Editor's note: This report has been edited to correctly reflect the circumstances of the sale of Wayne Elhart's stake in the dealership. It also now correctly states how Jeff adapted "be nice" at the store.
For Elhart Auto Group, as for many dealership groups, 2009 was a disastrous year. But the personal cost went beyond the group's business difficulties.
Elhart, of Holland, Mich., was devastated when plans to replace its canceled Pontiac franchise with a Buick franchise were dashed. Chrysler terminated its Dodge and Jeep franchises. In total, the group's sales volume was slashed in half.
Brothers and co-owners Jeff and Wayne Elhart were left with a stand-alone GMC store and Nissan and Hyundai stores next door. They calculated a business plan that allowed them to remain operating and retain all of the remaining employees.
But losing half the business was a blow, and Wayne never recovered from his resulting depression.
Jeff noticed changes in his brother "almost immediately upon receiving the news" about their General Motors brands, he recalled. "He was losing weight, he was isolating himself, and his normal positive nature was gone."
Wayne decided to retire -- he had talked previously about retiring at 55, and he was 56 -- and Jeff bought out Wayne's 50 percent share of the company. Wayne started on the antidepressant Zoloft, and for three and a half years, he seemed like himself again.
But it didn't last. Eventually, Jeff watched as his brother disengaged from favorite activities and stopped making plans for the future. Jeff didn't know what to do about it.
"He didn't put his boat in the water for summer 2014. He made no plans to go out west skiing. He started to isolate himself again and didn't enjoy going out for dinner," Jeff Elhart said. "He quit drinking alcohol, which is a good thing, but a major change in his behavior. He lost weight again."
Wayne, 60, died by suicide on March 27, 2015 — 48 hours after the dealership celebrated its 50th anniversary. He had shared in running the family business for 32 years.
In the aftermath of his brother's suicide, Elhart began working with several organizations across the state, educating on mental illness awareness and suicide prevention.
"I started to read every book that I could get my hands on after Wayne's death and found that mental illness awareness and prevention is not rocket science," Elhart said. "Suicide is the most preventable death, given the right tools."
Elhart adapted for his dealership a tool for identifying the warning signs of depression, encouraging people to "be nice":
- Be: Be aware that one in five Americans suffers with mental illness.
- N: Notice what's "right and good" about a person and their normal behavior.
- I: Invite yourself to speak with them.
- C: Challenge them and yourself. Is there a reason why these things are happening? Be willing to ask the tough question, are you thinking of killing yourself?
- E: Empower yourself to get the person professional help.
Elhart beta tested the tool, developed by the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, at his dealerships with his 108 employees in 2015. A later survey found that nearly two-thirds of the employees reported having used some aspect of the training, with 40 percent saying they had gone all the way to the step of advising someone to seek outside help.
"When you bring this education out in the open, immediately, people come out and feel empowered to talk about either their own struggles or their struggles within their family or friends," Elhart said. "It's created an environment that's safe."
Kimberly Torguson, a spokeswoman from the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, said men 35 and older account for a high proportion of suicides. She said leadership in automotive retailing, a male-dominated field, can play a key role in supporting the work force through suicide prevention awareness.
"There's so many things that employers and employees can do," she said. "Suicide is very complex, and it takes a variety of different programs and tools and tactics to really combat this issue."
Another result of the training was a shift in attitude toward employee behavior. When a member of the business development center started coming into work disheveled and called in sick frequently, Elhart discovered she was grappling with depression, alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts. Elhart said an open workplace granted her acceptance and support to seek help. She remains on the payroll today.
"It's part of our culture; it's part of who we are today — a place that will help people through a very debilitating disease and silent disease that not many people are willing to talk about," Elhart said.
The "be nice" program now is taught in several public schools to over 100,000 students in west Michigan, he said, the product of $1 million from more than 3,000 individual donors.