The culture to get you through

Liz WalzEver since I visited powersports dealership West Hills Honda last month, I've been thinking about how vital a company's culture is to its success, especially in today's economy. In a recent blog on HarvardBusiness.org, Peter Bregman described a company's culture as "a complex system with a multitude of interrelated processes and mechanisms that keep it humming along." "Performance reviews and training programs define the firm's expectations," he explained. "Financial reward systems reinforce them. Memos and communications highlight what's important. And senior leadership actions -- promotions for people who toe the line and a dead end career for those who don't -- emphasize the firm's priorities." At most businesses, the culture develops unconsciously, says Bergman. But at West Hills Honda, those elements were purposely crafted to create a customer focused environment that would set the business apart from its peers.

And the latter goal has certainly been achieved. Not only does the company have an incredible culture in which employees are constantly developing new ways to improve their business, West Hills Honda been chosen as the winner of Powersports Business magazine's Bold Ideas Contest.

Below are some of the dealership's Bold Ideas. Click here to read about the culture that spawned them.

RIDE RED AND GO GREEN

West Hill Honda's Ride Red and Go Green initiative sprouted from a conversation between technician Eric Ierardo and Controller Kimberlee Love.

The men hired to take away the dealership's old tires were telling each of them a different story: one was told the tires were being recycled, the other that they were headed for a landfill.

When the team researched the tire recycling programs available, they found Liberty Tire of Minerva, Ohio, would recycle them at $1.35 per tire, which was less than the rate they were paying to dump them into a landfill. The used tires are turned into rubber mulch for playgrounds.

Next, Ierardo started looking for a company that would recycle the dealership's oil filters. FCC Environmental not only provided that service, it also recycles the dealership's used oil and antifreeze.

Parts Manager Matt Houy then suggested the dealership use drum oil rather than plastic quart-size oil containers, a change that has dramatically decreased the amount of garbage the dealership produces and is less expensive. He also has pushed forward the use of cardboard boxes rather than plastic bags.

The team discovered Waste Management would recycle all of its paper products, and Staples not only accepts used printer cartridges, the dealership gets money back for recycling them.

In addition, West Hills Honda has done away with direct mail for new purchasers, service follow-up, birthdays and more, switching instead to e-mail. Earlier this year, the employees participated in a successful campaign to obtain customers' and prospects' e-mail addresses. Not only has this saved paper, it has saved the dealership money.

So far, the company has promoted its "green" initiative through its e-mail newsletter and through brochures placed on countertops throughout the dealership. Love says the company plans to research and adopt aluminum and plastic recycling programs before she starts sending out Ride Red and Go Green press releases.

REFERRAL REWARDS PROGRAM

West Hills Honda Sales Manager Bob Sherbondy started out as a customer. But it wasn't long before the ATV enthusiast brought his sales experience to bear at his new job, creating a customer referral program.

"One of the most important signs of success in a business is when a person that buys off of you has such a great experience that they tell someone else about it with that passion and enthusiasm," he comments.

That's why Sherbondy says he doesn't inform customers about the program up front. He doesn't want them referring their friends and family to West Hills Honda just to get the $25 "thank you" gift. Rather, the dealership has a policy of asking customers where they heard of West Hills Honda. If they say they were referred by someone else, he marks the person's name in his own booklet and in a box on the sales sheet. Then, he sends the customer who referred them a letter and a $25 gift certificate. By noting the referral both on the sales sheet and in his personal records, the dealership ensures it doesn't fall through the cracks.

Sherbondy admits that some customers are reluctant to give out the name of someone who has referred them. As a result, he has missed a few referrals over the years. But when the customer comes in and mentions that his buddy bought a bike from the dealership, he makes sure to immediately send them a thank you gift.

Since the program was launched about two years ago, West Hill Honda has sold 62 bikes from referrals.

NEWSPAPER COLUMN

When Controller Kimberlee Love learned the editor of the Pittsburg Post-Gazette's Pittsburg Rides column had called, asking if she'd like to contribute monthly, it was an easy decision.

Not only does she have a background in journalism, "I'm a press release junkie. I'll write letters to the editor. Anything I can get out there for free for the dealership is a huge benefit for us," she says.

The column, to which she has been contributing for seven or eight months, lists West Hills Honda as part of Love's byline, and it is published not only in the newspaper, but on the newspaper's Web site. The dealership often purchases the banner ad above the column, and Love tracks how many people link from the column to the West Hills Honda site. She says it is consistently one of the top 10 sources of traffic to the site.

"In Pennsylvania, you can't buy a list of motorcycle owners as you can in other states," she explains. "And we don't like to spend our money on broad-based media like radio."

The columns promote West Hills Honda indirectly, she suggests. For example, in a piece she wrote on targeting women riders, she shared what she thinks some dealerships do wrong.

"It was a good way to let people know we treat women well in this dealership," Love explains.

CUSTOMER LOUNGE

When West Hills Honda President and General Manager John Bergman says the dealership is part of his employees' life, he's not exaggerating.

The group likes to play jokes on each other. They often ride together. They'll occasionally go out to the movies on a weekend. His controller and parts manager have taken a cooking class together. And some team members car pool to work.

Another example comes from F&I Manager Andy Pampena. When only a few weeks after being hired, he was driving by a local bar and saw that they were replacing their tables and chairs and throwing out the old ones, he thought of West Hill Honda.

Together, the team cleaned them up, repainted them, reupholstered the seats and put the Honda wing on them, creating a customer lounge within the store.

"My title is finance manager, but I've helped out in sales, turned wrenches, cleaned bikes. I even do the windows here," Pampena says. "I think a lot of it comes back to who you work with. At the auto dealership, we would stand around and watch them wash the windows."

2 comments

  1. Great article, we need to hear more about this sort of thing. I agree with this philosophy, and am always looking for new ideas to promote the appropriate culture in our industry.

    Peter

  2. I enjoyed this Liz and completely agree. A company's culture is the heart and soul of the organization. When met economic tough times, companies with a solid core or sound foundation built upon a positive culture find ways of persevering.

    Cam Collins

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