In 1998, Bill Carrera spoke very little English. But Shortline Subaru in Aurora, Colo., hired him to sell cars.
"I ask, 'How could they have hired me when I couldn't even respond to the questions?'" Carrera jokes.
But in just four years, Carrera became the store's sales manager, proving he is a quick study and the kind of employee Shortline Auto Group's owner, Don Hicks, wants.
The dealership group's employees should reflect their communities, Hicks says. Over the past few years, Hicks has steadily hired bilingual employees, focusing on Spanish and, this year, Korean speakers. Hicks also has salespeople who speak Bosnian, Romanian and other European languages.
Nine of Hicks' 150 employees speak one or more languages besides English. Hiring bilingual employees is a key goal for Hicks. He plans to increase his bilingual sales force by hiring one bilingual employee every four to five months, depending on the market's needs.
Hicks also is increasing advertising to non-English speaking consumers. This year's budget to advertise in Spanish- and Korean-language newspapers is 25 percent higher than last year's.
Aurora is a suburb of 335,000 east of Denver. Hispanics account for about 29 percent of Aurora's population, Carrera says. And although Koreans make up slightly more than 1 percent, both are rapidly growing groups, he says.
Hicks says the group's new-vehicle sales and customer satisfaction scores have risen in recent years and that his bilingual staffers are attracting new consumers.
"They are more comfortable speaking in their own language and that alone makes them come to us first," Hicks says. "They know we cater to them and we understand them. We know what you like, what you don't like and we speak your language."
Statistics are unavailable on how many U.S. dealerships employ bilingual staff members, but the practice generally is more common in larger dealerships in the Southwest, South, East Coast and West Coast, says Chip Maher, dealership management consultant for the National Automobile Dealers Association 20 Group Program in McLean, Va.
Maher says it's unusual for dealers to hire bilingual employees in areas with "just an undercurrent" of ethnic growth, such as Aurora.
But, he says, "The larger the store, the more metro the store and the more regional it is, you're certainly going to have to go that route to serve the customers."
Shortline's three Aurora dealerships sell Subaru, Hyundai and Kia brands. Hicks also owns a Porsche store in Colorado Springs, about 65 miles south of Denver. Annual new- and used-vehicle sales are about 5,000 for the group, Hicks says.
About 10 percent of Shortline's customers are Hispanic, Carrera says.
"The most important thing is that, even as the sales manager, I go and talk to the Hispanic customers in Spanish," Carrera says.
Even if the customers speak English well enough to work with English-speaking salespeople, when it comes to signing documents and understanding financing, Carrera builds trust and closes the deal by speaking to customers in their native tongue. That makes the customers more comfortable and helps ensure that they understand exactly what they are signing, he says.