Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Ten Years

I started working in the automobile business in February, 1984 at Porter Chevrolet-Honda-Saab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Initially I sold Chevrolets. By May, I was also permitted to sell Saabs after tutoring by Saab’s Ralph Skinder. My first Saab sale came later that month when I sold my first, a four door 900T automatic in Cherry Red. I would go on be the best Saab salesperson that year at Porter, often selling more than our monthly allotment of cars (and, I would add, at full sticker price plus accessories and options).

I was a victim of my own success. Because of the numbers I had put up, I believe, management changed the pay plan on Saabs, and I promptly quit my position. I had been offered a job selling Toyotas, right here in Watertown after a rather brutal negotiation on a Corolla GT I was trying to buy—we ended up buying a CRX at Porter Honda, where my wife worked. Still, I had impressed the folks at Toyota enough that they offered me a position. When the pay plan change was announced, I gave my notice. When the service manager at Porter, Paul Carter (now a technician here at CRS) heard I was leaving, he convinced me to stay at Porter and to become a service advisor. Second best move I ever made. I was an OK salesperson. I turned out to be a really good service advisor.

In 1989, with Porter having sold its Saab franchise in 1988, I was recruited to work at Charles River Saab and took the position as service advisor. That was the best move I ever made. It’s hard to believe now that it took me more than a week to accept the offer. I continued my work here at Charles River Saab as service advisor until about 2000, when service manager, Tim Martino, pulled me off the service desk and had me functioning as his assistant.

I was happy with the change, and it was a pleasure to be relieved of the daily pressure of working a service desk. I will contend that being a service advisor is far and away the hardest job at any dealership, and the most important. Tim set me up doing a lot of the routine clerical work which any manager must perform. Then he set me to working on various projects, including the very first Swedish Car Day. I think that what he was really doing was grooming me for succession, as he was likely looking to make a change himself, having spent twelve years at CRS, eight of them as the manager. (When Tim was hired as manager in 1993, I was the other finalist for the position. In retrospect, I am so happy that Tim got the position rather than me at that time. I learned a lot from Tim, both from his time as an advisor and as a manager—the guy is brilliant.)

In early 2001, Tim gave his notice. He was going to work at a BMW-Mercedes-Bentley dealer, and he lobbied hard to have me be the next service manager. Thus, on March 1, 2001, ten years ago, this cellist became the service manager at Charles River Saab. As is often the case with such reflection, there are times when it does seem I started yesterday, and at other times it seems a hundred years ago, not ten. My, how the world, Saab and this store have changed.

We still live in the wake of September 11. That event carries its own set of stories which I’ll recount later in the year. The wars, changes in travel, the economy et cetera have all been affected by the fallout of that morning. The effects certainly reverberated throughout the industry and this store.

For Saab, this has been a decade of slow decline. Part of this is clearly as a result of GM’s stewardship, misguided and indifferent as it often was. Our business model was also affected by the fact that cars broke down less and required less maintenance. That, however, coupled with ever declining sales, meant that we had to rethink our paradigm. Thus, on the brink of the pan-economic collapse of 2008, we had already reconsidered our business strategy and started reconstituting this store and my department. Much of this has been painful. We have had to part company with lots of great people, and to their credit, to a person they were gracious as I relieved them of their duties here. Fortunately, we are left with a lean crew which is outstanding in every facet. I am truly blessed to have outstanding management at the helm to guide me, and a tremendously gifted and loyal staff to do my bidding.

It has been holding together this team which has meant the most to me during these years. I have much to be proud of with respect to the events we have pulled off over the years: eleven Swedish Car Days; innumerable Advanced Driver Training dates; clinics galore; celebrations; rallies; a harbor cruise! All of that pales, though, next to the notion of maintaining such a dedicated and talented group of employees, without whom I am nothing.

So here’s to the first ten years. My thanks to Tim Martino for having been my mentor during his tenure and beyond. Thanks also go out to General Manager Dan Leahy, who showed me how to manage effectively in difficult times. I look forward to the next ten, and hope to enjoy the challenge of an ascending Saab.

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