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Tatiana Miller, an expert in organizational communication with a passion for the nonprofit world, never really planned a career in the auto industry, much less at a dealership. But when the Larry H. Miller Group approached her husband, Jeff Miller, about the situation at the struggling South Towne Subaru dealership, Jeff knew exactly what he needed to do to turn the Subaru dealership around—he needed to hire Tatiana.
Jeff, who was already managing Mark Miller Subaru Midtown, was familiar with the South Towne dealership’s plight before the Miller Group approached him. The South Towne dealership was losing money, and Jeff suspected it had something to do with the company’s culture. Jeff felt if he could come in and install a new style of management, he could turn things around pretty quickly.
And he did. Within just one month, Mark Miller Subaru South Towne was once again turning a profit. Here’s how the husband-wife duo changed the dealership’s culture and got its engines revving.
Keep Management Local
One of the first problems Jeff identified at the South Towne dealership was the management’s corporate mentality and structure. Employees at the dealership had to jump over a plethora of bureaucratic hurdles to make a suggestion, and if they wanted to actually talk to management, they had to walk to a separate building. Jeff, who believes in empowering employees to make their own decisions, determined this corporate structure would be the first to go.
But restructuring the dealership left Jeff with a major hole instead of an office manager, so he approached Tatiana about filling the gap. Her experience—a masters degree in organizational communication and extensive research on the best practices for organizations in transition—convinced Jeff she was the perfect fit for the position. He just had to win her over. Tatiana had harbored a negative opinion of auto dealerships before she met Jeff.
At the time, Tatiana was running a nonprofit, but she accepted the offer with enthusiasm. Though it was a position she had never considered before, she says she could see an opportunity to make a real change for the dealership’s employees. “It felt like my whole life had led up to this moment, to this career,” she says.
Put People First
With Tatiana at his side, Jeff decided to bring a new perspective to the dealership—a perspective that would emphasize transparency and employee empowerment.
Jeff knew the old company culture, which relied on intimidating employees and keeping them in the dark about upper-level decisions, had to change. But it wasn’t going to be an easy transition. Fear and intimidation were the only management tactics the South Towne employees knew, Jeff says, and some of the dealership’s original managers had never even seen a financial statement.
Jeff brought in several trusted employees from his first management post at Midtown and set a goal up front to keep as many of the South Towne employees as possible. In some departments, the Millers saw a great deal of success. Parts and service, for example, kept 75 percent of its original workforce. But others, such as sales, required a more significant overhaul.
Still, Tatiana says she and her husband committed to putting the employees first and strove to find jobs for those employees they couldn’t keep at the dealership. “We wanted to be careful, because these were human lives,” she says.
Tatiana also set about doing a study of each of the employee’s needs and discovered there had been a great deal of internal dysfunction at the dealership before the Millers took over. In one case, she discovered that a single mother who worked at the dealership was being forced to work on Saturdays.
The quick success of the South Towne dealership’s transition underscored the importance of understanding every single employee and their needs. “We have a great team,” Jeff says. “If you treat them right, then they’ll treat the customer right, and the bottom line will take care of itself.”
Communication is Key
Throughout the transition process, Tatiana continued to emphasize the importance of internal communication at the South Towne dealership—and Jeff fully supported her efforts.
“One of the first and most important things was to communicate, so they were kept in the loop, not left at home completely disheveled, wondering what was next for them,” says Jeff.
Over time, Jeff says, this policy of transparency and communication not only made the employees much happier about the transition, but also built customer loyalty. Jeff views Subaru customers as different from the average car buyer—they tend to be more educated about cars and know what they want, he says. By crafting a company culture that emphasizes open, communicative leadership, the South Towne dealership was able to build trust with those customers. “Our leadership style builds trust with the Subaru buyer,” Jeff says. “People are more comfortable with us.”
Since the reorganization in 2009, Jeff says the South Towne dealership has gone from selling roughly 500 new cars per year to selling nearly 1,400 new cars per year. “It’s really brought the dealership to a whole new level,” Tatiana says.