Natural light spills into the lobby, decorated in soothing grays and yellows. Affirmations cover the walls: Passion. Support. Transparency. Honesty. So, yeah, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. But this is the Bloomington-based corporate offices of a car dealership. Walser Automotive, led by CEO Andrew Walser, has been breaking molds for a while, shifting to a one-car-one-price model 17 years ago and eliminating commission-based sales in 2011 to appeal to a new brand of employee. Beginning Jan. 1, Walser will offer paid parental leave as part of its continuing drive toward family-friendly policies in an industry not considered warm and fuzzy. Walser, 51, the married father of four, shares what motivates him.
Q: Your one-month paid leave includes maternity, paternity and adoption leave. What led you here?
A: It came out of a series of roundtable discussions with employees. With Chief Human Resources Officer Sherry Schultz, we held hundreds of sessions. Ninety-nine percent of our employees told us that family was the most important value to them. I’d find myself approaching new employees saying, ‘I’m surprised you don’t want to go to our Lexus dealership in Wichita with all the luxury models,’ and I’d hear, ‘Well, my wife’s parents or my parents are here.’ Being able to have parents and grandparents in the same community is tremendously important to them.
Q: Especially, I imagine, when they start their own families. How many employees do you anticipate will take parental leave annually?
A: We have about 1,700 employees between Minneapolis and Wichita. We expect about 20 parents a year will take the paid leave, split 50-50 between mothers and fathers. Both mothers and fathers are equally excited to have time off.
Q: And you’ve got a plan to help them transition back to work, too.
A: We’ve partnered with Care.com, an online marketplace, to offer our employees unlimited digital access to baby sitters, house cleaners and pet sitters, as well as a discounted rate at an accredited national day care. We’ll also offer up to five days of company-subsidized “emergency” backup child care.
Q: Selling cars has never been at the top of family-friendly career options, both because of the financial uncertainty of working on commission and the long, unpredictable hours. How are you addressing those issues with your young sales and support staffs?
A: We shifted from the commission-based pay structure in 2011 to guaranteed income and the opportunity to move up quickly. Sales salaries range from $50,000 to $60,000, which helps when our new hires tell their parents, who just paid for four years of college, that they’re going into car sales.
Q: What about those long hours?
A: The first generation of car dealers like my dad, Jack Walser, worked all the time. In the commission days, salespeople worked 50 or 60 hours a week, or more, often until 10:30 p.m. to finish up deals. They were much more bottom-line driven. But with this generation, work-life balance is crucial. They want to work a 40-hour week and they can. Family is my core value, too. I have four kids and I always made it a point to be at their events. When I was growing up, I didn’t see my dad a lot. I expect my employees to leave at 1 p.m. to see their kid’s soccer game, and come back later. I don’t want them to miss it.
Q: How do you convince young candidates who are looking at Target and 3M and may not even have your industry on their radar?
A: We tell them that they can come to us without ever having worked for a retail auto business. In fact, we like to train them from the start. We offer 13 weeks of training, benefits, career growth and time off.
Q: Who is a good fit for your industry? What qualities might she or he have?
A: We look for people who are problem solvers, who are reliable and who have empathy.
Q: Those sound like the descriptions of someone going into social services.
A: People who would never have considered selling cars are coming to us. They’re coming from the hospitality and food industries. They’re reshaping the face of auto-selling for the good.
Q: Selfishly, I’m thinking that this is also why we’re seeing a reshaping of the face of auto-buying — away from the stressful pursuit it once was. Car lots have long been associated with tricks and backroom deals.
A: People don’t want to be sold anymore. They come into our dealerships sometimes with more information about the car they want than the person selling them the car. I’ve never been a fan of negotiating. If we already know the price we’re going to sell it for, why not start there? Now they can be in and out in 45 minutes. Buying a car should feel like calling Lyft or Uber. How do we make it fast and easy?
Q: What do you remember about selling your first car?
A: I was 18 and working at a Chevrolet store in Plymouth. I was just out of high school. I got two weeks of training and had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t mind talking to people. But transparency wasn’t a part of the business back then.
Q: That was your dad’s world of selling cars. What would he think of newfangled no-commission sales and parental leave policies?
A: My dad would be in favor of this, but the business was so much different back then.