HINGHAM, MA - Scott Shulman is not the typical dealer's son who took over his father's business. Nor is he a typical former athlete who runs a dealership.
A typical boss's son might consider maintaining the status quo when he takes the reigns of the dealership. A former football player might try to trade using his name. Neither applies for the son of legendary Boston Chevrolet dealer, NADA director and Ward's Dealer Business columnist Nat Shulman.
Given a choice, Scott Shulman would rather have played linebacker for the New York Jets than operate Best Chevrolet in this affluent Boston suburb with its perfectly preserved colonial and Victorian homes. But the surgeon's blade, the bane of athletes, intervened prematurely.
Following an All-Yankee Conference and All-America career on the University of Maine gridiron, which resulted in nine knee surgeries, Mr. Shulman went to the Jets' training camp in 1977. After his medical dismissal from football, he flew home the next day and started selling cars.
He proved successful at the art of the sale over two and a half years before it was time to start learning more about the overall business and an eventual taking of the reins.
"I had a pretty good education, but a business degree doesn't quite get you ready for the automotive business," says Mr. Shulman. "Our business systems and financial statements are so different."
First came six weeks at Chevrolet's former school for dealers' sons. Then he was part of the first class of the NADA Successor Academy.
"It was auto business 101," he recalls.
Family situations and Nat Shulman's active involvement in NADA pushed Scott Shulman into a leadership role sooner rather than later.
"I made a lot of mistakes," Mr. Shulman recalls. "I was a young pup and (the employees) walked all over me. They had their way of doing things, and I had my vision."
How did he prevail? "As a boss's son you have to work harder than anyone else," he says.
Eventually, his vision of customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction won the day.
"We were not running a good store in those days," he admits. "We would sell cars and try to make (a lot of) money. Service, parts and body shop were necessary evils. I had a vision of keeping employees happy, but I didn't have a system to do it. I wasn't smart enough to put it together, so I had to steal it."
He pilfered it from the Walt Disney organization, which he was introduced to as a member of Chevrolet's Dealer Council.
"We are probably one of the biggest cheerleaders of Disney University," says Mr. Shulman, who started sending his employees to Disney three at a time after attending a seminar himself. "We've sent 50 people over several years at a cost of over $100,000.
"You find out how Disney has structures in place to make Disney Disney," he relates. "If they can do it with 30,000 employees. I should be able to do it here."
Name badges, casual attire and the fact that everyone at the dealership is on a first-name basis are but a few indications of the Disney influence. Other are less apparent but more important.
"One thing you'll get in trouble for here is not making a decision," he stresses. "You can make the wrong decision and we'll look at it, discuss it and improve for the next time.
"My idea is that if a customer has a problem, find out what's going to make him happy. End of story. It builds your reputation and it builds comfort for the customers."
Another benefit of empowered employees, says Mr. Shulman, is a better working environment.
"Are people given the power to make decisions in the workplace happy? Hell yeah!"
There is perhaps the biggest change in the way Scott Shulman runs Best Chevrolet compared to the way Nat Shulman ran it.
"Nat ran the store the way the world was in those days," Mr. Shulman explains. "The boss was the boss and the power was the power. But when the boss is the boss, he's only a one-man show.
When the company is the company, you have a 100-person show.
"I live in this town. My name's in the phone book. My kids are in school. I don't want to go to parties and hear bad things about Best Chevrolet. I want to hear good things," he says. "I have an 80-20 rule. If you do something good for 10 people, eight are going to appreciate it and two are going to make you wish you never did it. Human nature dictates that we end up looking at the two because they've made our life miserable instead of the eight who made our life what it is. You need to be optimistic and look at things that way."
Not surprising, as a former football player, Mr. Shulman relates a lot of his business philosophy to the sport that landed him in the University of Maine's Hall of Fame.
"My upbringing was in football," he says. "And I had good coaches and those coaches were some of the best business teachers I had. There's no difference between football and business. In football you're taking 40 guys and making them work as a unit. Same at our place."
He says by empowering his employees to make decisions - all service writers are managers, for example - he makes his job different than dealers in his father's era.
"It's like football. A coach can't coach much during a game. Coaching comes when you're watching film and watching if a player makes a mistake and talking about what we can do to fix it," he says.
"Let's say someone here makes a mistake, maybe it wasn't even a mistake. But maybe a situation can be handled differently next time to make it better."
Another part of Mr. Shulman's vision was to make Best Chevrolet "bullet proof." By that he means to bolster the service, parts, body shop and used-car departments so that if the new-car business slips, the company still does well.
"Our service business is probably the most successful part of our company now," he says. Warranty work comprises only 20% of the business.
Best Chevrolet, which also handles Isuzu and Daewoo, sells approximately 200 new and used vehicles per month with the truck-car split about 80-20.
"Our truck business is very good," he says. "Chevrolet cars are still a challenge. I have to remind myself that dad never said it was going to be easy."
Dad is proud of his son's management abilities.
"It's one of the best run dealerships I've ever seen," says the elder Shulman.