It was early 2009 when Gregory Jackson realized he might have a ticking time bomb on his hands.
Jackson is the founder, president and CEO of Jackson Automotive Management. Two years ago, the company owned Ford, Toyota, Mercedes Benz, Scion and Saturn dealerships in Michigan and Florida. The dealerships generated $1 billion in sales in 2008 and employed about 550 people.
But over the span of about six months from late 2008 to early 2009, the dominoes started to fall. A series of violent shockwaves hit the American automotive industry as the economy sank into its worst recession since the 1930s. ? General Motors and Chrysler both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and, subsequently, underwent reorganization and streamlining. GM committed to moving forward with the Cadillac, GMC, Buick and Chevrolet brands, leaving the corporation to either find new owners for the Saturn, Pontiac, Hummer and Saab brands or discontinue them.
Jackson owned five Saturn dealerships, comprising half of his work force, which spent half a year on edge waiting for a definite word on Saturn’s future. In the summer of 2009, after a deal between GM and Penske Automotive Group fell through, months of waiting and wondering culminated with the worst fears of Jackson and his staff realized: Saturn was done. All new production was halted in October 2009, and all retail franchises would be closed by the end of October 2010.
“I can’t sugarcoat it. It was stressful, and it was very disheartening,” Jackson says. “There is nothing worse than to know someone’s family, walk in and tell them that they don’t have a job anymore — particularly when these were successful, profitable businesses just yesterday. There was a lot of crying among people. It was very emotional, due to the loss of jobs and the financial hardship you knew people were going to be under, both employees and managers.”
The death of Saturn tested Jackson as a leader and a communicator. He had to pilot his business through a devastating blow to morale and five dealerships’ worth of lost revenue, which dropped his company’s 2009 sales to $600 million.
What the circumstances reinforced to him was the principles of good business leadership: Keep your employees informed and make wise financial decisions.
Keep information flowing
The hardest pill to swallow for the employees at Jackson’s Saturn dealer was the fact that Saturn was a moneymaker for Jackson’s company. The cars were selling and the brand was still popular. When viewed from the store level, there was no reason to believe the dealers should ever be in danger of closing.
But car dealers are caught in the middle, between the purchasing habits of consumers and the top-level decisions of the automakers that supply the product. If one or the other stops supporting the dealer, the business is in jeopardy.
In any business situation, you have to realize what you can and can’t control. You can’t control market fluctuations, but you can control how your business prepares for and reacts to the fluctuations.
At Jackson Automotive Management, Jackson and his leadership team couldn’t control what was happening at GM headquarters, but they could control the flow of information.
“When we were going through all of this with Saturn, what we did was share information on an almost daily basis,” Jackson says. “We were getting information almost daily, when Penske was going to buy Saturn and then all of that blew up after we thought it was a done deal. When GM first announced it was going to close Saturn, there was some question as to whether they were really going to do it.”
With many questions bouncing around the shop and showroom floor and with few answers evident, Jackson kept in contact with the general managers of his Saturn dealers, making sure they had the latest and most comprehensive information available to disseminate to employees.
“Almost daily, the general managers were walking around their stores, fielding questions from employees,” Jackson says. “It was not unusual for the general manager to walk through the service department and a couple of technicians would come up and ask about something they had heard floating around. Before you knew it, five or six technicians would be up there talking to the general manager.
“The general manager would say, ‘I have this e-mail. Here is the latest word I’ve heard; you know as much as I know.’ The employees were appreciative of that. They took all the information in, and then they’d go and tell the rest of the people in that department, so everyone was up to date. There was nothing for us to hide.”
It is difficult to be frank and deliver the unvarnished truth when the news could hurt your collective morale and possibly your bottom line. But if you don’t fill the need for information, your people will. The rumor mill will pick up steam as employees take bits and pieces of news and try to form conclusions. The end result is usually destructive.
“The reality is, we’re human beings, your workers are human beings and we’re emotional,” Jackson says. “They are affected by everything from talking to their neighbor over the back fence, to talking with the lady ahead of them in the grocery line, to talking with their buddy at the bar. All of these people are giving them different stories. So you want to stop the effects of that immediately.
“You might try to create a few distractions to keep people’s minds focused on something besides the bad news. We had an event where we took all employees to see a Red Wings hockey game. We had a big ‘Sex and the City’ movie premiere night. It was just trying to have a few fun things to reduce the outside distractions and keep people loyal to the business.”
An outing at a sporting event or a staff movie night can be beneficial for taking employees’ minds off of the problems that the business is facing. But if the time comes to deliver bad news, such as layoffs or cutbacks, Jackson says you should remember that all good communication is rooted in honesty. The bad news you deliver is still miles better than the bad news you don’t deliver or try to sugarcoat.
