It's Tuesday night and members of the Advantage Ford-Lincoln-Mercury team in Fremont, Ohio, are heading down to Grates for refreshments and darts. Managers and staff members may talk a little shop, wet their whistles and throw some missiles at the target.
Except for the darts, these men and women might well be back at the store. They talk among themselves, troubleshoot problems and pump each other up with compliments in both settings.
'Yes, I am the boss and their manager in service, but we are very open with one another,' says John McGlynn, who looks forward to the weekly expeditions.
McGlynn says it is not unusual for fixed-operations staffers to ask if they can use the computer in his office for some additional training. When he is dispatching service work, they let him know which repairs they are more comfortable doing - and areas in which they would like to strengthen their skills.
'I even had one of the quieter members of the staff tell me, 'John, I like your style,'' he says.
McGlynn's style is the Advantage style: lots of honest communication by individuals at all levels.
It wasn't always that way. But in 1997, a couple of experienced Detroit-area dealership managers looking for a challenge took the reins of this 35-year-old business and began making changes. They were Merlton Brandenberg and Doug Stump, alumni of the Taylor, Mich., dealerships managed by Tom Szott.
'One of the first things Brandy and I did after we bought this dealership was to institute a retirement 401(k) program,' says Stump, vice president of the dealership. 'There had been none.
'We also reviewed everyone's pay program,' he says. 'Some got raises, some didn't.'
Brandenberg, the dealership president, and Stump saw to it that the employee restrooms were painted. The lunchroom was freshened with paint and a larger refrigerator and a microwave oven.
The new owners also began communicating. With everyone. 'We talk every day to every employee - sometimes we just stop and chat,' Stump says. 'Our doors are always open.'
And, once their anxieties were quelled, employees started coming through those portals. Sometimes, they bring a personal dilemma. More often, they have solutions to work problems, questions about getting ahead, and suggestions for improvements.
'When we were preparing to launch our $14.95 oil-change special, a member of the service staff suggested we add a tire rotation for 99 cents,' Stump says. 'We thought that was an excellent idea. Our service prices are very competitive, and we provide a free safety inspection.'
The dealership's attitude toward its customers reflects the low-key approach to staff management. Stump says the staff doesn't routinely tell owners they need a certain kind of work done unless it's an emergency situation. Stump prefers to have service customers who are willing and interested come into the shop area and see for themselves what technicians are talking about in terms of repairs.
'We offer them safety glasses and hard hats,' he says. 'Some customers are more likely to take the advice of a technician over the suggestion of a service writer.'
As the new management team builds enthusiasm and cooperation among employees, business is increasing. Parts sales are up 200 percent, says Stump.
Stump and Brandenberg say they quickly noticed a difference between the work ethic in Fremont and the attitude toward employment in the Detroit area. In the big city, dealers hire away talent from one another. With employees, it's everyone for himself or herself. At quitting time, they're gone.
Stump was stunned when a technician showed up at Advantage on a Saturday - the employee's day off - and wanted to talk constructively about things at the dealership. Another time a technician, disappointed that a colleague had been unable to start a vehicle following a long repair, remembered overnight a similar situation he had faced. He changed the way a component was plugged in, and the car started.
The managers hired the dealership's first woman service writer. They are in close touch with local schools, inviting students interested in the business to shadow Advantage employees for a day.
Stump says the Szott organization in Taylor had initiated a derivative of the Customer Satisfaction Index: the Employee Satisfaction Index. 'We brought the philosophy to Advantage from Taylor,' he says. 'The key to a dealership's success is in its people.'
One Employee Satisfaction Index booster is the availability of a dealership vehicle for each employee to take on vacation. Efforts to boost employee job satisfaction even extended to the company Christmas party, which this year began before noon on Dec. 24 at the local Holiday Inn. Stump says he had been accustomed to those holiday gatherings at the dealership, but found family members were staying at the hotel.
'I wanted this to be a family gathering,' he says, 'so we went to the Holiday Inn. We distributed some $3,000 in vendor gifts that had come to the dealership.'
Stump says it took about six months for veteran staff members at Advantage to feel relaxed about the management change. Galen Arnold, a salesman, was one of them. He had joined the dealership in early 1997.
'I was at a very, very good GM dealership,' he says. 'The former manager here kept calling and wanting to hire me.'
Arnold made the switch a few months before the business was sold. Since then, sales have doubled and the overall atmosphere has changed dramatically.
'This business had a bad reputation,' he said. 'Today it's a great place and growing. I like that.'