Steve Germain had some tough decisions to make. Even the area’s largest auto group, Germain Motor Co., hadn’t been immune from the 2008-09 economic recession.

The auto industry overall experienced a 35 percent drop in sales in November 2008. The next month, Germain had to lay off 60 workers. The following August, he closed Germain Chevrolet, a dealership earmarked by General Motors to be shut down.

“It went from bad to worse, and it really did force me to re-evaluate my strategies and priorities, and once we got through that time, we fortunately were in a position to review the way we did business,” he says.

Germain, president and CEO of the $914 million company, saw the situation not only as his biggest challenge, but also his golden opportunity to improve what he saw as the key to getting more done with less ? employee engagement.

If he could get employees more engaged in their work, it would offer a long-term solution to lower costs and boost productivity. And with 1,042 employees in 18 dealerships over four states, that was a tall order.

“The only way that you can do that is that employees need to have a better understanding of the direction of the company, and you have to get more people going in that same direction,” Germain says. “Then you can get more done with less. You can’t get more done with less if they are less engaged or no more engaged than they were five years ago.”

Germain was committed to the idea and felt it was crucial for employees to understand that he and his top level managers supported the initiative.

Here’s how Germain has been able to get employees more involved in their workplace environment, more willing to contribute ideas, and on the way, earn more for themselves and the company.

Seize the opportunity

To help employees get a better idea of the direction of a company, Germain realized there may be no better time than a recession when employees are concerned about job security. Employees are more willing to make changes, at least in the short term, which could lead to long-term benefits.

Germain first studied the importance of employee engagement, understanding the value of increased productivity and attendance, customer focus and generating support of change. Those areas would define the direction of the company.

“Those things are all tremendous benefits,” Germain says. “When you’re trying to drive down costs and increase productivity, engaged employees, in my mind, are the low-hanging fruit.”

He found that new employees, in general, are more engaged than older employees ? and it gave him an opportunity to use that information to look for ways to sustain that engagement in new employees and rekindle it in older employees.

“Sometimes your best salespeople are the new ones that you hire,” Germain says. “Their first month is their best month. Then their sales start to fall off.

“Why? It’s perhaps because their level of engagement starts to drop. Their engagement drops, their productivity drops.”

Statistics show that employee engagement drops 9 percent in the first year and 12 percent in the second year.

Germain established that the key was to keep the engagement level where it was, to keep employees as excited and feeling as good about their decision in year five as on day one.

“If you can do that, there’s no question that you can be a leader in your industry as it relates to revenues,” he says.

He realized that he had the opportunity to engage employees now more than before because they were more willing to listen to senior management.

“Prior to the recession, they didn’t listen to me quite as much as they listen to me now, right or wrong,” Germain says. “I think my message is better, and I think I’m communicating better, I have dealership meetings every six weeks, and I have the opportunity now to influence the way that our employees go about our business.

“But you have to work at it. It’s a lot of work to engage employees, even in today’s environment, but there is an opportunity now that maybe we didn’t have prerecession.”

Once Germain made the cost-cutting moves to weather the recession and sold himself on what needed to be done, it was time to recover ? and discover the hidden talents of his employees.

The second step was to determine the current level of workforce engagement. Simply put, the engaged employee is one who will go the extra mile to bring a high level of satisfaction to the customer. If you don’t know how willing your employees are to give the extra effort, you’re not going to be able to know where you need to be. One of the simplest methods is to conduct a survey.

“If you go around asking your employees are you engaged, what are they going to tell you?” Germain says. “Or, what are they going to tell their superior? Through a survey, they will be more honest than they will be otherwise.”

Germain made sure the survey asked frank questions, such as “Do you feel valued as an employee?” and “Do you feel your opinion counts?” It was important to cover all the bases to get as true a picture as possible.

“That’s part of the pain,” he says. “We did see a higher than average score (with an overall grade of 3.83 out of 5 with a 54 percent response), but we also saw a lot of opportunities where we could improve.”

To get the information, Germain chose online survey company Survey Monkey, which he felt was aligned with what he was trying to accomplish. Employees were assured their responses were anonymous.

“It’s important that if you go through the survey process, you encourage your employees to return it,” Germain says. “Do the survey by department; it’s important to understand by department, but you certainly don’t want to know by individual.”

Germain and his staff decided that to be of continued value, surveys should be taken on a regular basis, perhaps twice a year. That way, results could be compared over time and any progress or setbacks could be noted.

Choose where to start

Once he thought he had a good idea of the pulse of the work force, it was time for Germain to devise plans to get people going in the same direction.

The first task was to review the survey results to see what was suggested most often ? and to determine if it supported the goal of more employee engagement.

Employee surveys often point out several concerns, and Germain expected to find some enlightening comments.

