How Stacey Gillman Wimbish led The Gillman Cos. through a tough automotive climate

Stacey Gillman Wimbish, President, The Gillman Cos.

When Stacey Gillman Wimbish was named president of The Gillman Cos. in 2008, she didn’t have much time to enjoy being named to her new position. She took over right at the height of the economic recession, and in just one day in November, she had to let go of 150 of the company’s then 900 employees. The recession’s full force had fallen on the automotive industry. The Big Three, Ford, GM and Chrysler, were all in financial trouble and that meant that dealerships would suffer, too.

“That’s what faced us during the recession and our reaction was to cut expenses, and that meant employee count, and it was really, really hard rebuilding,” Gillman Wimbish says. “There was nothing we could do about it.”

Although it seemed like nothing was going right in the auto industry, Gillman Wimbish remained focused and rallied her employees to adapt to changes in order to push forward and leave the past in the past.

The $500 million 760-employee owner and operator of 14 car dealerships has had to fight through unprecedented recessionary times as well as inventory setbacks due to the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan earlier this year.

Here’s how Gillman Wimbish pushed through the recession and an uncertain industry to keep The Gillman Cos. performing as one of the top car dealerships in Texas.

Brace for change

To say the condition of the auto industry wasn’t good in 2008 and 2009 is an understatement. The industry was severely underperforming and the companies at the forefront were in the midst of federal bailouts. In an industry that is hot one minute and cold the next, you have to be ready for change.

“During the recession here in Texas, we had two direct-hit hurricanes on our business, we had $4 gas, at least 70 to 80 percent of all customers financed their cars and lenders stopped lending,” Gillman Wimbish says. “General Motors went bankrupt, and we have two General Motors stores. Pontiac dissolved. Dealers were getting letters in the mail saying we’re not going to renew your sales and service agreements. Thankfully, Gillman didn’t get one of those letters, but it was a very high-stress time.”

When chaos is happening all around you, you have to have a plan ready to move forward and be able to communicate that plan throughout your organization.

“Today, we say, ‘Let’s work; don’t worry,’” she says. “These times demand change. You have change whether it’s natural disasters or poor economic conditions or internal management restructuring; change is hard on your employees. The best way to approach it is to have a plan. You can make mistakes along the way but have a plan [and] communicate the plan: ‘This is what we’re going to do to get through this.’ Lay out expectations and be consistent with your message. Make sure you stay the course and don’t bounce around with your plan. If you can do that, then the best part is at the end when you can thank your team for making it through.”

A plan is only good if it accomplishes the goals you have set to achieve. Make sure that what you plan to do can be measured and improved upon year after year.

“It’s always best to keep it simple,” she says. “Whatever you decide to do, whatever plan you come up with, you have to make sure you measure it so you can tell if the plan is working. When you ask folks to change their routine, it is a matter of presenting your plan and training them on how you want it done, defining expectations and then constantly measuring. My weapon of choice is hard facts. We measure ourselves against everything — against other car dealers, other name plates and, of course, fierce and fun internal rankings. If you can measure it, then you can improve it. That’s how you can monitor what changes you’re trying to instill.”

Change is an ongoing process that your entire organization has to be on board with in order for your company to be able to ride the fluctuations of an uncertain industry.

“You can never stop changing,” she says. “The times are moving too fast to relax. If it’s not hurricane readiness or economic meltdowns or $4 gas coming back or a tsunami on the other side of the world, you have to react and go faster. You have to have folks that will change. If you have employees too set in their ways, then they need to go. We don’t do anything the old way. Old wisdom serves you well, but new technology will make you better and stronger and faster. You can never stop changing and looking for ways to go faster. At the same time, you have to be able to keep calm and carry on. You have to breathe when these curveballs come up. Don’t lose control and don’t give up.”

Learn from experiences

Over the past year and a half, the auto industry has made a big comeback. However, it wasn’t long until some car dealers had to withstand inventory shortages due to the natural disasters that struck Japan in early 2011.

“In this environment, it’s been very nice to have some diversity,” Gillman Wimbish says of having both domestic and import dealerships. “The recession is over so the most recent challenge has been the tsunami and the earthquake that happened on the other side of the world. The ripple effect is production of these cars and that means that our summer inventories are going to be very low. Instead of selling 1,300 new cars, we’ll probably be down to 1,000. So we’re going to be down 30 percent. Through the first four months of 2011, we’ve been on a post-recession high. It’s been an exciting 25 percent increase over last year, but now we have another setback to last year’s sales levels, and sadly, that’s going to rob us of the best-selling months of the year.”

What The Gillman Cos. endured three years ago will play a big role in how the company gets through any future tough times. Just realizing that change is a crucial part of your business can make adaptation easier.

“We’re not planning to just turn off our marketing or suffer through the lack of sales volume,” she says. “We did that during the recession, but we’re not doing that now. In fact, we’re going to do exactly the opposite. We’re going to press on, and we are going to have to change a little bit and sell both new and used cars. We’re going to provide a clear path, stay the course, and offer a lot of reassurance that the dealership is financially strong, and together, we can handle all these curveballs.”

That mentality in a leader is critical in order to be resilient. However, that mentality has to carry throughout the company in order for employees to know they can help.

