Asbury Automotive Group's Ken Gilman doesn't see why auto dealerships shouldn't compete with the likes of Microsoft Corp. and Procter & Gamble for the annual crop of blue-chip college graduates.
At some job fairs, a booth for Asbury, the nation's fifth-largest dealership group, sits alongside those of other large corporations that traditionally snap up the best and the brightest.
"We have to convince a kid and parents that after going into debt and four years of college, selling cars is the right thing to do," says Gilman, who came to Asbury as CEO two years ago.
He joined the publicly held car retailer after a 25-year career with apparel retailer The Limited Inc., which chased top grads aggressively.
Asbury is looking for candidates with a sales and marketing background and an interest in cars for its management training program. The pitch, which began at the University of Florida in Tampa in 2002, includes a traveling exhibit manned by Asbury's human resources staff and local executives. A slick, four-color brochure touting a career in auto retailing is handed out.
Five of Asbury's nine regions have used the program, and the other four will follow in 2004. The Stamford, Conn.-based retailer spent about $15,000 on the booth and literature.
Asbury currently has a dozen management trainees recruited through job fairs. It would like to have 100 by the end of 2005 once the initiative has been introduced companywide.
But too often, college graduates don't see auto retailing as a career.
"Auto retailing has been an industry of default," says Ken Jackson, Asbury's director of human resources and the developer of the program. "It is one of the more stable and lucrative industries."
At Asbury, management candidates have plenty of opportunity to climb the corporate ladder and earn impressive salaries. General sales managers at Asbury's dealerships make $150,000 to $200,000, and general managers make $250,000 to $500,000 a year, Jackson says.
The training program takes two years. Trainees sell cars for eight to 15 months, depending on how quickly they catch on to the business. They must sell an average of at least 12 vehicles a month.
Then they are trained and certified to work in the finance and insurance department. The candidates receive training in business management, financial analysis, hiring, counseling and conflict resolution.
From the F&I office, they can be promoted to new- or used-car sales manager. Each candidate is assigned to a regional senior manager who acts as his or her executive mentor. Candidates meet with their mentors monthly to discuss their progress.
Trainees are paid a salary plus bonus, rather than a straight commission. Salespersons have the potential to make $45,000 to $60,000, and they can earn $70,000 to $100,000 in the F&I department. Sales managers make $100,000 to $150,000.
Says Jackson: "Within five years, we would like to see them as general managers within one of our stores. The ultimate goal is to create a pool of general manager candidates around the country."