“I was surprised that the level of engagement wasn’t higher; we pride ourselves on knowing our people as best we can, but we still saw huge gaps between what we think and what they think,” Germain says. “It’s as important to understand what they think as it is for them to know what I think.”

Common themes that are often mentioned by employees on surveys are management and communication. Openness between management and associates is necessary if the goal to generate support for change to succeed.

In that respect, Germain felt that employee suggestions for mechanisms to express their views should be taken seriously.

As a response to employee concerns, Germain and his management team created employee committees, one for each dealership. The director of human resources initially chaired the committee. Managers selected the members in the first go-around, and the hope is that the committees will become such a voice within the dealership that employees will actively seek positions on the committees. Feedback is expressed in a forum-like atmosphere.

“That’s something we are very excited about,” he says. “Members include one representative from each department, and they meet once a month.”

“You put together your ‘worker bees’ and they are going to be the ones to address employee engagement,” says Tessa Pekarcik, director of human resources. “Steve or I can talk until we are blue in the face about how we think this is the way the operation should run, and if employees don’t agree with it, that doesn’t increase engagement. Employees are going to be more receptive to their peers.”

Germain wanted to make members of the committee aware that the group is for the employees to help make the best work environment that they could have. In that respect, the committees are composed of members who aren’t necessarily going to tell you everything you want to hear ? they will be brutally honest.

Work with your findings

As committees started their meetings, employee members were encouraged to express their ideas and concerns. Now the real work began as discussions focused on potential solutions.

One of the first orders of business was to stress how important it was for employees to know that the committee members were going to be their voice ? as in a representative government. Results of the survey were shared with members at the first meeting for discussion, and the groups were urged to maintain their focus because it is easy to fall into the trap of just talking about grievances. Random discussions are avoided because they lead nowhere.

“With the committee, we try not to go off on tangents complaining about what is wrong,” says Jessica Germain, general manager of Germain Honda of Dublin, who attends her committee’s meetings.

“These things are issues that you can’t change, but working with what you have, what you can do ? that will have a positive impact on the community of employees.”

Once she found that issues such as trust among departments, accountability and teamwork were initial concerns in regard to improving employee engagement, employees were able to put the concerns in the context of having all departments’ best interests in mind.

When it comes to specific solutions, employees will decide what they think is the best manner to improve employee engagement.

“If you allow the employees to decide what they think is the best way to increase engagement, you’re going to end up increasing engagement even more,” Pekarcik says. “That is going to earn them money. That is going to end up making the company money.”

While employee engagement may be measured more in intangible results rather than sales volumes, Germain thinks that having the employee committees says that management does care, and that he and the dealership general managers are willing to listen.

“I really feel that having the employee committees has sent the right message and created more of a teamwork-type atmosphere,” Jessica Germain says.

As Steve Germain began the engagement efforts, he was willing to allow that it would take some time to see results of the initiatives.

“It’s a long-term strategy,” he says. “We’re not going to see our score go from 3.83 to 4.2 overnight. It’s going to take years.”

The initiatives, after all, are for the long-term survival of the company, and Germain hopes to turn it over to the fourth generation some day.

“You start that now, and 10 years from now, you will be a highly engaged company, and your margins will be greater than your competition,” he says. “You will have more sales than your competition, you will be able to attract and find the best people in the industry and they will be willing to stay longer.”

How to reach: Germain Motor Co., (614) 416-3377 or www.germain.com

The Germain File

Born: Columbus, Ohio

Education: Denison University. A good school and a good experience. I was a physical education major and got my teaching degree and thought maybe I might want to teach history and football. But I got into the car business. I never taught. I felt that there was more opportunity at that time to support a wife and perhaps children down the road by getting into the family business.

What was your first job?

My first job was a salesman down at my grandfather’s Fort Lauderdale Lincoln-Mercury dealership in 1978. That was a lot of fun for 22-year-old kid. I had a great time and learned how to sell cars. If I didn’t sell anything, I didn’t make any money. It was straight commission. I did that for a year. I finally talked my dad into hiring me into the family business and coming up here. The rest is history.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

My dad, Bob Germain, made it very clear that our employees are our greatest asset. He told me that early on, and he believed that. I’ve communicated that to our employees for the last 30 years. Every time I have a meeting, I would say that our employees are our greatest asset. Regardless of the franchises that we have, the buildings or the facilities that we utilize, our employees are our greatest asset.

What is your definition of business success?

Obviously, revenue over expenses. But it’s more than just that. It’s about running a good business, and a good business is not all about the bottom line, bottom-line sales, bottom -line profits. It’s about improving the lives of not only the family but of your associates. It gives me great pride when I see employees get married, have children, buy houses and invest in real estate or college education. I feel some sense of being a part of that. It’s a good feeling because as they are successful, I know that I’m successful financially and personally.

Published in Columbus
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