Sonic Automotive

Sonic Automotive Revs Its Leadership Engine

A year of excellence in learning was capped off with the creation of a new academy Sonic Automotive, Inc., believes will take its customer-facing leadership to the next level.

When a successful company hits its stride in profitability and delivering superior service to customers, it’s easy to rest on its laurels. But Sonic Automotive, Inc., continues to push for even greater improvement. Last year saw the creation of a leadership academy, and the tackling of challenges such as lowering turnover and increasing retention rates. A continued commitment to giving learners the tools they need to succeed has resulted in greater growth opportunities for employees. With so many wins, the company’s next step can only be inching ever higher in the level of service it delivers to customers with the support of its dedicated team of Learning professionals.

Powering Leaders Working with Customers

At some companies, leadership development is concentrated solely on executives who never work closely with customers. Along with high-level leadership development, Sonic Automotive recognizes the importance of developing the leaders who work closer to the customer. With that in mind, the company created its Fixed Operations Academy. In addition to improving service to customers, the academy helps decrease the turnover of its Service and Parts leaders. “In general, retention of employees in these roles in the automotive industry is challenging (turnover at 70 percent),” say Vice President of Talent Management, Training and Recruiting Doug Bryant, Ed.D, and Senior Training Director Shawn Dingle. “Service and Parts Leaders often are promoted from within and lack the leadership and management skills to carry out their jobs.” Sonic Automotive originally did not have any programs in place to provide training for high potentials, or new leaders, in these roles. In response, the organization designed and developed the Fixed Operations Academy. Key components of the academy include:

Field Study Program Guide: This serves as a roadmap for the entire training program and as learners’ key resource for the Leadership Academy Program.

Application Labs: These are two one-week, interactive, immersive instructor-led training sessions.

Debrief Webinars: Two, one-hour virtual sessions are conducted after the Application Labs. The Webinars include a debrief discussion during which learners share their experiences as they begin to employ the leadership skills in their job function.

Assessments: Two types of assessments are used to evaluate skill acquisition throughout the training program and determine performance improvement while on the job.

Field Study Guide Activity Completion: Managers are provided a short checklist to verify Field Study Guide activity completion. The Field Study guides also are collected and reviewed during the second Application Lab week, with random examples of participants’ experiences shared and discussed with the class.

Action Plan: Each participant identifies a growth opportunity at his or her store based on the second Application Lab learnings. A full action plan is to be developed within seven days, and the plan implemented within 45 days.

The company has been thrilled with the results, Bryant and Dingle say. One hundred percent of program participants have been retained. From the first session, which ended January 2015, 44.4 percent of participants have been promoted. The second session ended September 2015 with seven of 24 (29.2 percent) participants receiving promotions since the beginning of the class. The third session had 19 percent promotions as of June 2016.

Accelerating Recruitment and Retention

The competition for automotive professionals is stiff, with the market dominated by companies such as Firestone, Bridge-stone, and National Tire. Instead of attempting to compete with these companies in recruitment, Sonic Automotive took a different approach. In 2016, the company launched a pilot recruiting program in the Houston, TX, market directed toward attracting students of the Universal Technical Institute (UTI), a technical school with campuses in eight of Sonic Automotive’s largest markets. The school offers what is known as manufacturer- specific advanced training (MSAT) courses. “To attract these candidates, we had to come up with a program that showed the students and the placement offices at the UTI campuses we had something special,” say Bryant and Dingle.

To attract the best applicants, and get the placement offices to talk about opportunities at Sonic Automotive, the company offered program participants the following:

  • Starting salary of $20 per hour
  • $2,000 bonus for completing the first three months of the program
  • $3-per-hour raise upon completion of the first three months of the program
  • $200-per-month tuition reimbursement for 60 months as long as they were employed at Sonic Automotive as a technician
  • Up to $1,200 in relocation assistance
  • $2,000 bonus at their two-year anniversary

Sonic Automotive also is required to pay the manufacturer $8,000 for each MSAT graduate hired to activate their certifications. This last expense is part of an existing agreement between the manufacturers and dealers to subsidize the cost of the training by the technical school.

Over the last 12 months, Sonic has hired 29 UTI MSAT graduates into the apprentice program. All of them have remained with the company, and they are responsible for just under $5 million in Parts and Labor gross revenue. The Effective Labor rate (E.L.R.) for these 29 technicians is above average at $115 per hour, and their Labor Gross percentage is above average at just under 80 percent.

Driving Expectations and Achievement

The corporate culture at Sonic Automotive is taken seriously, with a conscious effort made to educate employees about the company’s expectations, and then to provide the support needed to help fulfill those expectations. “Our corporate culture is directly linked to our training goals and successes. Our training goals are always to drive business results and reinforce the culture,” say Bryant and Dingle.

The company has four expectations for all of its employees:

  1. Promote, protect, and build the brand and guest experience. “We dedicate the first day of training to our brand and culture, so all employees know what the guests expect, what we expect from them, and what they can expect from us,” Bryant and Dingle explain. “In addition, our job-specific training is focused on helping our associates deliver against our brand.”
  2. Deliver an outstanding associate experience. “Our training also provides layers of collaborative work skill training that impact the guest, as well as peers. This training includes feedback, conflict management, perseverance, and maintaining a positive attitude,” they note.
  3. Manage, change, and grow the business. “This expectation is about understanding how the business and technology work, and being careful about how we spend money,” say Bryant and Dingle. “We have modules directly linked to this expectation.”
  4. Promote a sense of community. The company’s e-learning modules address teamwork and collaboration, which Bryant and Dingle say naturally feeds into an enhanced sense of community.

Fueling Internal Promotions and Advancement

The learning and development the company offers is backed up with a commitment to reward employees who meet expectations with growth opportunities. “At Sonic Automotive, our company goal is to promote from within the company, with a minimum of 80 percent internal promotions at the manager level,” say Bryant and Dingle. To that end, they point out, all managers participate in an extensive “Talent Review Process” training annually in which each employee’s performance and potential are discussed. The results of these discussions are incorporated into an individual development plan for each associate. In addition, every executive and supervisor in the organization has identified his or her successor. These employees then are offered specific learning and coaching resources to prepare them for the “next-level” promotion. As a result, internal promotions at the manager level were at 85 percent in 2014 and 90 percent in 2015.

The Road Ahead

The growth and success Sonic Automotive has experienced in recent years has led to a growing training challenge: keeping up with the company’s expanding learning needs. “Our training success has come from having a highly skilled, well-supported, dedicated Training staff. The Training staff conducts all new hire training (more than 3,000 new associates per year), plus trains on any new initiatives within the company,” say Bryant and Dingle. “With our growth, this resource distribution is not scalable, having dedicated trainers conduct all training.”

The solution: The learning that needs to be delivered will be managed differently, with managers taking on greater responsibility. “In early 2017, our focus on training is going to shift from training associates, to training managers to train their own associates,” Bryant and Dingle explain. “More than 1,300 managers will attend train-the-trainer workshops in early 2017, plus their titles will change to reflect their new focus. For example, if a manager’s title was Sales manager, the new title will be Sales and Training manager. We believe this shift ultimately will improve customer and associate satisfaction while decreasing associate turnover.”


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