Being sensitive to the welfare of employees' families would seem to be conventional business wisdom, but such a policy has truly paid off for dealer Joe Knight.
Employees of his Nissan dealership in West Warwick, R.I., have generous vacation and retirement benefits.
Knight's Garage Inc. gives them afternoons off and 'normal' workdays instead of 12-hour grinds. The dealership has its own kind of flextime so that women staffers with children can continue with the company, yet be home after school for scouting or other kid activities.
Leo Verrier hired in at Knight's Garage as a body shop helper in 1969, and he's now service and body shop manager. Verrier says he has not been tempted to look elsewhere for work. 'I wanted to get into this business, and this definitely seemed like a good place to be,' he says.
'One of the things I like best is the people I work with - everyone has been here so long.'
Knight takes pleasure in rattling off the impressive tenures of his 30-member staff. Those with only 10 years' service are like new-hires, he says with a chuckle.
'The reasons people stay are we give good benefits and this business is a team effort,' says Knight, who started the business in 1960 as a used-car and service operation. 'There is no fighting among departments, as sometimes happens in dealerships.'
Knight expanded from used to new in 1970 when he acquired a Nissan franchise. Today the business - with the longest continuing dealership management in Rhode Island - sells 400 new and 500 used Nissans a year. It handles and services only Nissan products, Knight says.
'Several years ago we looked at the used numbers and saw that it was costing us more for non-Nissan products,' says John Knight, Joe Knight's son and the dealership's used-car manager. 'Without those service problems, we wouldn't have the aggravation quotient.'
Turnover in a smaller dealership, particularly on the technical side, can be devastating. 'It takes some 400 hours of factory training to create a master technician,' says Carole Knight, who has been active in the business for most of the 40 years she and Joe have been married. 'We have one, and three others are working toward that.
'We've been able to eliminate expensive technician retraining programs,' she says. 'We can't afford to lose them.'
Screening for all positions at Knight's Garage includes in-depth interviews. 'We're careful when we hire,' Carole Knight says. 'We look for people who like people, because everyone here goes face-to-face with the customer at some point.'
Mistakes, when they happen, are borne by all. The dealership prefers constructive criticism, ameliorated with some positive feedback, when a vehicle isn't fixed right or some other problem arises.
'We acknowledge when someone is doing a good job,' says John Knight. 'We want to make sure work is being distributed equitably in service, for example. We try to show individuals that we want them to have a long-term relationship with the company.'
Employees who like coming to work are less likely to take sick days or complain of job-related problems.
'We want our employees to have a reasonable lifestyle,' he says.
That involves more than monetary rewards. Joe Knight says he figured out many years ago that it was a waste to expect salespeople to work 12-hour days. Most people put in about six truly productive hours on any job, he theorized. Smiling at customers for double-digit hours turns one's face and attitude to mush.
'Our salespeople typically work a 42-hour week, including working every-other Saturday,' he says. 'Those who come in at 8 a.m. may leave in the middle of the afternoon, and others come in to work the later hours. I'm in at seven in the morning and tend to go home at 4 p.m.'
Long hours destroy families, he says.
Salespeople give their home phone numbers to customers. They are encouraged to develop strong customer bases. That, of course, makes them an asset to the dealership, which enjoys high owner loyalty.
The service department is open late only on Wednesday, and that evening is reserved for the dealership's customers, although Knight's has attracted plenty of owners who bought elsewhere. John credits an honest work ethic for that extra business.
With its 10 service bays and an average of 50 repair orders a day, this is not a dealership that survives only on warranty and incentive work. It does not lose money on sales, figuring to make up the difference in maintenance, repairs or finance and insurance, for example.
'We've been in this location for 33 years,' says Carole Knight. 'My husband and I have always lived in the valley. We are involved in the schools and library. We encourage employees to get involved in the community. Local news involving employees is posted on the bulletin board.'
Says John Knight: 'At least 10 Nissan dealers have come and gone in Rhode Island in recent years. Here, we have a level of trust, both on the staff and with our customers.'