It was 20 below zero in Potsdam, N.Y., the morning of Jan. 2. But like most businesses in this town on the U.S.-Canada border in northern New York, TJ Toyota was up and running, ready to help customers.
'There aren't too many buyers this time of year, but we do a lot of service in this weather,' says dealer Ed Cloce, who was in despite the fact it was the Saturday of a New Year's holiday weekend.
The following Monday, Mother Nature dumped some 2 feet of fresh snow on the area in just four hours. Members of the TJ Toyota staff stayed late that evening to clean off new and used cars, move vehicles, help shovel and re-park the cars and trucks. They did it because they wanted to, not because they had to.
That is the way things are at this family-owned business, a single-point store serving a cold-but-beautiful rural area in which the next Toyota dealer is some 90 miles away.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Cloce, who has been in automotive retailing for 40 years, was the first import dealer in town. He loves upstate New York and so do his son, his daughter and her husband, all of whom work at TJ Toyota.
'My daughter, Jennifer Cloce-Fadden, is our business manager; my son, Tom, is general manager; my son-in-law, Roger Fadden, is our service director; and my wife, Clara, is corporate secretary,' says Cloce. 'We own and operate this business, but we never lose sight of the fact that you get what you give. We treat our staff with respect.'
Cloce figures the longevity of many of his employees speaks for itself. People retire from the dealership. Others among the 22 to 25 on staff have been with the dealer for '27, 20, 19, 16, 15 years,' says Cloce, running down the current roster. One, a man who specializes in equipment installations such as audio and air conditioning systems, is scheduled to retire in February after nearly 20 years.
Office Manager Molly Flynn has been with the Cloces since 1980, when she graduated from the nearby State University of New York College of Technology at Canton with an associate's degree in accounting. She answered an ad and worked at the Chrysler-Plymouth dealership Cloce owned at the time. She has been with the dealership through the sometimes painful transition from paper to electronics.
'Sometimes I think it's easier to find things in a handwritten ledger,' Flynn says. Payroll, another of her responsibilities, is better done on the computer, she says.
Technician Larry Costa seems to thrive on complexity. As long as he can get the training updates he needs - and he says Toyota is very good about providing them - Costa is willing to tackle almost any job. His reasons include the Toyota products, which he has 'always been partial to,' plus the hours and low-pressure atmosphere at TJ Toyota.
'I worked for a Toyota dealer in Brockport (N.Y.) for about a year before moving here,' Costa says. 'Prior to that I was a technician and manager at a tire store there, where selling was the top priority.
'Customer satisfaction was second,' says Costa, 'and that just doesn't work. There is a saying, 'You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once,' and that really applies to that kind of sales-oriented operation.'
At TJ Toyota, a service customer is welcome to join the technician at the vehicle. Father Fish often does, says Costa, referring to a local priest whose fleet includes a bright purple Toyota van and a yellow Pontiac Fiero he bought from the used-car lot.
Costa says he applied for work at TJ Toyota when he first came to Potsdam. Since there were no openings, he took a job with a local garage. There, some of the scuttlebutt was that the Toyota store wasn't such a great place.
'I was worried when I later had a chance to work here,' he says. 'I quickly discovered the Cloce family are the hardest working ones at the dealership. They don't play favorites. And the hours are good.'
EMPHASIS ON TRAINING
Cloce says, 'Filling technician jobs is tough. A dealership can always use a general mechanic, but it also needs specialists. If they aren't trained on your product, they must be willing to be trained.'
Technical programs at SUNY Canton College produce technicians with two-year degrees, he says. 'An automotive technician needs to be an electronics wizard as well as be able to understand schematics and diagnostics. At a dealership they may be extremely well paid, as they should be.'
Cloce says his flat-rate shop is unusual in this part of the state. He feels the flat-rate approach is fair all the way around: to the customer, to the technician and to the dealer.
'In a big city, flat-rate is likely the only way service is run,' he says. 'I believe we have the only flat-rate shop in the area. We decided to go this way 10 years ago. It's a good recruiting tool, plus we have the type of product technicians like to work on.'
Cloce's employees must get Toyota training and they must fit into the dealership family. 'We don't have a person on staff who hasn't had some Toyota training,' he says.
Willingness to take training and grow on the job tells him a lot about an individual, he says.
'I believe we are the only dealership in the area to offer service on Saturday mornings,' Cloce says. Sales and service staffs work split shifts, he says. A typical sales workweek is 45 to 50 hours; technicians may put in 40 to 44 hours, depending on the Saturday schedule.
Employees know they can take extra time when they need it, Flynn says. Whether it's a family emergency or a play at a child's school, the Cloces recognize the importance of personal needs.
Flynn says the dealership sent beautiful flowers when family members passed away. 'They even made a donation to a hospice when my dad died in 1990 after a bout with cancer,' she says.
'I am always touched by this thoughtfulness, and it means a lot to my family, too.'
Cloce says: 'It's all about being honest and respectful toward one another. We all treat each other like family.'