NASHVILLE — George Girjel, who arrived in the U.S. more than two decades ago as a teenage refugee from Uzbekistan, has turned around two foundering dealerships in the past six and a half years.
Girjel (gur-JEL') began his auto-retail career in Jacksonville, Fla., where he learned English and how to sell cars at several dealerships, including an AutoNation store. He was general manager at a Toyota dealership in Jacksonville when he connected with Terry Taylor, owner of Automotive Management Services Inc. in West Palm Beach. Taylor's company is one of the largest privately owned dealership groups in the U.S.
In 2011, Girjel, backed by Automotive Management Services, acquired an interest in Toyota of Cool Springs, in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tenn. Within two years, sales and staffing more than doubled and the store's customer satisfaction score jumped. In 2015, Girjel became co-owner, again with Automotive Management Services, of Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram of Franklin.
Girjel, 40, spoke with Staff Reporter Ursula Zerilli at Toyota of Cool Springs about turning around underperforming dealerships, why employee satisfaction is more important than profits and why automakers should favor individuals as dealership buyers.
Q: Why did you become an Automotive Management Services partner?
A:Everything lined up as far as what my values are and what they believe [about] customer service and employee satisfaction.
[Automotive Management Services] asked me, "How do you measure yourself?" I said, "It starts with ESI — which is employee satisfaction index. CSI. Then it's market share and then it's profitability — in that order."
If you do the first one the way you should, the second one happens because happy employees always create happy customers. And then you're selling more cars and your market share grows. And what happens when your market share grows? Profits. So very rarely do we talk about profits at this dealership because as long as we're doing great in the first three, the fourth one just happens automatically.
The partnership with Automotive Management Services gave you the resources to add staff at both stores from the start. Why do that?
You have to start growing your team right away to support the business. It is risky. There's no doubt about it because your payroll could kill you.
A lot of times, dealers acquire a store that's underperforming, and then they spend money on advertising to get customers in. All of these customers start coming in, [but] there are no employees to handle the customers. It's actually the worst scenario because now your customer service is going down. You're wasting all this money on advertising.
I would not change my way of doing it because it worked for me. The biggest thing we faced was trying to bring customers back to the service department. Because they [previously] had such a bad experience, they don't want to come back. Well, if you're going to bring them back and you don't have employees to handle it, now you'll never see them again no matter what. You can throw a free oil change at them, diagnostics, a free car wash — they're not going to come back.
[Customers] don't care about price anymore. They care about what gets me in and out and that [it was] fixed right.
You were new to the area. Was it difficult to find good employees?
I had nine people move with me.
When you walk into a place, you don't know why the [current] people are underperforming. [Is it] because there's no support or no training? Or are they just not capable of doing the job? Those are two things you have to figure out right away. And you do that by working with people and asking them the right questions. If you see they are adapting and want to listen and want to change and are actually doing better, it's not a people problem. It was just no support and no training.
I'm happy that we didn't just come and clean house because that's just not the way you do things. You've got to give everybody a fair opportunity because you never know. You find those ugly ducklings — and those are the people that appreciate you for bringing the best abilities out of them. And that's what leaders have to do. You know sometimes [people] look at their employees and they think [someone] is not capable.
But it's because [the manager] has not pulled everything out of the employee that they are capable of, and has not given proper training and support.
If I go and fire everybody, then what am I going to do? Who would take care of the customers?
Hard work beats talent every time. You know some people just work harder and they just appreciate an opportunity. That is so much better than a talented person walking around saying, "I can do this with my eyes closed."
When did the Toyota store's performance improve?
In the first 90 days we started selling 250 to 300 cars [a month]. The problem was inventory. We didn't have enough inventory from Toyota.
Used cars wasn't the problem. You go to the auction, you buy a bunch of cars. That was an easier fix.
[With new cars] it was a little bit tougher, but because of my background with Toyota and me asking them for help …
You know, it's not like you can call a manufacturer and they just send you a bunch of cars. Manufacturers struggle with their own demons like we do here, but they were a great help. Now we've gotten to the point where we are turning inventory down because we just don't have any room for it.
How has Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram of Franklin done since the 2015 deal?
Product and support from FCA have improved. The store was doing 120 new and used sales a month; we averaged 220 new and used cars a month last year. The service department was doing 400 to 500 customer-pay [repair orders per month] before and now we're up to about 1,200.
Although it's doing better, it's not doing what [it could]. It's taking a little bit longer to turn the store around for whatever reason. I think the store should be doing about 250 to 270 cars, new and used.
How do the two turnarounds compare?
It was easier to turn around the Toyota store. In terms of handling employees and customers, you always take the same approach. But in terms of inventory, product problems and things of that nature, it's totally different. You can't take the same approach to Toyota inventory as you take to your Chrysler inventory.
You have to be very, very careful because obviously the volume that Chrysler does is not what Toyota does. I learned in the first year having a Chrysler store that you can't run that store the same way you run a Toyota store. It made me a better operator and it made me realize how much I appreciate Toyota product.
Toyota sells a lot more than Chrysler product does. So you can't take all this inventory because you know we're going to do great. All of a sudden, you don't do great and your inventory is aging on you and your floorplan [expense] is through the roof.
How did you fix the inventory problem?
We had to back off a bit. We needed to learn and understand the manufacturer better.
Plus, we didn't really know what we were going to be selling the most. You've got four brands. We had to figure out which one was going to be our bread and butter in this area. It's Jeep, for sure. But you don't know that without ever being involved with that product before.
When I moved here from Jacksonville I thought I needed Camrys. Well, that was not the case. I needed more Highlanders, 4Runners and RAV4s. So, when I went to Chrysler, it was the same thing. I said, "Load me up." Well, they did. And guess what? Jeeps, we can't keep them on the shelf and the other product is just sitting there.
Do you want to own a store on your own?
Absolutely. Is it easy for somebody to be a sole owner? It's near to impossible.
All these big companies, whether it's a Sonic or AutoNation or Asbury, they go out there and buy 10 to 20 stores at a time and they have leverage and money. But for a great car guy like me who worked for a publicly owned company, there's no way I could have just bought a Toyota store without somebody's help. I am absolutely grateful for my partner. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't even be a partner. I would be a general manager.
There are so many good car guys out there and so many good leaders and so many great operators and I think manufacturers lost sight of it. They lost sight that giving an opportunity to somebody can be a million times better than AutoNation coming in and buying a store.
Public companies come in and they want to run everything the same way. I don't think factories are winning in that.
I think there's a lot of great operators out there that could be doing so much better for the manufacturer. People who are so much more open-minded, driven and in tune with what's going on, versus corporate dictating to them how the business should be run. If there's the right person with a great background and experience, the manufacturer should be more open to them because I think they'll see more coming back to them [in terms of sales] as opposed to a cookie-cutter guy coming in.