Hendrick University sits next to Hendrick Automotive Group's modern, three-story headquarters here, in an unassuming, single-story building just big enough to hold three classrooms, a small lunchroom and a couple of modest offices.
But don't let the modest digs fool you.
Hendrick Automotive Group, the nation's sixth-largest dealership group, spends $1.5 million to $2 million a year to run the school. The payoff on that investment comes in various forms, for the company and attendees.
Hendrick's employee turnover rate has dropped from 53 percent before the school's founding in 1999 to 38 percent today.
Employees who go through the courses excel on the job, and many eventually land in management jobs, says John Lamkin, the dealership group's vice president of Hendrick University.
"Well-trained employees are going to perform better," and not just when times are good, Lamkin says. "When it gets trying, or in a situation that is nonroutine, that's when your training really comes in."
Hendrick launched the school with four basic courses. Today, it offers more than 20 on such topics as sales techniques, financial services, service-drive sales and phone skills.
This year, Hendrick University is on track to have 11,000 students take its courses, up from 3,700 five years ago. The company has 7,500 employees, so many of this year's attendees are repeats.
One student, Riki Bokavich, sits quietly in the back of a classroom watching two classmates role-play an interaction between a customer and a salesperson, following a Hendrick University script.
Bokavich is an unlikely student for this three-day sales course. He owned a Volkswagen and Volvo dealership near Boston for 12 years, he says. But the recession hit Bokavich hard.
In 2008 he sold the store. Nine months ago, he joined Hendrick BMW in Charlotte as a salesman.
Bokavich is humbled by what he's learning at the university, he says, including this class, called Selling the Hendrick Way.
"As a dealer, I didn't get involved and go through this entire sales process," Bokavich says. "But to really get the fundaments down here is key."
Another student, Steve Barrett, had worked at Hendrick Honda Bradenton in Bradenton, Florida, for just two weeks before flying to Charlotte to learn to sell cars. He previously sold insurance.
"The role-playing helps a lot," Barrett says. "Each time you repeat a process, you become more comfortable with it."
Role-playing as a teaching tool
Bill Aldridge teaches Selling the Hendrick Way, with the style of a Southern preacher.
A former police officer, Aldridge paces energetically around the classroom, asking provocative questions in his rich Southern drawl, urging students to ponder the meaning behind the sales process he is teaching.
Aldridge has sold cars and managed Hendrick dealerships for 14 years. Now, his most effective teaching tool is role-playing. "I always ask, 'Would you rather practice on your peers or practice on your guests?'"
The university has eight instructors. It will hire four more by year end to meet growing demand, Lamkin says.
Most of the instructors have at least 10 years' experience in dealership jobs, Lamkin says. The instructors constantly read, take online classes, meet with each other and work at dealerships to stay informed, Lamkin says.
The instructors also travel to Hendrick's 84 U.S. locations regularly to teach courses on-site. They provide feedback to managers on course participants' progress. They also tailor training courses to meet store managers' requests for deep dives on subjects for specific employees.
"In the dealership, it's the real world. So when you have an associate fall flat on their face, you can say, 'What happened?' and go through it with them," Aldridge says.
'This process is vital'
Ed Keady partly credits the training for his success as general manager of Hendrick Motors of Charlotte. He has taken nearly every course Hendrick University offers during his 14 years with the company. Now he considers it his responsibility to encourage his nearly 100 store employees to attend the university.
"Our company puts our employees at the top of the pyramid," Keady says. "If you're really serious about doing that, then this process is vital."
Keady often sends his service managers to courses on selling products in the service drive. Salespeople attend courses such as selling techniques, leasing and negotiation.
"We've had human resources courses that as a general manager I've been able to take," Keady says. "That goes from everything from compliance to proper interviewing skills."
Job candidates most often ask Keady about training, he says, making the university program a good recruiting tool.
The courses are free, but Keady pays employees their daily salaries while they're in class and he loses their productivity while they're away. But it's worth it, he says.
"If you want people to really grasp what you're trying to do, it has to be a win for both parties," Keady says. "We're taking the time to send you to our university, to invest in your future and hopefully allow you to be more successful in your job. We're willing to invest in that and pay you to do it."