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Giving thought to giving

Dealerships must decide which charities to support, and how

Owner Mitch Walters, in yellow shirt, and Friendship Family of Dealerships employees deliver bicycles to a family in need. The donation program began two and a half years ago.

When Warren Henry Auto Group in Miami sponsors events for charitable organizations, Robert Lentoski wants everything done just right, whether it's lighting, sound, staging, photography or production values.

Lentoski, a self-described perfectionist, decided about two and a half years ago he had had enough of watching outside contractors do the work and having it fall short of his lofty expectations. So with the blessing of his boss, owner Warren Zinn, Lentoski formed Get More Productions, an in-house production company to stage-manage special events.

Now Get More has filled a double warehouse with gear, including a 50-foot video wall, step and repeat backdrops, lighting rigs, trusses, red carpets, sound equipment, tents, rolling barbecue grills, fog machines and two portable bars. It all adds up to an appealing proposition for charitable organizations looking to keep costs down.

Lentoski: More for charities

Instead of having to hire a production company, charities can commission the services through Get More, says Lentoski.

"Let's say it's going to cost them $100,000 to put on this event," and they expect a sponsor, such as a dealership, to kick in $10,000, says Lentoski, who runs Get More and also is still employed by Warren Henry Auto Group as events merchandising coordinator. "I can do $15,000 to $20,000 in physical work. So they don't need to do as much work, so they can make more money."

About 75 percent of Get More's work is on behalf of charities. The rest is for dealership-related promotions.

Most dealerships don't go so far as to set up their own in-house production company and let an employee run it. But finding a strategy to manage charitable giving is one of the most challenging tasks for those who already have their hands full selling and servicing vehicles. The number of worthy organizations needing help forces dealerships to set priorities for vetting them and for accommodating employees eager to be involved.

This year, Mitch Walters, owner of Friendship Family of Dealerships in Bristol, Tenn., decided to keep track of charity organizations seeking help.

"We started a file Jan. 1 of everybody who comes in the door asking for a donation," says Pamela Ragan, Friendship's human resources manager. "This file is now about 6 inches thick.

"Every time we sell a car, we take a portion of that money and set it aside into that Friendship Foundation Fund," says Ragan. The amount is $20 for each new and used vehicle sold at the group's six dealerships. In December, the dealership will host a Friendship Night of Giving and give away $150,000 from a special fund. Ragan estimates about 50 organizations will receive donations.

Asked how the dealership sets its charitable priorities, Ragan says: "If it has to do with children or animals we're going to help. Now if you're a 35-year-old man and you ask us to support your softball team, we're probably not going to fund them."

Friendship has become a major contributor to mobility in its service area -- in the form of bicycles given to children and families in need. Though she can't document it, Ragan believes she's is one of the largest purchasers of bicycles in the country.

"We usually buy 100 or 200 at a time," she says. "Our intention was to do this at Christmastime, but the response was so overwhelming, it's now a yearlong program."

Since the bicycle donation program started two and a half years ago, Friendship has donated about 1,200 bicycles to children in the areas it serves in eastern Tennessee and neighboring North Carolina. Some of the bicycles were new and some used, and employees have not only donated bikes they had at home, but helped refurbish them.

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Respondents: 2015's 100 Best Dealerships To Work For

A day for service

Roger Scholfield, owner of Scholfield Honda in Wichita, Kan., came up with a policy this year to help employees give time to charitable work. All employees get eight hours -- one workday -- per year of time off for community service.

"If it's two hours at the church or two hours at the blood drive or half a day building a Habitat for Humanity house, we feel that's the least we can do," says Scholfield.

Beyond the new policy, Scholfield says the dealership is flexible about allowing employees to contribute their time.

"When Hurricane Katrina hit, one of my sales consultants used to be an on-road bus driver. We gave him a whole week off" to drive to New Orleans and transport hurricane refugees, Scholfield says. "Everybody helped him out and helped his clients. That ended up on the local news as something he did."

Scholfield believes charitable donations require advance planning, just like every other part of the business. "We always ask charities to submit in writing in the fourth quarter of this year for donation considerations for the following year."

Employee input

For Don Chalmers Ford in Rio Rancho, N.M., charitable giving is divided into four categories: health care, education, community service and business development.

Lee Butler, director of performance excellence, says the dealership prefers charities that employees suggest. "The fact the employee brings it to us raises it above the level of just somebody calling and asking us for money."

Don Chalmers, the late owner of the dealership, believed it was important for employees to get out in the community.

"A team from the service department decided to go work at an animal rescue place called the Watermelon Mountain Ranch," says Butler. "They worked extensively for multiple times. There's so much more power to people going out into the community than just writing a check."

The employees of George Matick Chevrolet in Redford Township, Mich., northwest of Detroit, like to focus on improving the quality of life in the community. Employees from four departments regularly mentor students at a charter school.

Says Molly Williams, general manager of the dealership: "It's really about showing them there's a world out there with jobs and opportunities and someone besides their parents.

"The better we can make the schools, the more people will come to the community. It creates value for the citizens and the houses."

Employees benefit from working together for a good cause, she adds. "I think the intangible fulfillment for the person and for our team is great. You can't put a dollar value on it. There's a lot of camaraderie that gets built around these different activities. You feel good about doing something for the community and being part of a dealership that's doing that."

A Rosie the Riveter charity fundraiser at Fiat-Alfa Romeo of Austin. Says General Manager Lisa Copeland: "It isn't what we sell; it's what we stand for."

Spread the benefits

John Yark, president of Yark Automotive Group in Toledo, Ohio, believes dealerships should collaborate to spread charitable benefits.

"We typically will decline a sponsorship where another dealer is involved, and pick up one where there is not. That way, with all dealers working together, our industry can reach as many charities as possible," he says.

Yark has been active in the Auto Dealers United For Kids charity. "We have a gala the night preceding the opening of the Toledo auto show. We donated $180,000 to children's charities off that one-night event."

There might be rare instances in which Yark would reject a charity because it doesn't fit with the dealership values, but Yark likes to keep an open mind.

"We've supported some gay pride-type charities and things like that that might be somewhat controversial. We want to support our employees, but we don't want to do something that would alienate a percentage of our customers," he says.

Yark takes a special interest in the Alzheimer's Association in supporting research to defeat the disease that afflicted his late brother and partner, Jim Yark.

Lisa Copeland, general manager of Fiat-Alfa Romeo of Austin, focuses on women's charities. She and her staff like to aim big when planning events. Take her February fund-raising luncheon for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women charity, for instance.

Former First Lady "Laura Bush is my keynote speaker for my lunch. She is a draw in Austin. I knew I would sell 90 tables. We have a $600,000 fundraising goal. Attendance is rising by the minute because in Texas we love Laura Bush," Copeland said. "It's to bring to light that heart disease and stroke will kill twice as many women as all cancers combined."

Copeland also supports breast cancer research and awareness through events such as the Stiletto Stampede, a race in which participants sprint in high heels. For Copeland and many of her staff, these events become a major part of their work and social lives.

The fact that about half of her customers are women is not that important to Copeland.

Copeland's philosophy on charities sums up what many dealers believe: "It isn't what we sell; it's what we stand for. We have never done this stuff to sell cars. But because we do it, we sell cars. I don't have salespeople at these events. I never do ride and drives. I feel great I can sponsor things that are important to me personally. I know we sell cars. But we're never out there to sell cars. It's all about the charities."

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@autonews.com

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