The Zeigler Automotive Group has grown from four to 26 stores in the last 18 years. The foundation for that expansion has been talent.
“I always have the person to run the business ready before I buy the business,” Group president Aaron Zeigler tells Automotive Buy Sell Report.
Finding, training, and retaining good people is the life blood of any dealership group. Zeigler Automotive has the structure and processes in place to give it a steady transfusion of new talent. That will help the group continue to expand.
“If we have people ready to go and an opportunity comes up, we will jump on it,” says Zeigler.
Headquartered in Kalamazoo, MI, Zeigler Automotive Group has stores in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. Its franchises are mix of mass market and high line brands including most volume brands plus Cadillac, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati.
Aaron Zeigler took over running the group from his father in 2001, having worked at various jobs there since high school. The group had only four stores at the time.
Around 2007, the group began creating a recruitment structure and talent development pool as well as putting processes and best practices in place for a scalable business. When the downturn hit, he began to acquire underperforming stores, says Zeigler.
“I caught a break with the economy taking a nosedive,” he says. “The only thing I realized was every recession has ended, and it usually only lasts a year or two.”
Often, the stores were doing poorly because of the person or persons who were running the stores, not the employees themselves, says Zeigler. He installed general managers who knew the Group’s processes and culture.
Often, putting in a new general manager “can take the employees and get them to perform at a very high level,” says Zeigler.
The Zeigler Auto Group culture is based on five team values: Passion, Reputation, Integrity, Drive, and Execution, or PRIDE. They look for those characteristics in all their employees, he says. It has six full-time recruiters who develop talent pipelines at colleges and technical schools.
“We skip job fairs, they are a waste of time,” says Zeigler.
His recruiters get to know professors at colleges who recommend promising students. The group hires them right out of college. Coaches are another important pipeline.
“We realized athletes make very good employees,” says Zeigler. “College athletes are very driven.”
The group lays out a very clear career path for its new recruits, letting them know exactly what they need to do to keep moving up in the organization. It has a development program letting the employee know what will happen in year one, year two and forward.
“Most people don’t go to college saying “I want to (graduate) and (then) sell cars,” he says. “But if you can tell them they will be running a $50 million business in three years, that is different.”
Everything is trackable
When someone is ready to take on a general manager’s job, Zeigler sits down with them and asks where they want to live and what franchises they are interested in. The location is usually the most important element, he says.
He will even buy multiple franchises in one area for an especially promising candidate to run. “I do that on a regular basis,” says Zeigler.
For example, there was the person who sold a single point store to someone else, but impressed Zeigler nonetheless. Zeigler acquired a BMW franchise in Chicago and hired him to run it. He did such a great job, says Zeigler, that he now runs four stores, BMW, Mini, Nissan, and Infiniti.
Zeigler says he realized early on the importance of people in the dealership business. It was easy to look at the numbers and see why some stores were doing well and others weren’t. Often, the difference was personnel-related.
“Everything is trackable,” Zeigler says.
He also realized that the problem was often not the employee, but the way they had been trained. They might also be in the wrong position, he says. The group has a great controller who started out as a lackluster salesman, for example.
He doesn’t have any specific number of stores he wants to own, says Zeigler. “It all comes down to our ability to have the people to run the stores.”
Though he would consider acquisitions outside of the Midwest, Zeigler says he would have to buy four or five stores in a location such as Florida in order to achieve synergies in regard to advertising, inventory and back office functions.
He prefers having a mix of imports and domestic franchises. “You never know what is going to happen in the future and you have to diversify,” says Zeigler.
He won’t let his franchise mix become too concentrated – the group includes five Chrysler Jeep Dodge stores, which is the most he would allow of any one manufacturer, says Zeigler.
He does have a wish list.
“The major (franchises) we don’t have are Toyota, Lexus, Audi, and Mercedes. We would like those,” he says.