Young auto retailers value chance to advance, improve skills

In June, Amy Hitch started a new job at a larger dealership group.

As finance manager of three Laura Auto Group stores in Sullivan, Mo., Hitch aims to improve her skills so she can grow within her role. She got her start in auto finance and learned a lot in 10 years at her previous dealership, Hutcheson Ford in St. James, Mo., but Hitch is now looking for the additional training and development opportunities that can come with working for a bigger group.

While finance managers can earn a lot, money is not always the biggest motivator for satisfaction at work, Hitch said.

“If the employee knows they’re valued, they’re more likely to stay and more likely to work harder and care more about their customers in return,” said Hitch, a 2022 40 Under 40 honoree. If an employee is happy in their job, “everybody that you come in contact with throughout the day notices those things.”

Young dealership leaders recognized by Automotive News’ 40 Under 40 program since its launch in 2012 say they value mentoring and professional development opportunities and generally believe their employers support their career growth. Many current and past honorees who responded to an Automotive News survey have been promoted to positions with greater responsibility. More than 90 percent of respondents said they have a defined career path, while about two-thirds said they have unlimited opportunity to advance. Some, for instance, said they already have reached the highest levels of management at their stores and it’s unclear where they can go next.

Respondents said they consider pay, work-life balance, opportunity for advancement, caring leadership and being challenged as the top factors that affect their satisfaction at work.

The survey of 132 respondents, fielded from June 24 to July 5, offers dealers a window into what young professionals at their stores are looking for in their careers — and from their employers. With the industry’s perennial challenges of recruiting and retaining employees exacerbated by today’s tight labor market, some dealerships are examining their pay plans, adding schedule flexibility and improving their workplace culture and value proposition to would-be hires.

Fleming Ford, founder and president of Culture Ignited, a coaching and consulting firm that works with dealerships, said job seekers today are willing to work for less money and fewer hours if it means greater well-being.

“Where people used to tolerate poor leadership, tolerate demanding schedules, tolerate being not empowered, now they’re like, ‘Heck, I’ve got choices,’ ” Ford said. “If they have the choice, you’d better give them something to choose.”

Professional development and work-life balance are more important than pay and benefits, said Erikka Wells, sales and training manager at Volkswagen of Marion in Illinois and a 2021 40 Under 40 recipient.

She left her job as sales manager at Town Center Nissan in Kennesaw, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, last July. Her current position did not come with a higher paycheck, said Wells, who wants to own a dealership one day. But she said she believes it will offer more professional development opportunities.

Wells said she would love to see the auto retail industry provide scholarships or pay to send employees to seminars, workshops or conferences, where they can learn from and network with people in similar roles from across the country.

“Those things remind you that your leadership is invested in your future and that they care about your growth,” Wells said.

Leaders not only have to tell employees there are opportunities to advance but prove it through their actions, said Kelly Wolf, CEO of indiGo Auto Group in Houston, who took over the top role in June 2020.

Wolf said he works with department heads to identify employees with leadership potential and give them more responsibilities. For instance, an existing general manager will take over a soon-to-open Porsche dealership in San Francisco, creating an opportunity for an employee identified as a potential general manager candidate to move into the role she will vacate.

“If I hire a whole new staff from outside to run a new store, then while I tell them there may be opportunity for advancement, I’m not doing what I say,” said Wolf, who was indiGo’s COO when he was named a 40 Under 40 honoree in 2016. “We always look inside first.”

Promoting from within is a growing practice at #1 Cochran.

As director of talent development at the Pittsburgh-area dealership group, Ryan Koch is expanding a management apprenticeship program that pulls employees out of their regular roles for nine to 12 months of full-time structured education and coaching in a particular area.

In the last two years, 11 employees have completed a finance and insurance apprenticeship program and moved into F&I manager roles, enabling a 100 percent retention rate for that apprenticeship, said Koch, a 2022 40 Under 40 honoree. New apprenticeship programs are launching for sales management, collision, and service and parts.

“You have to give team members the autonomy to really focus on what their career path is and build their career path and support it,” Koch said, “because if you don’t, they’re not going to be long term with you.”

Koch said he is an example of this strategy.

When he graduated from Northwood University in 2009, he believed his path was in variable operations. He became an F&I manager, then a sales manager, then a general sales manager. But a couple of years after joining #1 Cochran in 2014, Koch said, he discovered he was interested in developing talent.

“We immediately changed my career path,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges for dealers today is ensuring they have an internal bench of future leaders with the skills to succeed, Ford said. She added that training often was overlooked during the pandemic because many opportunities were put on hold.

“In an industry that has been the same, with the same roles and same pay plans and the same career paths, making change is uncomfortable. But we really have to be more open to doing things differently and adapting quickly and being more flexible,” Ford said. “Instead of saying, ‘That won’t work,’ we have to say, ‘Tell me more about that.’ ”

Brian Kramer tried something new at Germain Toyota of Naples in Florida to encourage employees to source more vehicles from the service drive, which turned into generating more appraisals during the inventory shortage.

“We were throwing gigantic spiffs at them, and when we did, it used to frustrate me because it wouldn’t move the needle the way I thought it would,” said Kramer, who in June left his role as that store’s general manager to become an executive vice president at and general manager of the dealership technology company’s new Accu-Trade business.

What worked better? Offering employees Sundays off and shorter shifts during the week.

“They were used to not the best hours, so for them, the schedule and the work-life balance was by far the No. 1 motivator,” said Kramer, a 2012 40 Under 40 honoree.

A large majority of respondents to Automotive News‘ survey say diversity, equity and inclusion is a top priority, both personally and to senior leaders at their companies.

And while respondents generally say their employers invest time and resources into hiring diverse teams and that equitable opportunities to advance exist for people of all backgrounds, some say more work needs to be done.

In 2020, Wells co-founded the Women of Color Automotive Network, which since has grown to more than 500 members. The group has begun to get the word out about the importance of increasing representation among women of color in the industry, she said, but it can’t solve the problem alone.

“We need the allyship and the support of the dealer group,” she said. “They have an obligation to the industry to keep it going forward with diverse groups of people.”

Ford said she trains her dealership clients on unconscious bias to help change mindsets about such things as what a general manager looks like and how a person ascends to that role, and to promote more employees who are underrepresented at that level. She also encourages dealerships to set up diversity councils, employee resource groups and mentoring programs.

Women, for instance, often leave dealerships because they don’t see a career path toward leadership or other women in management roles, Ford said. Some dealers have begun to offer parental leave, something she said was not discussed five years ago.

Mark Miller Subaru, with stores in Salt Lake City and Sandy, Utah, financially supports causes and communities that represent diverse populations, said Michael Ramon Aguilar, the dealerships’ director of marketing and guest services. Employees also include the pronouns they use in their email signatures and on pins to create a welcoming space that promotes belonging.

Aguilar, a 2020 40 Under 40 honoree, also uses his middle name, Ramon, which is shared by his father and grandfather, both immigrants from Mexico.

“If you think of the automotive industry, you think of middle age, white, cisgender men,” he said. “The industry has a lot of work to do to move us towards a place of greater representation in terms of voices at the boardroom table.”


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