During a product recall in Lexus’ early days, Herb Chambers’ employees gathered in a conference room at Chambers Lexus of Norwood in Massachusetts for a satellite broadcast by Toyota’s luxury brand.
Lexus wanted each person responsible for customer interaction, from the front office to the parts counter, to participate in the meeting so they could understand the facts and respond properly to customer questions.
Melissa Steffy, Herb Chambers’ niece who now runs his BMW operations, recalls that meeting set the tone for Lexus’ view on customer care, assuring that everyone touching the customer had the same information from the manufacturer, not just dealership principals and managers.
Chambers’ automotive portfolio includes 52 franchises in New England, many in the greater Boston area.
Steffy, general manager at Herb Chambers BMW-MINI in Boston, oversees the dealership with the highest revenue stream in the Chambers group. Steffy’s Boston store is the No.1 BMW seller in New England.
When Lexus joined the Chambers’ group in the early 1990s, it introduced a new level of customer care, Steffy notes. “So many dealerships had severely compromised integrity” at the time.
Herb Chambers set out to reverse that image. He began doing some novel things at the time, such as washing all cars in service and keeping dealerships open seven days a week.
At Chambers stores, customers are called clients, implying a long-term relationship with a respected person, Steffy says. “Twenty-six years ago, these practices were almost unheard of in automotive.”
Chambers started out as a Cadillac and Oldsmobile dealer in New London, CT, in 1985. He entered the Boston market in 1987, beginning his expansion in the metro area. That’s around the time he added Honda and Lexus points.
Steffy, his sister’s daughter, joined the group in 1987, and became part of a revolution in auto dealership practices. It was a far cry from a philosophy college major to auto sales, service and finance, but a move she’s never regretted.
She describes the esprit de corps that permeates a Chambers’ dealership. “It’s an electric, high-energy and fun place to work. When BMW (representatives) come here, they say the same thing.”
Chambers employs other family members. They include his son George Chambers, executive general manager overseeing eight dealerships in the Westborough, MA, market; Paul Chambers, Herb’s brother, who handles all VIP clients at Herb Chambers Ford in Braintree, MA; and Susan Tarquini (Melissa’s sister), service manager at Herb Chambers Honda, Boston.
In 1991, when Chambers was approved for a Lexus point in the Boston area, Steffy and a friend convinced him to brand his dealerships with his name. “No one knows your name,” they told him. He followed their advice.
It was never his goal to be the largest dealer around, only to provide the highest levels of customer satisfaction and service, he says. “The handling of the customer is what we’ve always wanted to do better.”
Chambers still responds to customer kudos and complaints on his “talk to Herb” online chat. He responds personally to complaints, sometimes 40 or so a month. But that’s 40 out of 4,500 vehicles sold monthly and up to 30,000 service visits a month.
Herb Chambers Companies ranks No.14 on the WardsAuto Megadealer 100. His group had the most individual dealership entries on the 2013WardsAuto Dealer 500.
The only major brands he doesn’t own currently are Subaru, Volvo and Acura, despite his Honda relationship dating to 1986, he says.
Don’t count Chambers out when any dealership prospect might benefit his group.
“Expansion is constant, and there are several acquisitions we’re in the process of making, but they can’t be discussed yet,” he says.
On June 5, Chambers opened two new points: Chambers Lexus of Norwell and Herb Chambers Cadillac of Lynnfield, MA.
“We’ve had a very good year (so far in 2013), and profits have been up dramatically,” Chambers says. He’s forecasting a 5% to 7% increase in group revenues this year.
Chambers stays personally involved and makes sure his nearly 2,000 employees understand his customer philosophy.
All that attention rubs off positively on employee loyalty and client satisfaction. “When you’re passionate about the brand you represent, your clients can feel it,” Steffy says.
Chambers’ personal involvement makes all the difference, employees believe.
“He holds monthly meetings with our general managers and the entire sales organization,” plus monthly employee breakfast meetings, says Nicole Martin, Chambers’ executive assistant.
“Our mission statement is the same as it was the day it was written. It will remain this way because Herb believes in every word of it,” she says.
Outstanding employees are recognized through an annual Masters of Excellence award.
Chambers didn’t come from an auto family or legacy dealership business. His father was a commercial artist; his mother, a homemaker.
But Chambers felt the automotive call.
“I’ve had a love for autos since I was a kid,” he says. He worked as an electronics technician in the copier-machine industry after a 4-year stint in the Navy. He then built a copier business that grew to be the largest in the country.
His opportunity in automotive came when he wanted to purchase a car from a Connecticut dealership. After a terrible sales experience, he decided to buy the store.
Since he represents almost all major nameplates, Chambers keeps high walls between brands as needed. “Most manufacturers require exclusivity.”
He has spent more than $50 million on facility improvements over the past two years.
Employees buy into the Chambers culture, Steffy says. “It’s a winning feeling, the feeling that the rising tide lifts all boats.”
The different dealerships throughout the group “help each other out, even though we’re competing,” she says, citing client referrals depending on customer needs.
Chambers, who completed his education in the Navy in the 1960s, is a big believer in training and education.
“It’s a matter of survival. If you don’t continuously train and educate, you won’t survive,” he says. “People work here because they are driven by customer satisfaction. To achieve this, we must keep a positive frame of mind so we can take excellent care of our clients.”
After all, it is his name on all those buildings. It’s his reputation at stake. And to Herb Chambers, reputation means a lot. So does customer appreciation. That is why he holds special events for customers.
One such gathering was on April 15 as part of the annual Boston Marathon.
Chambers was hosting an all-day appreciation event for about 600 loyal customers at a restaurant located about 400 feet (122 m) from the marathon finish line.
Chambers witnessed it all on that tragic day.
He describes the resulting pandemonium as people dropped all their possessions and scrambled for safety after the bombs went off.
“Their world was emotionally rocked. It was a tough experience for everyone there,” he says. “The shock factor lasted a long time.”
His Boston dealerships closed for business that day. But when they reopened, employees embraced a “Boston Strong” spirit that became emblematic.
Company Profile: The Herb Chambers Companies
Founder/CEO: Herb Chambers
Headquarters: Somerville, MA, near downtown Boston
Year founded: 1985
Total employees: About 2,000
Annual group revenue (2012): Almost $2 billion
WardsAuto Megadealer 100 ranking: No.14
Major Awards: Selected as one of Boston’s Top Places to Work by The Boston Globe, from 2009 to 2012, the only auto dealer to make the list. Named WardsAuto 2003 Dealer of the Year.
Key charities: Camp Harbor View, Mass General Hospital, Mass Eye & Ear clinic, Chelsea Jewish Foundation and Leonard Florence Center for Living, Boston Medical Center.
Major brands represented: BMW, Mini, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Ford, Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram-Fiat, Kia, Toyota-Lexus-Scion, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti, Audi, Land Rover, Jaguar, Bentley, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, Maserati, MV-1, Smart car, Sprinter, Ultra Motor electric bikes and Vespa motor scooters.
Mission Statement (excerpt): “Operate professionally managed dealerships committed to being the leader in the market areas they serve.”