“I have a great team at the top, but I can’t do it all,” she says. “If you involve more people and you involve them in your recovery plan, that will help make you more efficient. If you tell your employees and managers the challenges that you’re facing, they can be part of the solution. They will offer to step up and help and that will bring you closer together. When you all pull together, it becomes that much easier to pull through.”

Part of pulling together and getting help from the employees around you is being honest and open with them about what is happening in the company.

“One of the things that we have done really well through these hardships is we disclose,” Gillman Wimbish says. “There are a lot of companies out there that hide a lot of their financial statements. We disclose our financial statements and encourage department managers to dig in and find ways that we can be more efficient. There’s not an account within Gillman Cos. that’s a secret. If you create a culture of, ‘They don’t need to know,’ that’s not using the tools you have at your disposal. You need as many eyeballs helping you as you can or else you’re limiting your success. You’re limiting yourself if you don’t disclose your hardships, successes and challenges.

“You should also tell the truth. Employees get worried and they don’t want to hear what’s happening from the ‘Today Show,’ they’d rather hear it from you. Tell the truth, whether it’s good or bad, don’t cover anything up. It’s important, and it’s actually reassuring to them. I’m amazed at how many team members step up and help us through something because they want to feel like they are part of the solution.”

Look through the customer’s lens

Change is not and cannot be the only way a company gets past tough times. A company has to also look at what it is best at and continue to do that and improve it. For Gillman, that meant customer service.

“You have to look at things through the customer’s lens,” Gillman Wimbish says. “I want to treat every customer as if they were my neighbor. They need to get a quality product that you stand behind, sold with honesty and integrity, follow up after the sale and have sincere appreciation for their business. There is a ton of competition out there and the only thing that sets you apart is the service you provide.”

Gillman not only wants to make new customers, but prides itself on having repeat business. If your company doesn’t emphasize customer service and process improvement, you will lose out to companies that do.

“If you treat everyone as if they were your neighbor that you’re going to see everyday … and your neighbor is happy with you, then they will send you more customers,” she says. “You can’t be hiding behind the bushes trying to avoid things. You need to see your processes and customer touch points through the customer’s eyes. You can always do a much, much better job of this. Have customer touch point meetings within your management. You may think your website is clear and full of all the data that is relevant, but is that what the customer is looking for? You need to do more think tanks about the customers’ needs and wants.”

While putting yourself in the shoes of your customers is a crucial part of improving service, you have to also make sure that employees are enjoying the work that they do.

“Another thing that CEOs have to understand is that employee satisfaction equals customer satisfaction,” she says. “We have 760 employees, and if the one employee that you encounter has a bad attitude that day, then you translate that as a poor reflection on the whole face of Gillman. So you need to sincerely have solid employee satisfaction in order to provide a good reflection and a good impression on your customers. You want your employees to be proud of where they work and you want them to have clear direction in their job and confidence in management. If your employees take pride in where they work, they will perform there jobs with confidence.”

Improving the levels of satisfaction among customers and employees takes measuring and monitoring. Competition is what will let you know whether improvement is needed.

“We love competition,” she says. “We love to win, and we’re not afraid of our results, even if we’re in last place in a certain ranking. I won’t ever hide from that, and through awareness of that and getting my teams input, we’ll climb the ladder and improve. In order to monitor, you have to measure. No matter where you are, if you can measure it and keep the awareness in front of folks, you can improve. Don’t try and do too much all at once. Break it up into pieces.”

Climbing the ranking ladder comes back to the satisfaction of your customers and employees. It has to be your top priority to stay out in front of your competitors.

“It’s a fun, happy environment that you have to try and create, because happy employees will equal happy customers,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask the customers. Ask them where they’re having problems or where the clogs are and then try to modify based on that feedback. You may think you have the greatest processes in place. You need to have a few meetings specifically pretending to be a customer and try to gauge how they feel about that. You have to challenge yourself to think through their lens.”

HOW TO REACH: The Gillman Cos., (713) 776-7000 or www.gillmanauto.com

The Gillman Wimbish File

Stacey Gillman Wimbish

President

The Gillman Cos.

Born: Houston

Education: Attended the University of Texas

What is the first car you ever had?

A red 1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am.

If you could choose one car on your lot to drive, what would you choose?

I’m driving a Nissan Armada because it holds kids and dogs.

Who is somebody that you admire in business?

My dad, Ramsay Gillman, and my former boss and former COO, Jay Gould. Both of them allowed me to make a lot of mistakes and learn from them.

Remembering Ramsay Gillman: It is with deep sadness and regret that I must announce the death of Ramsay Gillman, my father and our board chairman. Ramsay died at age 67 at his home on Friday, June 3. We miss his guidance, wisdom, affection and humor. He was an inspiration to me, my brothers and my co-workers.

Ramsay followed his father into the car business starting at Frank Gillman Pontiac GMC in downtown Houston. He grew our company from one dealership to 14 in five different cities across our great state. His vision and determination will be hard to match.

My dad’s strong discipline and customer service excellence has been instilled in our dealerships and will continue to guide us in the future. His principles of honesty and integrity will continue to lead us as we move forward.

One card I received read, ‘We will never be the same as we were before this loss, but we are ever so much better for having had something so great to lose.

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