When the pandemic struck the United States this past spring, Desmond Roberts knew he should begin working from home. Roberts owns a Chicago-area dealership group that operates five rooftops, including two Advantage Chevrolet locations in Hodgkins and Bolingbrook.
“Since the pandemic hit, I have spent most of my time working in my home office, and I’m able to do that because I have good, strong leaders managing their operations,” Roberts says. “They don’t need me to be there standing over their heads. They know what to do.
“But if we didn’t develop those strong leaders, I’d have to be in the dealerships. It really hit home how it makes my job easier.”
Attracting, developing and keeping talented leaders can improve operations, increase employee retention and improve business across the board at a dealership, industry experts say.
“Being able to lead people is the biggest skill gap in our industry,” says Fleming Ford, a vice president of the industry consultancy ESI Trends. “As an industry, we have to move from a focus on managing processes to leading people. It’s a big jump for our industry.”
But Ford asks: “How do we get people who get people? Leadership is a skill; you’re not born with it. Top dealership employees are usually certified in service or sales, then we throw them into leadership. But managing people is a completely different thing, and very complex.”
For Roberts’ part, he has sent his key leaders—his daughter, son and his “third son,” a 30-year employee he considers family—to “every leadership training opportunity we can take advantage of,” he says. The three currently run four of his dealerships.
“We spend a lot of time on training and development,” Roberts says. “Our philosophy is that each of our managers ought to be thinking about their replacement, how to develop someone to replace them. That helps develop strong leaders throughout the organization.”
Building a strong leadership team can pay serious dividends. As Roberts has found, a strong team takes pressure off the top.
“The owner or the GM is the hardest worker in the store,” Ford says. “Some of them are killing themselves trying to do everything. What if your leadership team led their people? What if you got more out of everyone, rather than you just giving so much more?”
Good store leadership also can translate into better employee retention all around, often by building a strong culture at the dealership.
“Oftentimes, the dealer principal has a mission in mind. We call it the ‘why statement’—the crux of the corporate culture, explaining why a dealership is in business and what the business stands for,” says Patrick Hennessey, senior director of sales for Ally. “That needs to be developed, adopted and pushed through the ranks by leadership.
“People are motivated by money, but more are motivated by a cause, a meaning behind what they are doing.”
Roberts, the Chicago-area dealer, agrees.