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The good shepherd Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

For years, professional football fans wondered if Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had what it took to win the big game. Last February, he proved that he did have that special something as he led the Colts to a Super Bowl championship.

After 25 years of leading Palmer Automotive Group, Don Palmer sees a clear parallel between the worlds of sports and business. While the quarterback of a company may possess great individual skills, if the leader can’t get his or her employees to follow along, the chance for that business to achieve its full potential of success is slim.

“You have to become more of a coach than a manager,” says Palmer, the company’s chairman and CEO. “If (employees) understand the company’s objectives and their role in that, I want to coach them to the performance so that we all win. It starts at the top. You model that the sheep aren’t there for the benefit of the shepherd, but the shepherd is there for the benefit of the sheep. It’s that servant-leadership mentality.

“It’s, ‘Hey, what can I do for you? How can I be helpful for you? What are the barriers in your job that are preventing us from satisfying the customer or being productive?’ They start to realize that what we’re about is everybody doing their own job in an excellent way and that the aggregate is a strong company.”

That management philosophy has helped Palmer Auto to endure and prosper since it was founded by Palmer’s father, Eldon, back in 1956 at the intersection of 38th Street and Keystone Avenue. The privately held company now has about 600 employees and achieved $260 million in revenue for 2006.

Here’s how Palmer builds a culture that drives his company’s growth.

Adapting to today’s employees

Further revenue growth at Palmer Auto depends largely on the company’s continuing ability to adapt with the times.

“This new generation is interested in more experiential training,” Palmer says. “People want to learn skills more than what they used to in certain situations. Jobs aren’t as secure, and so people want to have some transferability from what they did. If they decide to go in a different industry or chart a different direction, they want to feel like the work they did here was not just for money, but also to expand their ability to do other positions.”

Getting the best talent and then retaining that talent for as long as possible is very much reliant on the leader’s ability to form personal relationships with employees.

“Be intentional about getting to know them,” Palmer says. “One size doesn’t fit all. For somebody, it may be very important for them to know the boss and be known by them and have a relationship. Other people, relationships wouldn’t be that important. But they want to be recognized for being an outstanding performer.”

Finding people who possess both the skills and the cultural fit that a company is looking for is a challenge. The personal relationships formed in hopes of creating tighter bonds with existing employees can also pay off in the recruiting process.

“We’re always talking about recruiting people and keeping our eyes open to keep it as a front-burner type of an issue,” Palmer says. “We find with our best employees, the kinds of people they refer to us are very talented and good people as well. It’s not just the manager’s responsibility or the owner’s responsibility to recruit people. They really are part of the team to get the right worker here with us.”

Palmer says something as simple as a cash bonus can be a great enticement to help turn employees into recruiters.

“Instead of strictly doing it for the team, we want there to be something in it for them,” Palmer says.

Networking is another useful recruiting tool. Partnerships can be formed with local schools that can be beneficial to both organizations. Leaders can serve on community advisory boards.

“We’re very active in the community,” Palmer says. “By doing that, we keep our radar up.

“We try to identify who our key bird dogs or some of our key referral sources are and be really intentional about communicating and catering to those people. You build them very slowly. It’s like courting a candidate. If I know somebody like a person who is a key instructor at a technical school, we can find ways to serve them. Then, by us adding value to them, they are going to be looking to add value to our organization.”

Look for skill first

When potential hires are brought in for an interview, cultural fit is a very important consideration. At the same time, Palmer says the first priority must always be competency to do the job. A gregarious technician who is a great people person and is liked by everyone, but has weak technical skills, would not be of much help to the company.

One of the core values espoused at Palmer Auto is benchmark productivity.

“We’re looking for people that tend to work harder than someone else or kind of value that,” Palmer says. “We’re looking for competitive people. If people have been in a sports environment or have been in an environment where they had to compete, we like to find that.

“People know what the benchmarks are. Sales per employee or gross profit per employee. We’re constantly working on what does it take for us to hit those targets. We just feel unless we establish those benchmarks for productivity, we would just be lost in terms of how we run the business. In many instances, if we have somebody that isn’t making those productivity standards, they really might not be well-suited for our company.”

