Conscious effort key to diverse staff, dealer says

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A dealership’s employee diversification strategy can’t be just empty words. It requires an intentional mindset from leadership to set the tone for the rest of an organization, said Frank Williams, who owns four RML Automotive Group dealerships in Alabama and Tennessee.

Williams said such an approach was on display when Black Entertainment Television co-founder Robert Johnson partnered with the McLarty-Landers Automotive Group in 2007. At the time, Johnson said one mission of the RLJ-McLarty-Landers Automotive Group, now known as RML Automotive, was to recruit and train minority entrepreneurs to manage dealerships while putting them in a better position to raise capital to buy their own stores.

The company carried out this vision and made Williams its first minority dealer partner in 2008, when he assumed control of Landers McLarty Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep-Ram in Huntsville, Ala. Williams, after getting his opportunity, brought the same commitment to diversity over the years that Johnson expressed at the group’s inception.

Williams has ensured that his stores look like the communities they serve. The Frank Williams Dealerships family also includes a Fiat-Alfa Romeo and Subaru store in Huntsville and another Subaru store in Nashville.

“You have all these talented individuals that never get access to opportunity because the people that are actually doing the hiring are disconnected,” said Williams, 57. “And they never bring all the candidates to the table.”

Williams moved to Alabama from Wisconsin, where he spent 20 years working in a variety of dealership roles, from salesman to general manager. His auto retail career began in 1988 after he served in the U.S. Army. He then acquired critical leadership experience early on when he became a general manager at Frank Boucher Lincoln-Mercury in Milwaukee at 25.

By 2007, Williams was ready to own a store, but his employer didn’t extend the opportunity to be a partner. After reading about the formation of RLJ-McLarty-Landers Automotive and Johnson’s directive to develop minority entrepreneurs in Automotive News, he contacted the company, which soon hired him.

Williams noticed early on that his management staff lacked diversity. He was determined to build an organization with staffers of numerous ethnicities contributing and that provided opportunities for women to hold leadership roles.

“They were not going to be able to create a diverse staff because they were already in a box with how they looked at diversity,” Williams said. “None of it, I believe, was intentional. It was just, historically, if you don’t have a diverse management staff, you’re probably not going to hire diverse.”

It’s no secret that auto retailing has been a white, male-dominated industry. Williams’ stores put together a case study that said this has resulted in an environment that leaves out those “who might not fit the classical mold of the previously accepted ‘car salesman.’ ”

That led to an reinvention of his company’s hiring process. The dealerships, according to the study, have removed the filter of what a “car person” looks like in service, sales, parts or management and tried to widen the pool of applicants.

Williams said he’s open to bringing in people from outside the car business who can be taught how to be customer-experience driven. One way to do that is to cast a wider net in job listings.

“When you see an ad for manager, I’m going to include in there ‘male,’ ‘female’ and I’m also going to include ‘no experience in management,’ ” Williams said. “Rarely do you see ‘no experience in automotive’ for an automotive person.”

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