars to learn about retaining women and Gen Y employees, he says.

"Managing Gen Y, you might find they might be sensitive to things you might not think anyone would be sensitive to," Arens says.

For instance, Gen Y is more sensitive to criticism than older generations are, Arens says. Also, their desire for a work-life balance "is clear upfront," Arens says.

To help him attract Gen Y and women, Arens' dealership has an organic vegetable garden and a gym. Four employees' dogs spend the day at the store.

"We are dog friendly to friendly dogs," Arens says. "When your dog has surgery, we have a place where you can put your dog close to work to care for your dog all day. The same would be true for kids."

Norm Bothun, 58, spent his career in the Army doing public affairs. He was based in Colorado Springs, Colo., when he retired in 1997 to civilian life. He envisioned remaining in that area doing public relations work for a private company.

But Phil Long Ford of Chapel Hills in Colorado Springs offered him a full-time job selling cars. The dealership works with an agency that helps recruit retired military and wounded soldiers for jobs.

For Bothun, who still works at the dealership, the sales job became a perfect fit.

"In the military, you have to have a certain amount of self-discipline," Bothun says. Likewise, "in the car business, if you don't have self-discipline, you're going to fail."

The dealership likes to hire former military members because most of them follow a process well, says Jim White, 49, general manager and partner at Phil Long Ford of Chapel Hills.

The military accounts for a large part of Colorado Springs' economy. The city, Colorado's second-most populous behind Denver, has three military bases and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

"It is ripe ground for us to pick future employees from," White says.

But former military personnel come from other areas, too.

"I just hired a gal who recently retired from military from back East," White says. "She has a terrific attitude and will do well given the [military] structure."

Many dealers rely on internal referrals to hire employees, and pay current employees for references that lead to hires.

Sunrise's Kurtz and Garber pay $100 to an employee who refers a hire. If that hire lasts 60 days, they pay the employee another $100, Kurtz says. After six months, the referring employee gets $200 more, Kurtz says.

Warren Henry Auto Group also pays employees for referrals of people for hire, says Larry Zinn, 27, general manager of Warren Henry Auto Group in Miami. The company owns Land Rover South Dade, Warren Henry Infiniti, Warren Henry Jaguar and Warren Henry Volvo, all of which are on this list of the 100 Best Dealerships To Work For. Warren Henry Auto Group also owns Land Rover North Dade and Lamborghini of Palm Beach.

Zinn says, "We have also had a great deal of success advertising a sales position on Craigslist and mentioning, 'No sales or automotive experience preferred.'"

Advertising on Craigslist for employees seems to attract younger people open to doing any job in a dealership, Zinn says.

"I prefer to hire people without automotive experience because they don't bring with them any bad habits," he says.

Zinn has hired five salespeople using Craigslist since starting advertising there within the past year. All five now work at Warren Henry Infiniti.

Trainer Sullivan endorses searching outside the industry for talent. The Internet has changed car shopping so dramatically that the "old plaid jacket" salesman is no longer qualified to deal with the new kind of buyer, she says.

"Shoe salespeople are great candidates and so are jewelry salespeople," Sullivan says. "I'd love to hire people who sell mortgages or who do phone work. Telemarketers are good because they're fearless."

It's that belief in the potential of people with no automotive background that keeps Kurtz going to community events, job fairs and mystery shopping around town and at cellphone stores for potential hires.

"We don't do traditional advertising for help," Kurtz says. "Our philosophy is we don't really like to hire anyone who has experience. We like to teach and train the values and ethics ourselves."

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com. -- Follow Jamie on Twitter


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