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In the driver’s seat Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

Perhaps it would have been easier for Rick Case to write a check and just buy the more than 100,000 bicycles that his company has worked hard to collect for needy children throughout the past 26 years.

But Case, president and CEO of the Rick Case Automotive Group, says it just wouldn’t have sent the right message.

“It’s easy for a lot of businesses to give money, but it’s hard to give time,” Case says. “When people see you doing that, that’s when you gain their respect. We do it because we believe in it, and we have a passion for helping people. … It makes us feel good, and I think it makes the people feel good, and it makes the whole community feel good about what we do.”

Case and his wife, Rita, the company’s vice president, are first and foremost in business to sell cars. But they believe the best way to draw people to their business and generate new sales is to show potential customers that they have a heart.

When people see that you value helping others, they are more likely to want to help you and feel better about being in business with you as an employee or doing business with you as a customer.

“A lot of it is one client at a time, one customer at a time, one employee at a time,” Case says. “It’s just what you do. People can talk it, but they don’t walk it. It’s what you actually do.

“It’s probably more important in the car business because a lot of people still today don’t like going to a car dealership because they don’t like the way they might get treated. Over the years I’ve been doing this, which is 45 years and we’ve been in South Florida for 23 years, we try to eliminate that through the different things that we do and the services we provide in the community.”

One of his dealerships has a clerk of court’s office to enable local citizens to pay a speeding ticket or obtain a marriage license. Some people even use Rick Case as their local voting precinct.

Case’s ongoing effort to help people has struck the right chord with both his employees and his customers. The company has 900 employees and reached $550 million in revenue for 2007.

“It’s all about showing people that you care,” Case says. “That’s something you can’t be phony about.”

Set the right tone

When you see Rick and Rita Case at work, you’ll see them dressed just like the people who work for them. Employees wear Rick Case shirts and name badges every day and so do the Cases.

It’s a simple thing, but Case says it sets a tone for his employees that he does not see himself on a pedestal above them. It helps reinforce the idea that both he and his employees are working toward a common goal to make the business successful.

“We don’t ask our people to do something that we don’t do ourselves,” Case says. “Practice what you preach. If you have policies and procedures, as all companies do, the owner or the CEO has to live up to it. We require all of our people that come in contact with customers to have their business cards with their home and cell phone numbers on it. We both do the same. Every customer gets my home number and my cell phone number.”

Case promotes a motto of treating every customer and co-worker as though he or she is your best friend. He embeds that notion in his people’s heads through constant communication and culture cards that are given to each employee.

But the most effective way to make a desired behavior stick is to practice it yourself. That is why Case and his wife spend time on the floor interacting with customers and answering their questions.

It’s another means of stepping down from your pedestal as the CEO and putting yourself in to the shoes of your employees.

The goal is to give employees a little pause before they walk up to a customer who has come on to the lot or entered the showroom.

“They know if their best friend is coming in for service or to buy a car or for anything, they are going to be treated a little different than they would just a regular customer coming in off the street,” Case says. “Everybody thinks of a lot of different things they would do in different circumstances if it was their best friend they were dealing with.”

Case says he is not looking for employees to all be best friends with each other and go to ballgames or spend their weekends together. His goal is to build an atmosphere of respect by showing his employees that he and Rita respect what they do and appreciate their contribution to the company.

“We try to know everybody’s name and know a little bit about their family and just things like that to put us on the level with them,” Case says. “We’ll get managers together or salespeople and talk about how things are going. What are the customers saying? We give them our ideas on how we should handle any situations they might have.”

Each month, Case hosts a kickoff meeting at each of his dealerships. It’s an opportunity to review what has happened over the past month and provide first-person updates on what’s going on for the month ahead.

“They see us there, and they see us talking about these policies and procedures,” Case says. “It’s mainly a pump-up meeting just to let them know that we’re real people and we’re out there and we really care about them.”

It sets a tone that the attitude and behavior that the Cases talk about in company meetings are more than just lip service.

“You give people direction; make sure you are going in the same direction,” Case says. “If you have a process, make sure you follow the process. If you have a uniform policy, you wear the uniform. Lead by example.”

Be prepared

Few things have contributed to the decline in face-to-face interaction as much as e-mail and BlackBerrys. As an old-school guy, Case still prefers to write things down in a notebook to stay tuned in to what is happening in his business.

When you don’t know what’s happening, your employees will quickly lose confidence.

“I like to have it right in front of me every minute,” Case says. “If I’m at my desk, it’s in my binder. If I’m in a meeting, it’s in my coat pocket. I can write things down right away that I need to know.”

The notebook allows Case to be away from his office but still have easy access to important matters that need to be on his radar.

“You can’t take your computer with you when you’re walking around the dealership,” Case says. “I can check what I did the previous day and what didn’t get done and what needs to be done. I can write down my managers I need to call and things we need to go over with them.”

This information enables Case to be better prepared to discuss situations with his people, another behavior he hopes to convey to employees.

“People need to be organized,” Case says. “We try to motivate our people to know what our plan is and how you’re going to implement your plan. You just need to prioritize. What are the things that are important? Prioritize the things you need to get done and get them done as soon as you can.”

By using his notebook, Case can effectively demonstrate leadership from anywhere in the office. If it’s something that can wait, he can jot down a note and get to it later. If it’s more urgent, he’s there to deal with it straight away.

The key to dealing with it effectively often comes down to your ability to be tactful.

“If we see things in dealerships, especially things that may be negative, we try not to bring it up at that point with the person,” Case says.

“As the owners of the company, you have to manage a little differently than the managers do. Everything you say, it’s so important to them. You have to be careful because if Rick or Rita Case say it, if it’s a negative thing, it’s really devastating to them. On the other hand, if you keep it positive, it’s really positive for them. It goes a long way.”

Be visible

When tough times occur, such as what the business world has been experiencing in the past several months, employees look to the leader for direction. You just need to give them the tools to help you get through to the other side.

“It’s our job as a leader to keep people motivated and let them feel that we know the direction that is going to get us through this,” Case says. “You need to be realistic but optimistic. You have to let them know where we’re at right now and where the economy and business is at. Let them know here’s where we’re going to be at and how we’re going to get through this.”

Give them opportunities to do their part to get business moving again.

“We came up with a company referral program,” Case says. “No matter what you are doing in the business, you or your spouse, if you talk to customers that are interested in cars and you refer them, you can get compensated for that. That gives them opportunities besides their regular job to make income.”

You also need to be in touch with your customers and give them reason to believe in your business and evidence that you are aware of what’s going on in the world.

When gas prices began to skyrocket in 2005, Case had an eight-pump gas station built at one of his dealerships to sell fuel to customers at wholesale price.

“We know gas prices were going out of sight,” Case says. “We wanted to offer something that no dealer did. Doing things differently makes people say, ‘Wow, they really care.’”

The key is to find ways to make yourself visible to your people and be sure to make a good impression when they see you.

“You have to be out there and your people have to see you,” Case says. “The most important thing about communicating is doing it.”

Case says he hears from employees and customers who are reluctant to call him during nonbusiness hours. It’s why the message of his availability is repeated every opportunity he gets.

“We try to make them feel comfortable to do it,” Case says. “Those are the kinds of things that are going to get us through the tough times.”

How to reach: Rick Case Automotive Group, (954) 377-7410 or www.rickcase.com