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Joplin, Missouri, One Year Later: Lessons Learned after a Tornado

The journey from ruin to rebirth involves lessons in taking care of employees, operating a store amid chaos and excelling at customer service despite having no nice building to work in.

July 25, 2012

No one could have imagined a good outcome after a tornado wiped out Fletcher Auto Group's Toyota and Nissan stores in Joplin, Missouri, 14 months ago.

But today, the retail group has two new dealerships, rising retail vehicle sales plus loyal customers and employees.

"We became a better dealer as a result of the tornado because we had to really adapt and work under circumstances that most people do not," says Brent Lobanoff, executive vice president of the 13-dealership Fletcher Auto Group, based in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The journey from ruin to rebirth involves lessons in taking care of employees, operating a store amid chaos and excelling at customer service despite having no nice building to work in.

During the rebuilding, just about every employee's duties changed daily, but each employee got a paycheck despite the devastation from a tornado that took 158 lives in the surrounding community. And dealership managers learned the most important thing they sell is good customer service.

Two months ago on May 22, the anniversary of the tornado, Fletcher opened its new $7 million Toyota dealership on the site of the old store in Joplin. It has granite countertops, beveled glass in the reception area and several giant-screen TV sets.

Nearly two-dozen employees marked the event with three minutes of silence, says Jim Adams, general manager of Fletcher Toyota.

In June, a new $7 million Nissan store also opened on the old Nissan store's site.

"It's nice to have this new beautiful building," Adams says of the Toyota store, "but that's not what makes us a great dealership. We have people who show up every day with a crystal clear understanding of their mission."

The mission started at 6 a.m. on May 23, 2011, in an airport in Little Rock.

There, Fletcher Auto Group CEO Frank Fletcher handed Lobanoff a duffle bag. Inside was $100,000 in cash. Lobanoff boarded a private jet and flew to Joplin.

A day earlier, a tornado had destroyed Fletcher Toyota and Fletcher Nissan. Nearly all the vehicles in stock were either totaled or badly damaged.

But most upsetting to Lobanoff and Fletcher was that 18 of the 320 employees at the group's six dealerships in Joplin had lost their homes, cars and most of their belongings in the tornado. Nearly all 320 were affected in some way, Lobanoff says.

"I came home without a penny, I gave away $100,000 cash to our employees," he says.

Fletcher adds: "Checks are no good when people are standing in front of their home and they don't have any clothes or anything. I thought $100,000 was a good starting place."

In the end, Fletcher would give much more. He assured all his employees in Joplin that they would keep their jobs. For the first two months after the tornado, he paid employees whether or not they showed up for work.

The result was loyal staffers willing to excel at customer service and be flexible under challenging work conditions.

And conditions were challenging almost immediately.

The Toyota store moved into a 30-by-40-foot metal building on the site that once had housed the dealership's used-car operations. It had sustained damage in the storm and been repaired, Adams says.

But because the building was so small, many deals ended up being written in the front seats of cars, he says. And lack of space meant Fletcher Toyota had to run with a skeleton crew doubling-up on duties, Adams says.

"When you walked in the front door, there was a receptionist in the front corner, and she was the warranty clerk and the cashier," he says. "That's because we didn't have a chair for a warranty clerk or a cashier."

The biggest challenge was customer parking during the construction, Adams says. "We got creative and used four service porters as valets for customers."

The Nissan operation had moved two miles away into Fletcher Ford-Lincoln, where Ford had made an exception to its franchise-agreement rule prohibiting competing brands under the same rooftop.

To make sure the tight quarters at Fletcher Toyota didn't cramp customer service, Adams instituted what he dubs the "10-foot rule." When employees come within 10 feet of a customer, they should engage the customer in a friendly manner to ask if they can help, answer a question or simply say hello.

"Every customer gets smiled at, the customer gets asked what they could have to make their service better. Just serve, serve, serve," Adams says. "Our philosophy is we don't assign responsibility; every single person is 100 percent responsible for each detail of the dealership. No one gets to say, 'That's not my job.' ''

Customers responded positively, he says. Fletcher Toyota is on pace to sell more than 2,000 new and used vehicles this year, topping the 1,400 it sold in a typical year before the storm struck. Fletcher Nissan is on pace to sell 1,200 total vehicles this year, ahead of the 775 it sold in 2010.

And Fletcher managed to win a 2011 Toyota President's Award for exceptional customer satisfaction. Adams notes they did that without a real building to work in.

"To this day people come here not because they hear our dealership got destroyed but because they've heard of our great service," Adams says. "When we didn't have anything else to sell, we learned how to sell great service."

Jamie LaReau writes for Automotive News, a sister publication of Workforce Management. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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