Published in Automotive News Dec. 22, 2014
If not for an AutoNation Inc. general manager's second-chance hiring strategy, Sam Rebollar figures he'd be coming home tired, dirty and beaten up by long days working at a Houston-area oil refinery.
Instead, Rebollar feels good each day when he says goodbye to his three young children and leaves for work in a suit to sell cars at AutoNation Mitsubishi. He's the store's top sales rep, averaging more than 20 vehicle sales a month.
But in 2012, Rebollar was a struggling newbie salesman at one of AutoNation's Houston Chevrolet stores, selling about six cars a month and trying to avoid returning to work at a refinery.
"I was already to a point where I was going back because I couldn't make it -- living paycheck to paycheck and struggling," said Rebollar, 32.
But then he heard about Irfan Siddiqui and the Mitsubishi store. Siddiqui joined AutoNation in 2011 to help launch a new location for the Mitsubishi franchise, which had shared a site with a Chevy store. As general sales manager handling most of the day-to-day operations, Siddiqui was charged with hiring enough employees to keep the new location rolling. It was a high hurdle for a brand that sells only about 80 new cars a month across all its stores in the Houston market.
"Nobody really wanted to come work over here," said Siddiqui, who became the store's general manager a year ago. "So we got creative. I talked to HR. They offered me a salesperson from another store. They said, 'He's struggling over there. If you can make it work better ... ' We did well with one and the second one and the third one."
Now Siddiqui and the Mitsubishi store are known in the market as a place to rejuvenate careers.
AutoNation, the country's largest automotive retailer, has 13 dealerships in the Houston market. Siddiqui has hired salespeople, technicians, service advisers and business development center personnel from the other stores. Some were underperforming at their previous stores, while others were involved in personality clashes with fellow staffers.
Since 2011, Siddiqui has hired about 15 people who had worked for other nearby AutoNation stores. Eight are still with the 67-employee dealership; that number was 10 before two longtime staffers left last month. Six of the store's 14 salespeople are transfers.
While not everyone has made it, transferred employees tend to stay longer and perform better than the people Siddiqui hires off the street. In sales, for instance, they are selling at least three more cars a month than traditional hires, he said. And they also stay for six months to a year longer.
The keys to their success: giving them attention and building their confidence.
"In bigger stores with a lot of salespeople, some people get lost in there," said Siddiqui, 46. "So what we did was try to get one-on-ones with everybody, give them attention and TLC to make sure they're successful. I went and closed deals for them. That way they feel confident that we are there to help them. Once they got that confidence, they were more independent."
Some also are better working at a smaller store with a heavy concentration of subprime customers and used-vehicle sales. The store sells about 25 new cars a month, plus 120 used vehicles as the Houston center for AutoNation's Value Vehicle Outlet, which specializes in selling lower-priced, older vehicles that otherwise might be sent to auctions.
Employees enjoy working at the store. In October, it was named one of the Best Dealerships To Work For by Automotive News for 2014, an honor determined in large part by staff feedback.
For Siddiqui, a native of India who still travels back twice a year to visit, the honor was a validation of his personal journey. He moved to the United States in 1992 at age 23, joining a sister already in Houston, largely because he was unable to fulfill his love for cars in his homeland. After running a delivery business for a time, he got his start in automotive retail by going to work for a Gillman Cos. dealership in Houston in 1998.
He worked his way up to a store general manager position with the Gillman organization but left in 2007 for another business venture. In 2008, he went to the Middle East as a regional manager in Qatar and Bahrain for GapCorp, a third-party administrator of service contracts and other automotive finance and insurance products. His wife and children remained in Houston, and Siddiqui returned in 2011 and started with AutoNation.
Siddiqui's hiring strategy reduces turnover in the market, said John Morford, AutoNation's market president for Houston. Morford often brings up the transfer opportunity in his quarterly operating review meetings to let other general managers know there might be a place for struggling staffers.
The Mitsubishi store draws significantly more transfers than the other stores in the market, he said. Transfers to other stores are typically due to requests for a location closer to home or a move up to a luxury store after doing well at a domestic-brand store.
"We encourage transferring salespeople to where they can be successful," Morford said. "The majority of what Irfan gets are people who are not successful in a particular store, and we feel they might be successful selling value vehicles. And oftentimes, it works out."
For Rebollar, it's been a turnaround story. Siddiqui recalls the young, unrefined salesman who dressed casually, talked loudly and struggled to be taken seriously by some of his colleagues when he arrived. But he worked hard, improved his people skills and, after having some initial success selling cars, was able to buy some suits that he now wears to work every day.
Rebollar credits the one-on-one training from Siddiqui and the store's other managers and is passing on what he's learned to other salespeople in the store when he sees them struggling.
He now sees auto retail as his long-term career with opportunities for pay and promotion far beyond what he ever could have had in a refinery job.
Said Siddiqui: "We've transformed a lot of people."