APPLETON, Wis. — It's 10:15 a.m. on a Thursday, and John Bergstrom is a man on a mission: a roughly 300-mile, one-day road trip to visit the 26 franchised dealerships and assorted body shops and used-car facilities that make up Bergstrom Automotive.
The excursion is part of the Neenah, Wis., dealership group's annual Race Shop Clean Day, an event that's part employee meet-and-greet and part inspection to ensure Bergstrom's stores and grounds are shipshape. The locations stretch from Madison northeast to Green Bay, some 140 miles away, and employ about 1,600 people.
Bergstrom, the group's CEO, is remarkably relaxed for someone whose stated goal is to shake hands with everyone who's at work this day at the dozens of facilities. He is impeccably dressed in a blue suit and tie and says he's particularly interested in the 138 bathrooms inside the buildings he'll visit by day's end. Dirty restrooms are one of his pet peeves.
"The bathrooms are the most important part of our dealerships," Bergstrom told Automotive News on a stop at Bergstrom Lexus of Appleton. "I'm a little bit over the top on that. But it's so indicative of who you are as an organization and the respect you have for both your guests and your fellow employees. It just says so much about how you run your business."
All Bergstrom bathrooms feature black Kohler plumbing fixtures and fresh flowers every day.
"I measure the cleanliness of our bathrooms against the standards of a five-star hotel," said Bergstrom. "We've worked very hard to build a brand and a culture that says we care about people, and it all starts with our bathrooms."
Bergstrom makes the trek with COO Tim Bergstrom, his son. Another 50 or so colleagues — executives, dealership general managers and department heads — come along in small groups, with staggered stops at all facilities.
The day starts early with the Bergstroms heading for Green Bay at 7 a.m. It concludes with dinner at a Neenah restaurant, where general managers in three categories whose stores are judged as the cleanest and best-maintained receive awards.
This year's winning dealerships were the Lexus, Kia and Chevrolet-Cadillac stores in Appleton.
Bergstrom started Race Shop Clean Day about 20 years ago as a way to emphasize to employees the importance of keeping facilities looking like new, which helps attract and retain customers and build employees' pride. He says he took cues from two friends who lead both professional racing teams and sizable dealership groups: Roger Penske, head of Team Penske and CEO of Penske Automotive Group, and Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports and Hendrick Automotive Group.
"One of the things that I've learned from Roger and Rick is that cleanliness goes hand in hand with winning at racing," Bergstrom said. "Their race shops are meticulous. So years ago, when we were trying to get 1,000 people to all row in the same direction, it was easy to talk in terms of being race-shop clean. It's something we talk about every day — it's one of our core values."
Preparations for the big day begin in mid-May. The long Wisconsin winters are tough on buildings, landscaping and parking lots, and only come May is the weather generally good enough to proceed with repairs and maintenance, such as painting, planting and repaving.
"I want every store to look like it's new. There's just no reason why it shouldn't," Bergstrom said. "And I don't go a week without getting a letter or an email or personal comments from people who say they can't believe what a great job our team does with our facilities. It comes up all the time. It's just part of who we are, and it makes me very proud of our team."