Finding people who are well-suited requires companies to get multiple people in on the interview process. This helps ensure a well-rounded assessment of the candidate being considered for a job. Each person can then judge the candidate through the perspective of his or her own position at the company and provide a broader evaluation.

A series of standard questions allows leaders to compare notes after the interview and see how different candidates responded to certain questions. What can be even more revealing, however, is when the candidate is thrown a few curveballs during the interview.

“We like some situational questions,” Palmer says. “We may take a particular nondescript product and say, ‘Here this is. We’ll give you five minutes to think about it and try to sell that to us.’ Or we’ll take a customer service situation and have a couple scenarios where they are difficult customers, and we ask them what they would do with this particular customer. We’re not as much looking for the exact right answer as we’re looking for, ‘Is that person thinking through and being creative on how they would handle the problem?’”

Once a person is hired, and perhaps even before the hire is made, it is critical that the company be clear about job expectations to make sure both the company and the employee are on the same page.

“Be certain that everybody agrees upon the metrics, whether that is customer satisfaction or sales per employee or number of productive hours per employee,” Palmer says. “If you and I are playing golf, and you keep score different than I do, when we get done, we’re a little frustrated because I thought I played really well and you thought I didn’t. I think that is really helpful in keeping people because they understand what it is that you are looking for.”

Leaders need to be transparent about their numbers, metrics and the other data that is used to chart the company’s health, and they must do so often, not just once a year during performance evaluations.

“I don’t think annual evaluations are as important as ongoing evaluations,” Palmer says. “It’s something that you have to work at all the time. A lot of times, it’s easy to shove to the back burner because everything always seems much more urgent. ‘You have to make a sale today. You have to handle a customer today.’ To do those things when you’re a lean organization or a small company that doesn’t have an HR department, it’s easy to neglect it.”

Find ways to build morale

A healthy culture is also one in which the company’s leadership recognizes that employees have lives outside the workplace.

“Our service manager annually takes all of his people paint-balling,” Palmer says. “They camp together and have a big paint-ball contest. Those kinds of things are a great extension of our culture in terms of people caring for each other, working together and creating more of a nurturing environment than, ‘Hey, just do your job.’”

The paintball outings have been going on for about five years, and while he says the contests are a little too hard-core for him, Palmer says the difference in employee morale since the outings began is quite noticeable.

“I think people are just willing to cooperate more,” Palmer says. “They just kind of feel like it’s a home versus another stop. It does-n’t work for everybody. There are certainly people that don’t participate. But in terms of some of the younger people in the organization, they just know that, ‘Gosh, people care for me enough that we can have fun together in addition to working together.’”

Palmer says building a healthy culture is about more than just making people happy.

“You have a greater job satisfaction, not only for the workers but the owners,” Palmer says. “When people are happier, they are going to be more productive and their energy level is going to be a lot greater. You can focus your efforts on acquiring customers and satisfying customers versus a lot of internal baggage. And it’s more profitable because you’re not turning people over as often.”

Celebrating birthdays is another way to build a sense of camaraderie within a business.

“It sounds kind of silly, but we celebrate everybody’s birthday,” Palmer says. “It seems like a really small thing, but you’d be amazed at what a difference that makes. People in your family remember your birthday, and all of a sudden, people within your company are remembering it. It makes you feel like you are more a part of a family and more a part of the team.

“We try to celebrate the small victories. A lot of times, we get so focused on the big picture that we forget the small things. Whether that’s a rookie salesperson who met their quota or whether that’s a mechanic who has become more productive. ... I think it goes back to the Golden Rule. You want to treat somebody like you would want to be treated. When you have someplace that notices that you are there and that you matter, I think that kind of loyalty encourages people to stay later, work harder and look for ways to make your company successful on their own.”

HOW TO REACH: Palmer Automotive Group, (317) 293-6220 or www.palmerauto.com