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Extreme teamwork

SALINE, MI - When Debbie Crispin winds down from a hard day as general manager of Bill Crispin Chevrolet, it's not on a barstool with a brewski.Instead, she straps a 25-pound pack on her back and launches into an intense 50-minute endurance-training workout that would make most of her male counterparts scream "Mama!""It gives me an attitude adjustment. Euphoria. I always feel better when I exercise,"

SALINE, MI - When Debbie Crispin winds down from a hard day as general manager of Bill Crispin Chevrolet, it's not on a barstool with a brewski.

Instead, she straps a 25-pound pack on her back and launches into an intense 50-minute endurance-training workout that would make most of her male counterparts scream "Mama!"

"It gives me an attitude adjustment. Euphoria. I always feel better when I exercise," the energetic Ms. Crispin chirps.

To her, "pain" and "fear" are merely four-letter words, but "extreme" - as in adventure sports - is her mantra.

Last summer in Virginia, the 38-year-old was plopped into a raging river, feet first, for the Virginia Endorphin Fix. Using her wits, a crude map and a hand compass, she and three teammates found their way out - by kayaking, climbing and mountain biking for 125 grueling miles, through mosquito-infested terrain.

Participating in extreme sports requires team-building, bonding and leadership skills. No one goes into a forest or onto a white water raft without being flanked by team members. She practices nearly every night with a team of local athletes.

Such bonding offers obvious assets for running a dealership. You've got to trust people and maintain your endurance. It's a jungle out there, too.

"You learn a lot about business challenges from participating in these races," Ms. Crispin says, noting that team members get the basic race packet and instructions for getting the starting point. That's all.

"They don't tell you the actual distance or the starting time until the night before the race," she says. Her team might have traveled 12 hours to get there, and barely have time to shower before they are off again into the wilds. All they know is a set of clues and a vague idea of the final destination point. The team that reaches all the tag points and gets to the end first wins the coveted trophy.

"You've got to use your own compass to orient yourself and team members," she says.

Her team has taken top honors in several triathlons and marathons around the country. She recently participated in a 30-hour event in San Francisco called the "Presidio Adventure Race."

In managing a dealership, Ms. Crispin doesn't have a comprehensive instruction manual, nor a definite starting and quitting time. Every day presents new challenges in overseeing 39 employees, from the loss of a long-time Chevy district manager to the struggles to find competent technicians.

Her extreme sports training serves her well, according to Ernie Graham, director of the University of Automotive Management for the Troy, MI-based Sandy Corporation. His firm coordinates the dealer management school for General Motors Corp.

"You have to juggle 20-30 balls at one time to run a dealership, which is like running an ultra-marathon, except it's for business," says Mr. Graham. "You also need people skills, communication skills, the ability to understand customers and be very well rounded. You have to think on your feet in a marathon - and think on your feet dealing with an angry customer."

Crispin, a 1980 graduate of Northwood Institute in Midland, MI., works alongside her dealer-principal father Bill Crispin, a former U.S. Marine drill sergeant. He opened the dealership in 1976 in a cornfield outside Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. and the Big Ten Wolverines football team.

Thanks to sponsorship of the county's largest 10K foot race and participation in other community events, they are charging full speed ahead in sales. Bill Crispin Chevrolet sold 1,400 cars and trucks in 1999, the highest-volume Chevy dealership in Washtenaw County. That's double the volume of its competitors.

Surging suburban migration in the Detroit-Ann Arbor metroplex places the dealership in an epicenter of new housing and commercial development. To meet increased demand, the dealership is undergoing a major renovation, raising the roof, adding offices upstairs and expanding the service bays. The dealership also installed individual computers on each sales person's desk so they can call up every vehicle in inventory within two minutes.

"The dealership isn't all divided and separated," observes Lance Zimmerman, area sales manager for GM vehicle sales, service and marketing. "They have cubicle walls, but mostly see-through glass so you don't get a trapped feeling like there's no way to escape."

Ms. Crispin returned to work with her father after a six-year stint in Florida ("where I learned how not to sell cars," she laughs).

The Crispin dealership's sales in 1991 were only 500 a year. (It's now nearly three times that.) Her brother, a police officer, chose to chase bank robbers instead of sales. Her dad begged her to join him. Her first suggestion was to send flowers to every new car purchaser. ("Candy has too much sugar, alcohol isn't good for you, a card is too impersonal," she explains.)

"You need to make somebody feel special, not just a number," Ms. Crispin says. "What makes customers come back is when you take care of them. Give them choices between a $200 payment on a used vehicle or a new leased vehicle. Don't force them into anything."

Her parents gave her the drive and direction to lead the charge. . She calls her mom, Judy - who beat big odds by walking after a major car accident -"unsinkable." Her father served in the Marines and as a law- enforcement professional "with an awesome sense of humor," she says, adding that working with him is fun - and highly disciplined, like the sports for which she trains.

"The whole family is dedicated to succeeding - they don't quit," Mr. Zimmerman explains. "It's from the top down. I'm sure that's where Debbie got it. As far as community goes, it's been a saga there in Saline. Even her mom. She was in a bad accident and it slowed her down but it didn't get her down."

There's a family feeling at the dealership, too, where employee birthdays are celebrated with cakes. Top achievers can select the restaurant of their choice for two dinner coupons. Employees are free to arrange time off to attend their children's sport competitions.

Ms. Crispin expects top performance from her employees, as she does from herself. She and her dad run a tight ship. They show up, no matter what. And they expect their 39 employees to follow suit and pinch hit when needed.

Consider the snow storms that swept over Saline in January; she was out with her troops, raking snow off her vehicles every day, moving them around the lot to facilitate snowplowing. Thanks to her adventure training, she's in shape, she's upbeat, and she's ready for any extreme.

The synergy extends beyond the dealership. Her extreme-sports captain, Kip Richards, is married to her finance and insurance manager, Rose Richards. She and her other two teammates have been training together for about two years, something that gives her outside balance and insights into the human condition. She accepts that everybody can have a bad day.

"This helps you to recognize people's highs and lows and acknowledge them rather than ignoring them and eventually letting the employee go," says Ms. Crispin. "Same thing with adventure racing: If you see someone who's about to bonk, you catch them before they go any further."

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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