Forward momentum Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

Even in high school, Emanuel D. Jones knew he was destined for business success when, as a member of a Junior Achievement program, he was elected president of his group’s mini-company.

After graduating from two Ivy League schools, Jones did a stint as an electrical engineer but soon realized that punching the corporate clock wasn’t for him. When his cousin’s fiance told him about a leadership academy at General Motors, his interest was piqued, but when he called, he was told he needed 10 years of management experience and $100,000 to get into its dealer academy.

Jones had neither but was accepted anyway. He founded his first dealership 16 years ago and has since built Legacy Automotive Group into a $149 million family of car dealerships. As president and owner of the group, he also serves as a District 10 state senator, which he says wouldn’t be possible if he were punching someone else’s time clock.

Smart Business spoke with Jones about how to keep your business moving forward and why sometimes you have to fire your best salesperson.

Build your culture. (Employees) have to feel that you’re accessible and feel there’s an open door. They have to really feel you are a good listener and that you have a vested interest in their success and not the other way around, where they have a vested interest in your success.

That’s something you have to do every single day — when they see you, when you’re there, when you greet them in the morning, it could be as simple as a handshake or a ‘Hello, how are you?’ I don’t stay in the office. I’d rather hang out in the service lane or be on the sales floor.

Be someone that is open — value diverse opinions. You cannot be a person who is going to attempt to impose your will on someone else because they will know right away.

I grew up on a poor side of town. I lost my parents by the time I was 11, and as long as you remain humbled and true to those things that helped you get where you are, people see that humbleness in you.

It is all of those little things that you do that’s going to imprint yourself on them, and they’ll know this person really does care and does have our best interest at heart.

When you do that, you can provide opportunities where all employees come together in a social setting, and they will start forming this dynamic culture that will be beneficial in moving the organization forward.

Encourage learning. We have an annual Christmas gathering, and it’s an opportunity for everyone to get together in a different setting.

It’s important because at work, too often, employees get labeled. If I’m a technician, I get labeled as a technician, but when I’m at home or in my church environment, I may be a deacon or a leader in the community. My parts manager is an ordained minister who pastors a church and has a fairly large congregation.

You can learn from those other experiences they have. Learning really is a lifelong pursuit, a lifelong goal. Though you may be accomplished in an area, there is still so much more to do. I thought I had accomplished in the automobile industry, but when I ran for public office four years ago, I knew nothing about politics, particularly politics at the state level, so I sought out to learn. Always look to learn, and never be afraid to look at new frontiers.

Life evolves. The elderly are a resource to the younger generations. They’re going to look to us, and I have three kids of my own, and they look to me to inspire and motivate them. The Internet wasn’t around 15 years ago. Things evolve. Technology changes a lot of what we do every single day, and if you don’t continually seek to learn, then you’re going to be antiquated and outdated, and your own kid isn’t even going to listen to you.

Be fair. Sometimes, you have to be the disciplinarian, and you have to terminate people, yet when you terminate someone, you want to be able to go home and say that you made the right decision.

I told managers and employees that no one has a smoking gun around here — no one can quickly fire someone. Make sure no one’s rights are trampled upon when they are terminated.

That takes time. You can’t just look at an isolated incident. Look at where that person is at in their life, what experiences they’re dealing with and what they’re going through. At any given time, you’ll have employees going through personal situations that will impact their work performance.

You need to measure their performance. If you’re in sales, look at someone’s productivity — how many cars are they selling today? How many people are they talking to today? What’s their closing ratio? There’s a lot of quantitative analysis that you can do, but, in the end, it is still a judgment call because there’s some qualitative issues you have to consider.

Are those customers happy with their experience? I’ve had to fire my best salesperson before. It was the qualitative issues. His numbers were looking real good, but I and some others had the sense that things were just not on the up-and-up. Some of the feedback we got from customers tended to point in that direction. Yeah, this person lies a lot.

Those kinds of things — short term, you’ll benefit, but long term, it drags the organization down. You want to build customers for life, but if that customer remembers that experience, they might not come back.

HOW TO REACH: Legacy Automotive Group, or