Chalmers set a goal that Butler and his boss, Gary Housley, have committed themselves to achieving: seeing Don Chalmers Ford become the first domestic-brand car dealership to earn the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, named after the man who served as secretary of commerce under President Ronald Reagan.
Only one dealership has won the Baldrige award: Park Place Lexus in Plano, Texas, in 2005.
"We're very much into the Malcolm Baldrige quality business model," says Housley, a plainspoken Oklahoman who served as Chalmers' general manager and took the reins as dealer principal after Chalmers died.
The Baldrige judges were in the middle of site visits to Rio Rancho while Chalmers went through the final stages of his cancer battle.
"We were really close about four months before he passed away," Butler says. "We wanted that so bad for him. The site visit happened in October 2012, while he was in chemo.
"We were disappointed we didn't earn it. But we got great feedback, and we kept going."
Housley says the dealership may try again next year.
The Baldrige award, presented by the president of the United States, honors companies that excel in seven areas: leadership, strategic planning, customer and market focus, information and analysis, human resource focus, process management and business results.
Achieving the award requires serious commitment. There's a rigorous process, including a 50-page application form.
"You have to have these milestones and benchmarks you're constantly monitoring that are important to your business," Housley says.
That's why Chalmers hired Butler, who had bought a couple of cars at the dealership but who had never worked for a dealership before, for the unusual job of director of performance excellence. Butler's task is to monitor the critical performance benchmarks.
"He's not a typical car guy," says Housley of Butler. "His background is why we hired him. His background is in the quality process type of stuff. From being a regular car guy, we don't think in those terms.
"Everything we do should be documented, and every employee should be able to access any process we're responsible for doing. Lee is the keeper of those. If we can repeat the same process over and over, we know we'll do much more quality whether it's service repair and sales. We'll do it better that way than if we have 35 different people each doing it their way."
There is a process in place for everything from the mundane -- how the coffee is made and the trash taken out -- to the major -- how customers are treated and how the sales procedure works.
The processes are organized into about 30 "key works systems" that reflect the Baldrige model, says Butler, who admits the dealership has to keep an eye on the number of processes to make sure there aren't too many. But new things keep cropping up.
"Social media is a whole new process we had to add," Butler says. "We wouldn't have had that five years ago."
The dealership makes all the processes accessible to employees via a software program called InProcess.
Lest all this sound a bit rigid, Housley and Butler say the dealership welcomes employee input. Housley says: "Try our way first. If you have a better way, we'll try it."