As a 36-year veteran of the auto industry, Warren Zinn has spent most of his life working around cars. From the time he learned to talk, he could rattle off the different brands: Mercedes, Jaguar and Lamborghini. And at age 21, he turned that passion into a lifelong career.
But Zinn also knows that passion isn’t everything. As the president and CEO of Warren Henry Automotive Group, he readily admits that his nine dealerships and more than 300 employees would not be in business today if the company hadn’t taken some tough steps to adapt to consumer needs.
“We like to think we’re in the front of the pack, but every day, we have to do more to stay in front of the pack,” he says. “We’re really only as strong as our dumbest competitor.”
In late 2007, Zinn began to see signs that the business was falling behind. People weren’t focused on results, and while there were a lot of reasons, the one that stood out to Zinn was the company’s loose structure and lack of process. Without these things, it was becoming harder for employees to deliver the kind of service consistency and responsiveness that customers now expected.
“It was the manner in which things were becoming so automated, computerized, the process that needed to take place because the way the business was changing,” Zinn says. “It was all becoming very electronic. So it was just a big change for us — the Internet, the world was changing.”
It was then that Zinn decided his company needed to change, too.
Zinn knew that it would take a big transformation to bring structure to the company’s operations. The problem was that the prevailing mentality at the auto dealerships was hardly one that embraced change. At the time, the company’s average employee tenure was about 16 years, and many of the more experienced employees were used to certain ways of doing things.
While having long-term people was great to build customer service relationships, it presented a challenge when it came to change management.
“Part of our success, which was also part of the problem, was familiar faces,” Zinn says.
Before making any changes, Zinn really needed to convince long-term employees to accept a new way of doing things.
“We needed to follow a process, and everybody had to be going in the same direction to get there,” Zinn says. “Nobody could take a shortcut to get to where we needed to go.”
So he and the company’s upper management held meetings with employees to discuss the process implementation, the reasons for doing it and how it would affect different areas of the business. The goal was to share the new direction but also help people overcome their reluctance to change.
After holding those meetings, Zinn and his leadership team were disappointed to find that only about one-third of the people seemed interested in the new direction.
“Very few people honestly were excited about it,” Zinn says.
“We had a lot of people here in different positions for a long stretch of time that had shown good initiative, knew what their job was and did it well. But at some point in time, when you are no longer able to have the people who have the same type of initiative — you really can’t teach initiative.”
As a leader, you need to communicate your reasons for taking your company in a certain direction. But once you do, you also must make it clear that the company is moving forward with people who embrace this direction.
So Zinn was also very upfront with employees about the fact that the company would only be moving forward with people who could get on board with the new processes.
“I had always known we needed to do this, but I really had to put my foot down and get it done,” he says.
“I had to convince people, in the best way that I could, that this is the way the company is going to go, and you’ve got to come along with us. And if you can’t make the process work — if it just doesn’t work for you — we’re going to have to part company, and that while it’s been a great relationship and we’ve worked together for a long time, this is the way that we have to go about doing things.”
Bring in new blood
After parting ways with a number of employees, the company was left to fill the empty positions before moving forward with the process implementation. But Zinn was hesitant to hire more experienced, automotive professionals, having seen the reluctance of his own long-term employees to accept a new way of doing things.
“I knew that if I hired somebody with experience, I could get the same individual that tells me everything I want to hear, but when it’s all said and done it’s, ‘Look, I’ve been doing this for 15 years. I know what I’m doing,’” Zinn says. “And that was dangerous."
Instead, he decided to take the talent search outside the automotive industry.
“We found that in order for us to do what we needed to do and to initiate the change that we needed to put in place here, it was easiest for us and most effective for us with people who came from outside the industry, rather than people who come from the industry.”
So Zinn and his team began recruiting individuals with no automotive experience at all. Largely relying on referrals, they sought out people who were articulate and expressed themselves well — real estate agents, stockbrokers, lawyers and marketers — to be trained in a variety of industry positions.
Zinn says he looked for the kind of people who inspired confidence, people who “if they looked at you and said, ‘I can take care of this,’ you would believe them.”
As the new team members came on board, he explained to them what the company was trying to accomplish with its process-driven operations, how it would go about doing it and how it would help and support them as they entered into the unfamiliar business.
What he found is that that the inexperienced people were not only much more eager to embrace the changes than long-term employees, but they also had a better attitude in making the new processes successful.
“It’s very, very easy to get people who haven’t done this before to learn what we expect,” he says.
“It’s easy for them to absorb. It’s easy for them to do, and they embrace it. Then they become very effective in what they do.”
