When General Manager Pat Denson has to hire someone at Saturn of Sarasota, one of the first things he does is check his files.
The seven-year Saturn veteran says he gets at least one call a month from experienced Saturn people who would like to work at this store on Florida's west coast.
The Sarasota dealership opened in 1995. Its sister operation in Bradenton, Fla., dates from 1993. Both are part of Geyer-Dickinson Sunset Automotive Group, a 10-store business with franchises ranging from Chevrolet to Volvo.
Denson is general manager of both the Sarasota and Bradenton Saturn dealerships. He is responsible for 40 employees.
Denson has a relaxed manner that belies his managerial abilities. His Sarasota staff is about as diverse a group as one could imagine. It includes a 22-year-old service manager, a retired stock broker and a salesperson with a Ph.D.
Some of them came to the dealership through referrals; others answered newspaper help-wanted ads.
Mary Lowery joined the Saturn of Sarasota staff three years ago by accident. Literally. A former restaurant waitress and manager, Lowery was involved in a car crash that made it impossible for her to return to that area of the food industry.
'I couldn't type fast enough for a secretarial position and didn't know much about computers,' Lowery says. 'It was too expensive and time-consuming to get into real estate, and although I had no retail experience, I applied for a sales position at this dealership.'
After a successful interview in which she 'had a chance to be kind of aggressive,' Lowery found herself in the auto industry.
'They (dealership management) had to sell themselves and the car to me first,' Lowery says. Having waited tables successfully at one establishment with not one minute of training, Lowery had developed plenty of confidence in her ability to learn and perform in short order.
'This is a good place to work,' she says. 'Saturn is a good company. The Saturn process makes it easier for women who may feel uncomfortable negotiating with customers.'
Lowery says initial dealership training got her started and periodic Saturn updates keep her enthusiastic and well-informed. In fact, she says, when her children are out of school, she would love to be a trainer at the corporate level, traveling the country working with dealership personnel.
BREAKING THE MOLD
Dick Decker says he felt a little foolish applying for the opening as a lot boy at Saturn of Sarasota two years ago. Decker, a Michigan native who grew up in icy Buffalo, N.Y., and who has a master's degree in business administration from the University of Michigan, was a retired stock broker. Bored to death, he tried working at a pizza place. Too many night hours, too little time with his family, he says.
'Actually, only about 20 percent of my day here is spent in typical lot tasks,' Decker says. 'I do troubleshooting, help on the computers, assist with inventory. I'm never bored anymore. Working with a younger staff gives me energy.'
And an appetite. It's likely to be Decker at the grill when the dealership staff pools its money for one of its frequent cookouts. In good weather, he says, that might be every other day. Once a month the dealership stages a cookout for customers. Every quarter, the dealership also hosts a Saturn owners' meeting/clinic.
'It's like a party here most of the time,' Decker says. 'I think that's because with Saturn there isn't the usual pressure to make a sale. I've seen the sales staff spend up to three hours with customers who don't buy. They part with a handshake instead of a wringing of hands.'
In the service lane, David Wiegand regularly greets customers who did buy and are back for maintenance or repairs. The 22-year-old service manager got into the dealership business as a lot boy when he was just 17 and right out of high school.
'It was a summer job, something to do until I started college classes in business and computer science,' Wiegand says. 'But when fall came, I didn't know what I wanted to do in school, so I stayed at the dealership (Coast Cadillac, a sister store).' The same thing happened when the winter semester began the following January.
Wiegand took on additional responsibilities, learning how to detail used vehicles. When he gave notice that he was leaving, management asked him about his plans and convinced him he would have an interesting career with the dealerships. He moved to the Saturn store in Bradenton and then to the Sarasota location.
'Within three years, I went from a detailer and lot boy to service manager. I've done real well, and I enjoy the work,' he says. When Wiegand compares notes with his contemporaries who went right into college and graduated, he figures he's doing as well or possibly much better. Many of them don't have good jobs with growth potential, and they aren't at his earning level.
'It was a little intimidating when I became service manager,' he says. 'I am learning how to handle certain situations. At times we can be very busy. It's great working here.'
'Working lean is very important to our success,' says Denson. 'If a dealership overstaffs, it has to let people go. It is tough to go through the process of finding good people and then having to let them go if sales are down. Why have eight people doing what four could accomplish?'
Denson says he watches the dealership's business progress very carefully. It has recently grown to the point where he may add a technical person.
'I look for legitimate growth, checking monthly trends,' he says. 'I let our employees tell me if they feel we need additional help. Meanwhile, we work as a team. Managers are cross-trained. Staff members have multiple skills. Everyone has faith in each other.'
Allowing individuals to express themselves openly takes any threat out of being candid, he says. It improves the atmosphere.
'I have staff meetings about every Saturday,' he says. 'I rely on feedback from the staff. I'm not a database kind of person who keeps lots of records and reports.'
Denson describes the staff at Saturn of Sarasota as 'diverse and very intelligent.'
'Our employment,' he adds, 'is very stable.'