NASHVILLE -- George Girjel's rags-to-riches story of a teenage refugee from Uzbek-istan who arrived in America 17 years ago, unable to speak English, would be interesting all by itself.
But his story keeps getting better.
Girjel, now the owner of a Toyota dealership in suburban Nashville, is transforming the store into a model of employee satisfaction and rising sales and profit.
Two years ago, Girjel acquired an interest in the underperforming Toyota of Cool Springs store, backed by the West Palm Beach, Fla., dealership investment group Automotive Management Services Inc.
The relatively new store, in a growing retail corridor south of the city in Franklin, was hobbled by a lack of investment in plant and people, he says.
Girjel, 35, believes spending money on the soft side of the business -- including employee training, customer goodwill and additional staff -- translates to higher volumes and better margins.
The results so far bear him out.
The store was selling 130 to 140 new and used vehicles a month in late 2011. It has averaged 320 a month this year. It was selling 40 to 50 tires a month. Now it sells more than 700. Girjel has nearly tripled the number of monthly service job orders -- all while having what he says is the lowest advertising spending for any Toyota store in the region.
And the dealership's customer satisfaction ranking is up sharply since his arrival. Among the about 1,200 U.S. Toyota-brand stores, "we ranked down around 1,080 and falling," he confesses. But pointing out his spot on a report of Toyota dealers' customer satisfaction scores, he adds: "We're in the top 300 now, but I'd like to be in the top 100."
Some dealership turnarounds are feats of super sales and massive advertising blitzes. Girjel says Cool Springs is turning around because of employee motivation.
"I've always felt that if I can get employees to buy in and have a positive attitude about their jobs, everything else will fall in the right place," says Girjel, who left the former Soviet republic for Jacksonville, Fla., at age 18 with his mother and no money.
"You have to be willing to spend money. And you have to lead by example," he says in his slight Russian accent.
He learned to speak English from hanging around with other teenagers while working part-time in a small Florida grocery store. Few employers would hire him because of his lack of English.
He learned to sell cars in his early 20s after a friend gave him a stack of Joe Verde sales motivation DVDs. Girjel memorized the taped presentations by the auto retail consultant, even copying Verde's hand motions, facial gestures and tone of voice.
His quick study earned him a chance to sell at a small used-car lot in Jacksonville. Success there led to a series of sales jobs and manager opportunities at various Ford and Toyota stores in the area.
"I'm determined to succeed," Girjel says of his daily practices since graduating to store ownership in Tennessee. "I go out and move cars with our people. I fill up balloons for sales events. I go out and pick up the trash in the lot."
"I'm going to tell you how I measure myself. It's very simple. It's 'ESI' -- employee satisfaction index. Then it's CSI -- customer service index. Then it's market share, and then profitability.
"And exactly in that order. Because it starts with your employees. If your soldiers are not willing to move forward, you're done. There's no sense in talking about customer service, there's no sense in talking about market share, there's no sense in talking about profitability. This is what makes it happen."