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Diversity Pays Off in Big Sales for Toyota Dealership

September 1, 1998
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Related Topics: Diversity, Workforce Planning, Featured Article
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Spanish. Korean. Arabic. Vietnamese. Hebrew. Mandarin. Tagalog. You name it, and someone at Longo Toyota in El Monte, California, can speak it. With a 60 person sales staff that speaks more than 20 different languages, Longo has catered to its increasingly diverse customer base and become one of the top grossing car dealerships in the nation.

Although the type of bilingual service provided by Longo is not particularly unique in today’s multicultural society, the fact that the dealership has assembled such a diverse sales staff without any formal affirmative action program is.

Simply by hiring and recruiting the best available talent, the staff at Longo has naturally evolved into an extremely diverse and effective group of salespeople. They’ve contributed to making Longo the top-grossing car dealership in the state, and possibly the country, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times (Longo won’t divulge its sales figures or ranking).

One person who has played an integral role in this growing diversity and, more importantly, its positive effect on the bottom line is HR manager Ken Rankin. Workforce recently discussed HR’s role in diversity, and its impact on business, with Rankin.

Do you think HR is the right department to lead the move toward diversity?
Well, diversity couldn’t happen if the whole job fell solely on the shoulders of HR. With our business, like any other that runs well, things must come from the top down.

But I think one of the benefits of HR is its oversight. HR has a great opportunity to help the business because we’re not tied to any other department. It’s very easy for other departments to get wrapped up in their day-to-day issues, but HR can offer a non-biased and objective insight into many different situations, including diversity.

What will your HR department do in the future to maintain diversity?
We’ll continue to go after different markets from a business and marketing standpoint, [and] we’ll continue to hire those people who are most qualified for the position and best satisfy our customers’ needs, be it bilingual or otherwise.

Compared to other dealerships where half of the salespeople turn over every year, Longo retains an incredibly high 90 percent of its diverse sales staff. How do you accomplish this?
First of all, salespeople here have a tremendous opportunity to have good and consistent income levels because we have such a huge customer base. We also work very hard to be responsive to the employee and we have stuck to our goal of promoting from within. So we give our employees not only the opportunity to improve their income levels, but also the chance for a number of promotional considerations.

With your promote-from-within policy, more than two-thirds of your managers are minorities. How has this helped with recruitment and retention of a diverse sales staff?
It only benefits us. When you enter an organization, you try to anticipate what it’s going to be like. When you walk in here, it becomes readily apparent that we recruit from within, and we don’t restrict anything to any specific group or class. That really helps.

With such an ethnically and culturally diverse group of employees, have you had any problems getting people to work together?
Minor issues certainly pop up from time to time, but typically, it only happens at the individual level. Somebody may say an off-color joke or something that offends someone else, but we have not had any larger, across-the-board problems with groups not being able to work together. Really, it all boils down to the individual.

Does Longo have any cultural training programs for its employees?
No. We don’t teach any special skills on how to deal with any particular ethnic groups. However, we do spend a lot of time training our salespeople. Every salesperson we hire must complete two weeks of training in which they shadow other people in the company and rotate through different jobs.

We also make all of our salespeople attend one week of "sales college." These things give our salespeople a better grasp of their jobs and of general sales principles. This usually helps them accommodate customers’ needs, regardless of ethnicity.

In your opinion, what are the positive effects of diversity?
If you’re not recruiting on a diverse basis, you’re missing a lot of talent. When you try to solve problems at any organization, you look for diverse perspectives, and that’s certainly a great strength of ours.

Also, I think our customers feel comfortable because it’s obvious we encourage diversity. As opposed to walking into an environment where everyone is of the same culture and the customer may feel awkward, our diversity helps the customer relax.

Do you think there are any negative effects of diversity?
No. I really can’t think of any. Diversity is an absolute strength of ours, especially from a business perspective.

Given Longo’s success, would you recommend that every company try to secure a diverse workforce?
The important thing is to run your business effectively and meet your customers’ needs, regardless of what they are. But if you look around and your workforce isn’t diverse, you need to take a step back and figure out why. Maybe there are valid reasons, but in most cases, there should be no reason why your workforce isn’t diverse.

Longo has only four women salespeople and one woman in top management. Is recruiting more women a goal?
Yes. I think that many of our customers would like to deal with a woman salesperson. If we don’t have women or bilingual salespeople and that makes some customers feel uncomfortable, we’re not meeting their needs like we should. We want to recruit women to really make our customers happy.

What are some methods that the HR department is usng to recruit women?
The first thing we’re doing is taking a serious look at our system of recruiting and hiring. We’re trying to determine whether or not there are things about the system that are limiting female applicants and hires.

Right now, our system is geared toward experienced salespeople. This is a problem because there aren’t many women who are experienced salespeople and we’re committed to only hiring the best-qualified individuals. We’re trying to change the system to integrate less experienced people and get them working effectively.

One thing that we have done is we have added a sales management staff. That has allowed us to spend more time with each of the salespeople and bring them up to speed. We’re also relying more on word-of-mouth and referrals from our current sales staff to recruit more women.

What are some lessons that can be learned from Longo’s experience with workforce diversity?
If you don’t have an open mind, you need to get one because you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities. Also, I think companies should try to increase their awareness and even place a higher value on diversity, because it is really a true business strength.

How has HR worked with other departments at Longo to promote diversity?
At the department-head level, we meet once a week to talk about important issues. We are all involved in everything, but we do not go out of our way to discuss specific diversity plans and we certainly do not go out of our way to recruit a member of any specific ethnic group.

Our diversity has been a natural evolution, rather than a specific plan.

Workforce, September 1998, Vol. 77, No. 9, pp. 91-92.

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