Tom Price sold his 21 dealerships to Sonic Automotive Inc. in 1999. As part of the $240 million deal, he became vice chairman of the public dealership group. But when his three-year contract ended, Price quit. He now operates eight privately owned dealerships in California.
"It's really hard, when you have worked for yourself for 20 years, to be in a corporate environment, reporting to other people and to a board of directors," says the 61-year-old entrepreneur.
Like Price, most dealers who sold to groups that started going public in 1996 have left the companies. The Big 6 public retailers no longer are fast-growing startups whose corporate cultures emphasize individual entrepreneurship.
Rather, they are large, stable corporations that look inward to standardize and improve their operations. The public groups are creating a breed of executives who are team players who follow orders as well as give them.
"We have a very specific management profile," says Sid DeBoer, CEO of Lithia Motors Inc. of Medford, Ore. "Our managers need to be complete team players who go along with our systems and processes and buy into what we are trying to accomplish."
The companies say their training and pay initiatives are paying off in reduced turnover, especially among dealership general managers and company executives.