After two years working in the service department of a Nissan dealership, Eric Weaver was frustrated that his ideas about how to improve the department weren't being heard. So in 2008, he left and joined Rick Case Automotive Group's Honda store in Davie, Fla., as a service-drive salesman.
Six years later, Weaver has been promoted twice and is now a used-car finance manager. At 28, he's ready to make automotive retail his lifelong career and wants to stay at Rick Case Automotive for the long haul.
"Nobody wants to start working for a company and think they don't have a potential to grow," Weaver said. "Rick Case kind of helps you grow."
That's music to Rita Case's ears.
Case, co-owner of Rick Case Automotive of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has made employee retention a top priority. She aims to put many more employees on long-term career tracks like Weaver's with a program that started in 2013.
Interviews by human resources specialists with every single employee -- 1,100 in all at 14 stores in Florida, Georgia and Ohio -- are underway to find out what kind of job each employee ultimately wants. The idea is to retain employees who might otherwise leave looking for new challenges or a better fit.
"The goal of this is to prevent someone from leaving our company for a position at another company when we could have satisfied that at our company," Case said.
Rick Case ranks No. 27 on the Automotive News list of the top 125 dealership groups in the U.S. with retail sales of 21,882 new vehicles in 2013. For many years, the company has been concentrating on retention, with a focus on providing competitive compensation, up to four weeks of paid vacation and recognition programs such as employee awards, birthday cards and anniversary letters.
"But that wasn't really solving the total picture. I knew there was more we could do," Case said.
For 2013, turnover at Rick Case Auto was 58 percent. By contrast, the average non-luxury brand dealership in the South Atlantic region had turnover of 42 percent in 2013, according to Ted Kraybill of ESI Trends, a research firm that manages the National Automobile Dealers Association's annual dealership work force study. Case's three-year retention rate is 39 percent vs. the 48 percent average for South Atlantic non-luxury dealerships in the study.
While turnover tends to be higher in urban areas, Rita Case said she still is surprised by her dealership group's turnover number. But that's where she hopes new initiatives such as expanding Case's HR department and launching the interview program will bring about improvements.
"It made sense to me that if we could understand our associates' career paths and what they thought they wanted to do that we would have a better chance of meeting their career expectations," Case said.
Case came up with the idea after reviewing records of the exit interviews given to all employees who leave the dealership group. Many of those who departed could have been offered similar or better opportunities at Rick Case -- if top managers had only known of their desires, she said.
Up, and over
The company already has had employees move not just up but over, to entirely different departments, as Weaver did by going from service to finance and insurance. Rita Case expects the interview program to enable more of those transitions.
To make the program work, Rick Case Automotive staffs human resources specialists in its Florida and Georgia stores to conduct the career development interviews. The Florida manager travels to the Ohio stores to conduct interviews with the employees there.
The interviews aren't presented to the employees as career development interviews. HR managers tell workers that they'd like to get to know them.
During the conversation, employees are asked what they like best and least about their jobs and whether there are other positions at the dealership group that interest them.
"These people need to be talking to somebody who's not their supervisor," Case said.
Employees aren't likely to be as open with their supervisors if they want to make a switch from one department to another, she said. They are concerned that their supervisors would either start looking for their replacement or block such a move because they want to keep the employee in their own department.
Case began developing the interview program last summer. Employee interviews began in March, and 10 percent of Case's employees have been interviewed thus far.
Everyone will be interviewed eventually, but HR managers are focusing on salespeople, technicians and other nonmanagement staff first to try to make sure those people see a career path with the company. The goal is to have 30 percent of the work force interviewed by next March.
"Our philosophy is everybody needs communication," Rita Case said. "Communication at every level is going to improve turnover."
Retention, while always important at Rick Case Automotive, has become more crucial for the company as it opens new stores that need to be staffed from the ground up, Rita Case said.
She and her husband opened a Volkswagen store earlier this year in Florida, and three more stores, including a new Kia dealership in Florida, are under development.
The Kia store will open early next year with the general manager and parts manager already selected from the existing work force.
If the Case group can fill those key positions at the new stores with existing employees who already know and like the culture -- and provide those employees with promotions at the same time -- everybody wins, Case said.
"We need to have the Rick Case culture," she said. "We cannot be floundering with different cultures that come from hiring outside people. We already know we're going to be trying to recruit from some of our stores in Florida when we open the Kia store."
• Career path interviews
• Competitive compensation
• Up to 4 weeks of paid vacation
• Paid holiday for birthday
• Birthday cards and anniversary letters
• Health and dental insurance
• 401(k) program
• Monthly employee news and recognition newsletter