Investing in staff satisfaction pays off

Employees come first for refugee dealer Girjel

Investing in staff satisfaction pays off

George Girjel: “I’ve always felt that if I can get employees to buy in and have a positive attitude about their jobs, everything else will fall in the right place.”
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NASHVILLE -- George Girjel's rags-to-riches story of a teenage refugee from Uzbek-istan who arrived in America 17 years ago, unable to speak English, would be interesting all by itself.

But his story keeps getting better.

Girjel, now the owner of a Toyota dealership in suburban Nashville, is transforming the store into a model of employee satisfaction and rising sales and profit.

Two years ago, Girjel acquired an interest in the underperforming Toyota of Cool Springs store, backed by the West Palm Beach, Fla., dealership investment group Automotive Management Services Inc.

The relatively new store, in a growing retail corridor south of the city in Franklin, was hobbled by a lack of investment in plant and people, he says.

Girjel, 35, believes spending money on the soft side of the business -- including employee training, customer goodwill and additional staff -- translates to higher volumes and better margins.

The results so far bear him out.

The store was selling 130 to 140 new and used vehicles a month in late 2011. It has averaged 320 a month this year. It was selling 40 to 50 tires a month. Now it sells more than 700. Girjel has nearly tripled the number of monthly service job orders -- all while having what he says is the lowest advertising spending for any Toyota store in the region.

And the dealership's customer satisfaction ranking is up sharply since his arrival. Among the about 1,200 U.S. Toyota-brand stores, "we ranked down around 1,080 and falling," he confesses. But pointing out his spot on a report of Toyota dealers' customer satisfaction scores, he adds: "We're in the top 300 now, but I'd like to be in the top 100."

Some dealership turnarounds are feats of super sales and massive advertising blitzes. Girjel says Cool Springs is turning around because of employee motivation.

"I've always felt that if I can get employees to buy in and have a positive attitude about their jobs, everything else will fall in the right place," says Girjel, who left the former Soviet republic for Jacksonville, Fla., at age 18 with his mother and no money.

"You have to be willing to spend money. And you have to lead by example," he says in his slight Russian accent.

He learned to speak English from hanging around with other teenagers while working part-time in a small Florida grocery store. Few employers would hire him because of his lack of English.

He learned to sell cars in his early 20s after a friend gave him a stack of Joe Verde sales motivation DVDs. Girjel memorized the taped presentations by the auto retail consultant, even copying Verde's hand motions, facial gestures and tone of voice.

His quick study earned him a chance to sell at a small used-car lot in Jacksonville. Success there led to a series of sales jobs and manager opportunities at various Ford and Toyota stores in the area.

"I'm determined to succeed," Girjel says of his daily practices since graduating to store ownership in Tennessee. "I go out and move cars with our people. I fill up balloons for sales events. I go out and pick up the trash in the lot."

"I'm going to tell you how I measure myself. It's very simple. It's 'ESI' -- employee satisfaction index. Then it's CSI -- customer service index. Then it's market share, and then profitability.

"And exactly in that order. Because it starts with your employees. If your soldiers are not willing to move forward, you're done. There's no sense in talking about customer service, there's no sense in talking about market share, there's no sense in talking about profitability. This is what makes it happen."

Boosting morale

When Girjel first arrived at his store, he found low morale. Some sales and service personnel felt they were unable to make money because of the state of operations. As Girjel entered the picture, bringing with him a small number of staffers from Florida, many employees were worried about their jobs and assumed the new owner intended to clean house.

But what he really wanted was to change their work experience and improve employee retention.

He increased store employment from 56 to 139. He found five service advisers working in the service department; he increased the number to 11. There were two oil-change employees; he increased that number to 12. There were five technicians; he boosted the staff to 14.

The shop had just two diagnostics computers, and technicians waited in line to use them. Girjel bought eight more. And he spent about $200,000 on shop tools.

He also began a training program that instructed store personnel on how to greet customers, how to assist them, what to say to them and what not to say. He used the Florida-based Publix grocery store chain as his role model for customer-handling and employee retention.

"Publix employees are trained to be really helpful," Girjel says. "I know that some people use high-end companies like the Four Seasons hotel or the Ritz-Carlton as benchmarks. But those places aren't part of most employees' experience. They don't stay in $800-a-night hotels. But they do shop at Publix."

Training is now a regular practice at the dealership, with managers and staffers reviewing the fine points of their jobs every morning before the doors open.

5-day weeks

To combat what he found to be worker fatigue, Girjel made the decision to limit employees to five days of work a week. Some were working seven. They are allowed to work a sixth day if they want to, and Girjel also decided to close the dealership on Sundays.

"Some of the salespeople asked me to reopen just for the last Sunday of every month," he says. "So I said OK -- but only if you choose to come in. And my practice is that if they come in, I come in with them."

Girjel also made it clear that everyone's mission is to make customers satisfied. That meant personally following up on problems, spending more money on goodwill, making sure repairs were done correctly and seeing that used cars were in good working condition.

"Make the right choices so that we don't have bad consequences," he tells employees. "If we have a customer in the store who has a $400 complaint, let's spend the $400 before it turns into a $40,000 lawsuit, or before an unhappy customer complains all over the Internet that we mistreated him.

"It doesn't matter whether you're right or the customer is right. What matters is the customer's perception."

After half a year of Girjel's new workplace practices, he spent $80,000 last year to hire a consulting firm to conduct an employee satisfaction survey.

"I really wanted to know if I was having the effect that we wanted to have, if people were really happier in their jobs," he says.

The survey results came back with such positive numbers -- outperforming retail industry data in all measurements of employee satisfaction -- that the consultants wondered if Girjel had somehow influenced employee responses, he says.

"Why would I pay all that money just to get incorrect data?" Girjel asks today.

Just to be sure, he ordered a second survey a few months later. The results were the same. In two survey categories, the numbers dropped but remained above industry averages.

"It's working like we want," Girjel concludes. "It's working for the store. We're seeing a 220 percent return on investment.

"But it's also working for the employees. If the store does well, they will do well. And if they're satisfied in their work, the store will do well."

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at

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