Create a ‘focus’ group
Because the company historically lacked structure in its operations, Zinn and his leadership team felt they needed to make the new processes simple if employees were going to execute them consistently and willingly. They decided that it would be best to implement them one department at a time, beginning with parts and services.
The parts and services department focuses on two areas in particular: greeting and inspecting. So after putting together the “best and simplest” guidelines for the new processes, Zinn and the department leadership spent time explaining the benefits to employees. They described how new processes would make customer interactions more efficient, for example, saving time by creating electronic reports on vehicles being serviced or allowing customers to make appointments electronically, so people wouldn’t have to constantly man the phones.
“I looked at what appeared to be the easiest to do, the easiest to be understood, the way that if someone who had been doing this for a long time — if they wanted to — could change to be able to do it,” he says.
Zinn especially wanted long-term employees to understand how consistent, automated processes would make the business more efficient in its customer service.
“It gives more structure,” Zinn says. “Everybody should be in the same place as to how we go about greeting a customer, how we go about selling cars, how we go about servicing cars.”
Recognizing that training would also be important in achieving process consistency, Zinn also gave employees the opportunity to shadow other experienced colleagues.
By shadowing team members in three different areas, they could master the different processes, one at a time, and then review them once more with the help of an experienced supervisor before trying them on their own. The company continues to use this “1-2-3” training process.
“So all that really changed is that there’s a manner and order in which we go about getting our job done,” he says. “We have a consistency in which, if you go to different people, they may have a little bit of a different style, but the steps and the processes it takes to get there are the same.”
Once the company implemented the changes in the parts and service business, Zinn moved on to new and used car sales department. By focusing on one department at a time, he and his top leaders were able to be much more hands-on as they went through the implementation. It also allowed them to take a lessons-learned approach as they faced similar issues or employee concerns on a larger scale.
“The key is to take care of [the problem] while making sure that it doesn’t happen again,” he says. “That’s what process is all about.
Stick with it
As luck would have it, soon after the new processes were in place, the economic recession sent the auto industry into a tailspin, and few businesses were immune. Despite the financial challenges, Zinn and his top leaders have continued to work hard, keeping employees focused on executing the new processes.
“Those were some very, very difficult times — some of the most difficult times in this industry ever,” Zinn says.
“You just have to keep your head down and make certain that it happens — because it works. I’d say if we didn’t embrace this, I don’t know if we’d still be in business today. I don’t think so. We couldn’t continue to do things without having established firm processes in place.”
One built-in benefit of the process automation was that it gave the company the ability to measure and monitor business metrics in areas such as sales, customer satisfaction and customer retention.
Zinn says that giving everyone in the company access to these results, including individuals, department heads and upper management, has helped motivate employees by holding them accountable to continuous improvement.
“We hold ourselves and each other responsible,” he says.
“If we get a great report, I shoot off an email to the individual, the department head or the whole department and tell them what a great job that they’re doing or tell them that we need to pick it up.”
Today, the company is much more efficient and spends significantly less time “putting out fires” thanks to the new processes, Zinn says. At the same time, he believes that it’s the focus on results, “not reasons,” that will keep the company innovative and competitive in the future.
In fact, if you ask Zinn what is the biggest difference between his company today and five years ago, he won’t hesitate to tell you that it’s accountability.
“We have to feel like we’re looking for constant improvement,” he says. “We have to feel like we’re all on the same team. This is the direction that we’re going to go, and you follow the captain or you don’t.”
And that’s one thing you can’t teach. <<
How to reach: Warren Henry Automotive Group, (888) 856-3113 or www.warrenhenryauto.com
- Get the right people on board.
- Hire people who can support change.
- Keep the focus on improvement.
The Zinn File
Warren Henry Zinn
President and CEO
Warren Henry Automotive Group
Born: New York City, but moved to Florida when 6 months old
Education: Northwood University in Michigan
Role model for success: I admire Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford Motor Co. Mulally saw what was coming, put a plan together and stuck with. He saved the company without taking help from the government unlike other U.S. auto manufacturers, and he has been extremely successful since.
One part of his daily routine that he wouldn’t change: I wouldn’t change my communications with my department heads. To be a successful CEO, you must stay right in the thick of it — be involved with your staff, always have an open mind, and listen to what everyone has to say.
Why do people like working for you?
I’m available to people. I sit in my office with my door open. I move around from dealership to dealership on different days, and of course, I make people feel like they are part of something very important. They’re not on the outside. They’re on the inside.
What do you like most about your industry?
It’s something that I’ve always liked. I like seeing the new cars that continually come out. I like seeing people get excited when they get a car, happy about having their car, happy about the experience that they’ve had with their car. And I’m happiest when they come back and they get another car.