Training Your Replacement


"SUCCESSION PLANS? You must be kidding! I don't have the time, capital or energy to properly manage and train the folks I have in place now, much less to think about who I'd replace them with in the future!"

Sound familiar? Particularly in these soft economic times, thinking strategically about the future can be daunting. But that's exactly what you should be doing to prevent the bad from getting worse, putting your dealership or department in financial jeopardy.

Believe me, as a dealer, I face the decision of separating the urgent from the important every day. We get trapped into dealing with things like customer complaints, a key employee who calls in sick during the biggest sale of the year, weather issues right in the middle of a major promotion, and so on.

But the reality is, any employee (usually your best one, of course) can pick up and leave for greener pastures or be stolen by a competitor. Because of this, you must have some sort of backup plan — a strategic succession plan — for every position, for each department, and for the store itself. If you don't have succession plans in place, then every time an employee leaves — and we all know how high turnover can be in this industry and in these times — your revenues and profits are at risk; it also puts stress on you as the dealer or department manager. You never meet your financial projections, and your mental and physical health deteriorate.

Do you find yourself saying something like "If Suzy Bookkeeper hadn't left us at the worst possible time, we'd have been able to get our financials to the IRS/bank/OEM"? Or "If Johnny Salesmanager hadn't been stolen away by our competitor, we'd have made our sales and profit plan last month"? Or even "If we didn't have to fire Paul Partsmanager, our inventory wouldn't be in such pitiful shape"? If so, you are the subject of this article. And do not think it's the nature of the beast just because at a 20 group meeting every dealer described these same issues but couldn't offer a solution.

Years ago when I was a district manager at Chrysler Corp., a very successful Florida Dodge dealer told me, "It's better to prevent rather than fix." He added, "You'd better have a backup plan in place for every position." What he meant was, hire the right people in the first place, not just the first person you interview, and hire for the long term. Then pay them competitively. Treat them with respect, and develop and cross-train them constantly. Make it a fun place to work, and don't ask anything of them that you wouldn't do yourself. These are some of the key steps that tend to keep your employees around longer in the first place.

When conducting his annual personnel performance reviews (yes, good dealers have annual reviews with their people — it's not just for big corporations), the Dodge dealer would ask employees what other positions or departments they were interested in. That gave him something to work with as he thought about where he might place them in a few months to give them a broader experience. This helped prepare for future openings. At least once a year, usually in the slower season, he'd try a few people in new positions. This helped prevent employees from getting bored and taught them new skills — and of course, employees felt valued in the process. People being trained frequently asked questions or brought new insights to the position that the previous employees may not have thought about. The cross-training process added stability and viability to the dealership. And the dealer rested more comfortably when the inevitable would happen and a key person had to be replaced.


Now, what about a succession plan for your dealership? Who takes over if you choose to replace yourself (or someone chooses for you)? I've talked about this in previous columns — it has to do with "Begin with the end in mind," to quote Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Even your retirement or unplanned departure has to be thoroughly considered before you start your dealership, or as soon as you start as a department manager. If you're a dealer, having those succession plans in place before you begin the joy of owning and managing your own dealership is a prerequisite developed along with your circle of advisers, including your family, attorney, CPA, business consultant, OEM and others.

If you're a new department head, train a person who can do your job almost as well as you. Otherwise, you'll never be able to take a day off. Plus, you'll never be considered for a promotion because you're "too valuable" in your current position. Talk about a growth inhibitor! Believe me, training your successor and planning for your replacement, while it sounds counterintuitive, is the best job security you could ever have.

Employers and managers don't want to think they'll have to replace an employee or themselves. But life happens, and you need to be prepared. The process of strategic succession planning is not that complicated. It can be fun, and it adds value to your dealership or your department.

Clark Vitulli is a Harley-Davidson dealer in St. Augustine, Fla. Contact him via