"True friends." That may be an odd way to refer to work colleagues, but for Dustin Walters, there is no other way.
The importance of the relationships between Walters and his employees, as well as employees' relationships with each other, helps explain how his Friendship Hyundai of Johnson City made Automotive News' list of the 100 Best Dealerships To Work For four years in a row.
"I've been with these people in Johnson City 11 years, and I've seen their kids grow up and they see my kids grow up," Walters said. "We have very little turnover here and we know each other well."
Walters' employees are family to him. He depends on their commitment to the stores' successes, which is why he runs a transparent business.
"When you give people a clear picture of what that employee needs to produce to carry their weight and be responsible for, you can't share that information without giving them the total picture of what it is the dealership needs to be successful and profitable," he said.
The idea of treating employees as family was introduced by his father, Mitch Walters, the owner of the first and "big brother" of all the Friendship Family of Dealerships stores: Friendship Ford of Bristol. It's a name the community trusts, and it probably helps that Friendship Ford "rolls of the tongue," Walters added. The group holds 15 franchises, including motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles, with 15 locations in six cities.
Dustin Walters started running Friendship Hyundai of Bristol when it opened in 2003. At the time, the Hyundai brand was not too sought after, Walters didn't have much experience and his new store didn't have much furniture. He remembers sitting on buckets instead of chairs during early renovations. Three years later, Friendship gave Dustin Walters responsibility for its Hyundai Johnson City store, too. He now oversees four stores.
In 2015, nine years after opening, Walters' Friendship Hyundai of Johnson City posted more than $33 million in net sales. He said the store's 654 new-vehicle sales in 2015 ranked it second among Hyundai dealerships in Tennessee. That year, his store sold 1,502 new and used vehicles.