Innovative is only one way to describe third-generation car dealer Jim Click. His friends and business associates, community leaders and, especially, his employees also call him compassionate and generous.
Back in 1984, Richard Nolen considered himself 'just a body man in an entry-level job.'
Nolen had been working at Jim Click Ford in Tucson, Ariz., only a short 15 months when an injury in a tag football game left him a paraplegic.
'When Mr. Click found out about my accident, he contacted my family and visited me. He let it be known that he would make sure I got the best care available,' Nolen says with an emotional tone. Click insisted that Nolen receive rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Denver, and he flew him there on the corporate plane.
Nolen returned to work seven months after the accident and assumed various office duties. He left five months later, with Click's blessing, to finish his college degree. After graduating in 1990, Nolen submitted resumes everywhere, except Jim Click Automotive. 'I didn't want to be a token,' he explains today.
Although Nolen was highly qualified for the positions for which he was applying, rejections came almost immediately after prospective employers spotted the wheelchair. After being assured that he would be hired based on his qualifications and not out of charity, Nolen returned to Jim Click Automotive in May 1991. Today, he is the business manager in charge of all seven Click dealerships in Tucson.
A job waiting
Chris Burns joined the Click dealerships in 1983 as a service technician and moved through the ranks, becoming service manager of the Lincoln-Mercury store in 1991.
In June 1992, Burns was in a serious car accident. Jim Click, who was in Barcelona, Spain, for the Olympics, phoned Burns and his family to monitor his recovery. During hospitalization and intensive rehabilitation in Tucson and Denver, Burns missed five months of work, but he never missed a paycheck - and he always knew he had a job waiting for him.
With plans to be Click's first service manager in a wheelchair, Burns returned to work in late 1992. He has held a variety of positions, including service manager and service director. Today, he is 'Webmaster Burns,' maintaining and upgrading the ever-expanding Jim Click Automotive Web site (www.jimclick.com).
Besides sticking with his employees and encouraging them to reach their goals despite hardships such as those faced by Nolen and Burns, Click has made it a point, for more than 20 years, to hire and train people with disabilities. Currently, about 50 positions at all levels in his Arizona dealerships are filled by hardworking people who otherwise might not be employed.
But that has not been enough. Click had a dream of matching disabled workers with employers throughout Tucson. His dream materialized in 1997, when he quietly launched the pilot version of his Linkages program. After a successful trial run, Linkages was unveiled to the public in early 1998.
Funded primarily by Click himself, Linkages is a free service, a liaison between employers and rehabilitation and social service agencies that helps place applicants in a variety of part-time and full-time jobs.
Even with the national unemployment rate at an all-time low, it skyrockets to 75 percent for those with disabilities. 'Rehab does a great job of getting them job-ready, but America hasn't put them to work. Maybe it's because they haven't been asked,' Click says.
Linkages currently is working with more than 30 agencies and 90 employers and has placed almost 300 skilled workers since its inception.
Click is not sure he qualifies to be featured in this Automotive News section. 'I can't say I was innovative,' he demurs. 'People came to me and asked if I had positions available for their disabled clients. I found out this wasn't charity but damn good business. And they're great people.'
In recognition of Click's concept and the successful development of the Linkages program, Click received the 1998 President's Award from the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. At the award ceremony on June 4, President Clinton, reflecting on the high unemployment rate for the disabled, remarked, 'This is not just a missed opportunity for Americans with disabilities. It's a missed opportunity for America.'
Clinton said that Click is 'unrivaled in his commitment to extending opportunity to people with disabilities. ... I hope others will follow his lead in every community in the country.'
Brenda Priddy is a free-lance reporter and photographer in Phoenix