“I’d say you have to handle it delicately but directly,” he says. “Again, the worst thing you can do is to not be completely honest with people about what is going on. The news media, the rumor mill, it’s always going to be alive and active, and the worst thing you can do is to be less than honest and allow people to carry rumors with them. You lose a lot of faith and people are emotionally distraught. You don’t want them to do something unhealthy for them or for the business in a highly emotional time.”
Take a conservative approach
The loss of Saturn hurt Jackson Automotive Management with regard to morale, manpower and sales. But in spite of all the negative fallout, the business remained on solid financial footing. Jackson attributes the resilience to a conservative financial game plan in which he emphasized rainy-day planning.
To endure bad financial times, you need to lay the groundwork when times are more prosperous. Jackson lays the groundwork for future success by limiting the amount of debt his business shoulders.
“One of the good things about our business is that we’ve never had a lot of debt,” he says. “As a result, we did have some cash and were able to weather the storm. We didn’t come out unscathed, but we were still healthy. We’ve always run very tight with regard to our expense structure, so when a lot of people started dialing back their operations, we didn’t have to do a lot of dialing back. We were already efficient.”
With some cash available, Jackson was able to open a new Mitsubishi franchise in Florida, and transfer some of his Saturn employees there, helping to cushion the blow for at least some of his people.
To acquire financial flexibility when the economy goes sour, you need to refrain from overly aggressive spending when times are good and you have extra cash in the coffers. Just because you have the cash to spend on a new venture doesn’t mean you always have to do it. You have to know when to pounce on an opportunity that makes sense for your business and matches well with your business plan and when to hold back.
“My philosophy is that if you maintain a level of conservatism, then you never have to have a fire drill,” Jackson says. “A lot of businesses went into a fire-drill mentality, because they were overly aggressive and maybe even greedy. They may be full of what Warren Buffett calls irrational exuberance. But I think if you maintain a level of conservatism, while still being able to jump in and out of an aggressive mode when necessary, that’s a good balance. A certain level of conservatism breeds safety.”
If you are going to take a chance on a new business opportunity, make sure it makes sense for your situation and make sure you have performed detailed research on the market potential of the idea.
“Don’t leverage yourself too much from a debt standpoint,” Jackson says. “Be careful about building it and hoping they will come. Don’t go out and build without an absolute certainty that the market is there. That’s not what a lot of dealers did. A lot went in and overbuilt. They built buildings and leveraged themselves out with extreme debt. Then, as cash flow slowed down, they couldn’t make their payments. That happened to businesses as a whole, not just auto dealers. So you want to have more expense structure than you think you might need. I believe in running things more tightly as opposed to loose.”
The way you maintain that level of control is to measure your goals, your finances and your spending habits on an ongoing basis. At Jackson Automotive Management, each dealer communicates its projected needs for the coming year to Jackson and his corporate leadership team. Jackson wants his general managers to think along the lines of a CEO, taking a wide-angle view to the next year’s projected expenditures, so there are as few surprises as possible.
“If you’re anticipating needing extra personnel, giving them raises or bonuses, you plan that out, put it into your forecast and approval process,” Jackson says. “That’s as opposed to a random manager promising a raise to an employee and then you end up adding that overhead as you go. Or worse, promising a raise and then realizing you don’t have the financial ability to do it, and then you have a morale issue on your hands.
“You have to have good financial controls in place to pilot a business through a recession like this. You need to have those approval processes for capital expenditures and the adding of personnel. A lot of that involves good yearly planning, which ensures that you can maintain proper control over those types of things.”
How to reach: Jackson Automotive Management and Mercedes-Benz of St. Clair Shores, (586) 773-2369 or www.mercedesbenzofstclairshores.com
The Jackson file
founder, president and CEO
Jackson Automotive Management
Education: Bachelor of science degree, accounting, Morris Brown College; MBA, Clark Atlanta University Graduate School of Business
First job: When I was a kid, I used to work in the local stores in my neighborhood taking out garbage. I was the kid out there hauling two-by-fours when the men in the neighborhood were building something. Later on, I had a paper route.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
Cash is king. Without it, you can’t run your business. A lot of businesses are around now because they had cash, and they’re now poised to be major players because the industry has shrunk.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
You need to have a strong understanding of finance. You need to have good people skills and the ability to make hard decisions with the knowledge that people are going to get hurt. You have to understand how your decisions will impact people’s lives, and then work to minimize the hurt.
What is your definition of success?
Success for me is having good, strong children who have grown up to be productive citizens. It starts with family. On the professional side, it is to create jobs and opportunities for people, participate in the world economy and make a difference there.