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These Tampa Bay car dealers know how to create a top workplace

CLEARWATER — If you're wondering, yes, car salespeople know many buyers think they're full of slime. The stereotype — that they're sly, shady and a few other words not fit for a family newspaper — is nearly as old as the automobile itself. It's a worry, too, for skeptics newly hired at a dealership. "When I first started here," said Crista Petruccelli, 45, an executive assistant at Dimmitt Automotive Group, "I thought it'd be a bunch of slick, y'know, salesman types." So it's perhaps a surprise that not one, not two, but three new car dealerships ranked high this year in the Tampa Bay Times' survey of Top Workplaces. Dimmitt, a Clearwater institution, finished in second place for midsize companies. Among the top 50 small businesses, Stingray Chevrolet in Plant City ranked No. 20, and Ed Morse Auto Plaza in Port Richey hit No. 32. So what's keeping employees at these car lots happy? It's not just the commissions from their small slice of 15 million cars and trucks sold across the country last year, though that has helped. Monthly vehicle sales have rebounded from a disastrous slowdown during the Great Recession, climbing 70 percent since a near-record low in 2009 and helping buoy once-struggling dealerships.

But employees say what has kept them most energized is the feeling of being part of a well-oiled machine, one that won't overly exhaust any one worker's talents or break down when they take a day off.

That, some said, meant fostering a workplace where colleagues watch each others' backs, not just look for a place to stab. As Kerven Dennis, 46, a Dimmitt sales consultant, put it: "You're not going to last here if you're shady."

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Founded in downtown Clearwater in 1924, the Dimmitt family dealership's headquarters is a strange mix of Old Florida tradition and modern-world sprawl.

One of dozens on U.S. 19's dense cluster of dealerships, Dimmitt's main showroom in Clearwater, which most call "the mansion," looks like the estate of a sweeping Southern plantation growing a crop of Cadillacs.

But for all Dimmitt's heritage, the dealership doesn't hesitate to staff up with workers new to the auto industry. A common refrain from higher-ups — that they "hire for attitude and train for skill" — means more time spent making sure newcomers fit into the fold and less pressure to sell, sell, sell.

New hires are assessed on whether they have a "vocation to serve," said Dimmitt brand development executive Tom McQueen, who, along with CEO Richard Dimmitt, wrote a book on the Dimmitt "legacy" called Servant Hearts.

It's a lofty — some might say corny — benchmark, but Dimmitt workers seem to appreciate the high-minded standard they're taught in early days on the job from their colleague mentors.

"I feel more of a self-worth, versus just being some guy who answers a phone," said Charles Grandy, a former Colorado martial arts instructor who was hired as a Dimmitt sales and leasing consultant in March. "You feel like you have a part. Like, we have a solid foundation and we're all individually bricks."

At Ed Morse, the 75-employee dealership in Port Richey, executives also place considerable weight on who and how they hire. Mark Belviso, the general manager, compares it to a baseball clubhouse environment: Members excel the most when they're playing nice with the rest of the team.

"We're very selective about who gets to join the team," Belviso said. "If they're thinking about themselves and they're selfish, they're just not going to fit in."

How exactly does that work in a sales environment where co-workers, as the saying goes, only get to eat what they kill? Belviso acknowledges there are still the traditional bonuses and prizes to keep employees incentivized to seal the deal.

But with that comes a quiet understanding that every worker depends on the next, whether that's fetching a bottle of water or drawing up the papers for someone else's customer, or topping off the gas tank for a new car just about to drive off the lot.

"The guys help each other out, every day, all the time," said Jodi Johnson, 45, an Ed Morse receptionist. "Instead of being so competitive they eat one another, they're a team."

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Armed with car sales websites and Google research, today's tire-kickers arrive at the dealership more knowledgeable about cars and costs than ever before. To the dealerships, that means it's more important than ever to prove their worth to customers as soon as they step in the door.

Like restaurants on Yelp, even car salespeople are judged by potential buyers based on online reviews. Conveying that everyone's working together as a team, employees said, ends up being crucial for both appearance and bottom line.

"We serve one another, and we serve our guests. And that's not mutually exclusive," said Kelly Flynn, 33, an assistant controller in Dimmitt's accounting department. "It's not that they want something. They're friends. They care about each other."

At Dimmitt, employees point to a funky kind of camaraderie that keeps them working for more than just a paycheck. One recent Friday, the dealership held a barbecue with chicken, ribs and sausage, and, behind the Land Rover building, a casual game of corn hole.

That workplace esprit de corps has over the last 90 years manifested itself in showcases of surprising devotion. Lisa Harder, the dealership's bubbly receptionist and "director of first impressions," held her wedding in the showroom.

Of course, there will always be bad apples, and the conventional role of car lot cutthroats will live on. Employees seem to have fun with the notion: When talking about Gary Katica, the mayor of Belleair and a Dimmitt sales manager since 1981, Flynn notes with a wry laugh, "He sells cars and he's a politician." Ouch.

But so what if he's not holding his breath to win a popularity contest? He loves the place, he said. At least his coworkers have his back.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

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