Two Million Dollars Overdrawn with the Bank
John owned a very large automobile dealership in the Midwest but he felt like it owned him. His overhead was out of control. His debt load was mounting. Sales were consistently falling short of projections. He had a disgruntled former employee suing the company and he was two million dollars out of trust with the bank.
They didn’t know. Nobody knew. Each day he wrote transfer checks from one bank to another, kiting checks and praying the clearing house stayed a day behind. He sent out unsigned checks to suppliers to slow down the money but none of this could last for long. In his despair, he went home to watch the war on television
This was Monday, February 25th, 1991 and Desert Storm was in full swing. General Schwarzkopf had begun the invasion of Kuwait and Iraq in what would be a very short war and a great victory for the coalition of Western forces put together by President George Bush
As John switched back and forth from CNN to Network coverage, he watched many scenes repeated regularly on the hour. Three interviews stood out. A British correspondent asked an enlisted man, part of an artillery crew, “What are you doing here?” The young soldier responded without hesitation that he was here to free Kuwait.
The second story was from a Network anchorman embedded with an armored cavalry unit. He phrased the question differently when talking to a Captain in charge of several tanks, but the meaning was the same and the officer responded without so much as a heartbeat, “We are here to free Kuwait.”
Finally, the screen filled with the General himself. Norman Schwarzkopf in the defining moment of a long career was asked, “What is your mission here, General?”
“We are here to free Kuwait,” he replied.
The reporter pressed for more. Would he take Bagdad? Would he capture Saddam Hussein? But the General sidestepped it all. His mission, from the White House to the front line troop, was unchanged. We were there to free Kuwait.
John watched the news all night. He seemed in a stupor, unable to sleep, unable to move, only his index finger moving on the remote. Up the channels, down the channels, he hid from his reality. As the sun began to light his windows, John sat up, overwhelmed with emotion. He knew what he must do.
He ran to the bathroom, showered, shaved and put on a suit. He was surprised at how light traffic was. Then he realized how early he was. He arrived at the dealership even before the service manager, who was known for always being first on the job.
When Tim arrived, John’s first question was, “What is your mission here?”
Tim looked at his boss and thought what, not so much as a good morning? He unlocked the gate and invited John to his small office with windows open to the service drive. He offered fresh coffee, thinking about his answer, formulating something that would sound important. John was impatient, almost agitated, and he pressed for an answer.Fifteen minutes later John was off to see Linda, the finance manager.
By nine-thirty he had interviewed 22 managers and employees. He had 22 different answers. Much of the response had been self-serving, even defensive. Some seemed just plain stupid. A parts clerk said her mission was to make sure the service writers knew what was overstocked so they could upsell those items. A new car salesman said his mission was to separate the men from the boys, implying that the men were the ones ready to buy now. He made no mention of women prospects.
John sat down and wrote a one-page memo to all who worked at the store. It said, “From this day forward, your mission is to give the customer the best car-buying experience possible.” He went on to say that each employee was empowered to do whatever they felt necessary to accomplish their mission. By eleven o’clock, the memo had been fully distributed, and by five past eleven, he had his first pushback.
The service manager, Tim, wanted to know just how far were his employees to go. The finance manager predicted huge losses from rampant refunding of upsell items like undercoating and window tinting. To all, he simply referred them back to the mission.
He told them the mission was everything and anyone not on board could disembark immediately.
John’s next call was to the bank. He told his banker about his shortfall and asked for 90 days to fix the cash flow. The lady was not happy but she weighed her options and agreed.
The difference was immediate. That very afternoon a customer demanded to speak to the owner and once in John’s office, he said he just had to pass on a compliment about an employee and his treatment. It was all over a small detail paid attention to and John noted in the back of his mind that it had not cost the dealership a dime. So much for the doomsayers.
At the end of the first full month, sales were up by 60% more than projected, costs were down, and three people didn’t make the cut. The bank was set right in 63 days. John marveled at how everything had become easy. Three years later he completed a multi-million dollar expansion financed by the same bank he had long ago hidden from.
Ultimately, John sold it all to a national chain and he now enjoys his unfettered retirement.
When we received John’s letter, he told us how he had found a copy of “Clients First” at his local Barnes & Noble. He said he read it cover to cover in a single evening and was now going back to underline passages. Then, he shared how much he identified with our experience of trying to explain the two word miracle of Clients First.
John said that over the prosperous years he was asked repeatedly about his success. He said auto executives from his brands would send people to ask. He told them all about his revelation, that putting everyone on a simple and common mission directed at making the customer number one was all he did, and they did not get it. They did not get it because it was too simple, too easy. They all wanted a program, not an aha. To be sure, there were many times he had to define and refine his mission. He had to get people to buy in. But his vision never changed and that made all the difference.
In our book, “Clients First, The Two Word Miracle”, JoAnn and I called it our dark and stormy night. John called it his sunrise inspiration. You can have your moment. You can have your aha. It will be your miracle.
Joseph & JoAnn Callaway