For George W. “Buddy” Byers Jr., management is like professional football: You’ve got to pay to put the right players in place. Once you do, treat them right, and they’ll stay and play their hearts out for you.
Premium wages, autonomy and a literal open-door policy form the platform for an enviably low turnover rate and a winning team at Byers Auto Group. It’s a club that’s never had a losing season in 110 years of operation. From days of the horse and buggy to the era of the space shuttle, the company’s never ended a year in the red.
For Byers, the third link in a generational chain of family owner-stockholders and chairman of the board of Byers Holding Co., that’s a trickle-down thing that starts with good help at the top.
“Our whole company has been built on hiring good managers, hiring good people, hiring good telephone operators,” he says. “If a professional football team needs a new quarterback, they go buy one. They’ll pay millions of dollars for him. If we need a good manager, we find the best one in our area, and we try to hire them.”
And if that means paying top dollar, then it’s worth it in the end. “We try to pay high scale for good people,” he says. “We know what a market is for certain people, and we try to pay more than that. We find that if we do that and we pay well, they’ll stay with us, and they’ll do a good job. You have to have good employees to make money.”
Let managers manage
If there’s one thing Buddy Byers can’t stand, it’s too many rules in a business that changes every day. Those shifts in market conditions have made him a laissez-faire leader to some extent.
“You have to be ready to make decisions immediately about what to do. That’s the reason I don’t put any strings on people,” he says.
He’s taken note of recent media reports of autocratic leaders of major corporations who came in with rules and shows of authority and were shown the door. It happened at one of the brands of autos that Byers sells.
“Every morning, I was getting something from him about what I had to do,” he says. “After a year and a half, dealers said, ‘Hey, get rid of him,’ so they fired him.”
So when he hires a general manager for a dealership or promotes from within, he knows what he’s getting into. A wide swath of leeway goes with that, a kind of confidence that can unnerve a new manager at first.
“If we go out and hire a general manager and he’s been working for other dealers where there’s control, he can’t believe he can spend $50,000 on advertising and not ask about it,” he says. “That really helps him. He can make decisions quickly. If he had to get approval, he wouldn’t get anything done. We’re relying on him to make a good call.
“I had one manager that every time he wanted to do something, he’d call me. ‘Don’t call me. Just go ahead and do it,’ I’d tell him. He’s definitely living up to it. If you give them a lot of responsibility, they make a better manager, I believe.”
You also have to keep a close watch on what your employees think of the organization and deal with potential problems so that you keep your turnover low.
An annual employee satisfaction survey, which can be completed anonymously, seeks to gauge how happy Byers’ 780 employees are. The answers get close scrutiny as Byers and his team seek to keep morale finely tuned.
“Our employee satisfaction is very high,” he says. “I’d say the automotive business probably has a lot of turnover, but if you pay good wages, you won’t have turnover.”
And while the economy’s rumblings over the past 18 months have caused many businesses to cut back, Byers hasn’t let a single employee go.
“They’re too hard to replace,” he says.
There’s a distinctly egalitarian thread running through the company’s cultural upholstery.
For the head of one of the top 10 privately owned companies in Columbus, which had sales of $315 million in 2006, Buddy Byers’ doors are very open literally.
“I have a door, but it’s never closed; I don’t even have a key to it,” he says. “If a manager has a serious problem, he knows where he can go to talk with owners to discuss it with them. In many companies, to get to the owner or CEO is very tough. I’m on the same floor as the girls who do the title work.”
Three years ago, the company instituted random drug screening for employees and drug screening for all new hires. Through the luck of the draw, it turned out to be an immediate test of the company’s round-table philosophy.
“The first person to be called up at random happened to be me,” he says. “The girl was afraid to tell me. I told her, ‘Tell me what doctors to go to, and I’ll do it.’ I did it.”
Byers passed; others did not. A few employees left the company because of positive drug tests. Others were weeded out before getting a job offer.
It’s all part of the egalitarian philosophy, and it applies to all members of the family.
Almost six decades ago, Byers started humbly in the parts department; his late uncle and CEO before him, Frank Byers Sr., started in the service department and was famed for being able to fix just about anything at the dealership. Each family member who comes in earns his or her place, learning the nuts and bolts of the car business.
“They’ve all started not as bosses,” Byers says. “There’s no family member who’s just put in as vice president. They have to earn it over 10 or 20 years.”
Being an effective leader sometimes means doing more than just business.
“Every day, we have an employee that has a problem, and we definitely try to help them you’ve got to be a doctor, a lawyer, a banker and a marriage counselor,” he says. “You’ve got to be all those to keep employees happy.”
And if you are running a family business, you have to lead by example. Giving family members within the organization special privileges can lead to trouble.
“We don’t have a lot of rules, and we’ve survived,” he says. “But I’ve always taught them that we have to be there we expect the employees to be early, so for us, it’s the same. I’m the chairman of the board, coming up on 60 years I’ve worked here, and I think people respect me being the boss. I’m here; I eat lunch with them every day. I think that’s very important being close to the employees.”
Keep the customer satisfied
Over 11 decades, service is what Byers says has differentiated his company in a crowded market.
“If you could buy a car for $100 less somewhere else and we were $100 more, it’s surprising how many people would pay $100 to get the service or to get the name,” he says. “Our name is very well-respected. I wonder what the name Wendy’s or McDonald’s is worth to their companies? Millions.”
Byers’ branding consistency extends outside the dealership doors to the neighborhoods where Byers Auto Group is a good corporate citizen, to the boards Buddy Byers sits on and to the day each December when the company rolls out a list of 30 lucky charitable organizations it donates to in a $250,000 charitable footprint.
And with ad campaigns that can easily shell out $50,000 in one fell swoop, Byers is keenly aware of what his marketing dollars yield and how to protect that investment by swiftly addressing customer complaints.
“It takes about $800 in advertising to get a customer in if it’s a $300 adjustment, you’d be stupid not to give it to them,” he says.
When he talks about customer needs, the name of the Wendy’s mega burger chain comes up more than once. The uniform standards across every franchise of every chair and every napkin from a single source and every floor and every restroom immaculate appeal to his meticulous nature.
For Byers, cleanliness is next to profitability. “If it’s dirty, it’s not good,” he says. “If it’s a good environment, people like to buy. The key to pleasing the public is a good environment.”
The no-surprises policy extends to every customer contact and that often starts on the phone, he says.
“All of our operators are overpolite,” Byers says. “If the caller has to go two or three different places to find the answer to a question, that’s bad. They’re instructed to do what they have to do to keep the customer happy. Don’t be a sourpuss, that’s all.”
And when Byers goes out for a good meal, at Wendy’s or a five-star restaurant, that’s what he expects, too. Snooty waiters don’t impress him much, but a courteous and friendly wait staff?
“That’s a double tip,” he says.
HOW TO REACH: Byers Holding Co. and Byers Auto Group, www.byersauto.com