The look on my face was a dead give away when the 54-year-old dealer told me that he was promoting his 28-year-old son to general manager of his own store.
“Is that a problem?” said the dealer. “I was a GM at that age.”
Obviously it worked out for this successful dealer, so why was I questioning his decision to promote his son? The issue, I told him, is that he grew up in an entirely different set of circumstances than did his son.
I reminded him that when he started out, he didn't have two extra nickels.
“Yes,” he said. “I sold my house and invested every dollar I had in getting my first dealership.”
“That's my point,” I said, “You had to succeed. You didn't have a choice. There was no safety net if you failed.”
Back then, he had handled finances with mirrors, hoping receivables kept up with payables. He worked in every part of the dealership, his hands on everything. He stayed late, worked extra hours, did whatever it took to find a way to sell one more car, so he could make payroll.
He trained his staff to watch expenses and to complete the paperwork correctly the first time so that banks responded quickly. Everyone knew there was no sugar daddy to rely on if times got tough and sales soft.
Over time, due to hard work, some luck, the development of solid business practices and more hard work, his store began to make money. He plowed most of his profits back into his company. Over time, capital accounts began to grow. One day, his accountant even remarked that he was over-capitalized.
Then along comes his son, eager to follow in his footsteps. The dealer wants him to learn the business. But the father is conflicted.
On one hand, he knows that most learning is caught, not taught, and that the young man will have to pay his dues. But the father doesn't want him to have to struggle as much as he did.
To speed the training process, the son is moved through departments in months, not years. He's sent to the National Automobile Dealers Assn.'s Dealer Academy. In a short time, the dealer is convinced his son can run his own store.
What's wrong with this picture? Maybe nothing. Anyone in the car business can point to many success stories that started out this way.
But what was different between Dad's situation and his son's. As mentioned, Dad had to be successful because there was no safety net. Conversely, his son knows that Dad is right behind him and isn't going to let him fail.
The store Junior is running is well capitalized, so there is a lot of money. Some strong managers can prop him up when needed.
Based on this, he may seem to succeed at least when times are good and the money is plentiful.
But the car business is tough and sooner or later Junior is going to face tough times. Then what? Will he be ready? Will he have the emotional toughness to make the hard decisions, to watch the expenses closely, to be creative, work extra hours and do whatever it takes to succeed in a rough economy or with a brand that is less than stellar?
Too often, I see children of dealers who aren't thoroughly trained but think they know what they are doing, In reality, they lack the maturity gained from learning the old-fashioned way and by earning their position.
When looking at the training necessary to be effective as a dealer for the long haul, don't short-circuit your children by promoting too quickly. You are not doing them or your dealership a favor.
Some very important lessons are learned from sufficient time spent in the trenches. Then, when they are ready to take a key position, they will know what they are doing, and employees will respect them for paying their dues.
It's easy to bend our own rules when dealing with children working at the family dealership. But children must earn it. Your legacy depends on it.
Hugh Roberts, CFP, of The Rawls Group in Woodland Hills, CA, can be reached at 818-610-3480 and [email protected].