Dawn Walston was eight years into her role as customer relations manager at Titus-Will Toyota of Tacoma, Wash., when she decided to enter one of the automaker’s employee competitions. Toyota had put out a call for customer relations managers and other key positions at dealerships throughout the U.S. to compete for international recognition. Walston placed first in her category for the Northwest region and went on to compete nationally at Toyota’s North American headquarters, then located in Torrance, Calif.
“I was nervous as heck. There was a written test and a skills test. They put you on camera, give you so much money to work with,” Walston says. “You get a staged phone call, a customer with an issue. I studied so hard that, at one point, my husband Scot finally said, ‘You know what? I think you need to quit studying. You never know what a customer is going to say until they walk in the door.’”
He knew what others who follow Walston’s career understand: She is a master of such spontaneous customer encounters. How else would she work her way up from an entry-level position at the Titus-Will dealership group to service manager at Titus-Will Ford and now vice president and general manager of Titus-Will Toyota? She did it without any higher education or special training in what has been a traditionally male-dominated business.
“Dawn Walston is truly unique. She’s remarkable,” says Graham Tash, Titus-Will’s recently retired president and CEO. “She achieved everything on her own, got opportunities, and never said, ‘That’s not right for me.’ She just said, ‘Absolutely. When do I start? What do I do? Tell me how to go about this.’ Willingness, energy level, talent all over the place.”
More Than a Day Job
Walston’s can-do attitude started early. She grew up in the restaurant business and started working in them as a teen. Just about the time she married in May 1984, she was looking for a change. A chance meeting alerted her that there was an entry-level opening at Titus-Will.
“I thought ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t work for a car dealership,’” she says. “But I interviewed, and they hired me as a service cashier.”
Most people would think of the position as a day job. And it was. Walston spent her time scheduling service appointments, meeting with customers when they picked up their cars, working in customer service, and managing the office, including some payroll and accounting duties.
She enjoyed the dealership job but fretted a bit about the loss in income working on salary instead of hustling for tips, as she had in the restaurant business.
Many people spend their working lives in entry-level positions, with some moving among similar positions. Others might return to a tip-based job. How did Walston succeed where others don’t?
To hear her tell it, she researched the car business, specifically the part to which she was assigned to work, and took every opportunity to learn more. Tash took notice. He promoted Walston through the ranks.
“Lower-level employees too often default to a boss,” says Tash. “Dawn always dared to risk providing customers with answers. She had great decisionmaking, great foresight. The majority of her decisions were right. You can tell who [the achievers] are; when they have it, they have it.”
A Familiar Path That Blazes a New One
As Walston continued in the job, she found commonalities between her restaurant experience and her new line of work. Her hustle, enthusiasm, and skills soon took her from entry-level work and into the management ranks.
“It was all about customer care,” she says. “You develop an instinct with customers. So when I eventually continued to grow and became Ford service manager, it was all about making sure customers understand what you’re doing, explaining so it makes sense, making them feel comfortable.”
The service manager opportunity was offered not long after Walston placed second nationally in Toyota’s contest and returned from Japan, where she and her fellow winners were recognized by factory leadership.
“I was awarded a trip to be inducted into their Assembly of Champions. CR managers, parts people, service advisors, and technicians, all the winners from the national championships. It was a group of 138 delegates from every part of the world. Even people from Egypt and Iran and Korea and France,” she says. “At the end, all the powers that be with Toyota were present when we were inducted into the Assembly of Champions. And I was the only female.”
As eager as Walston was to learn, she initially turned down the offer to become service manager at the group’s Ford dealership.
“I wasn’t a technician,” she says of her hesitancy. “But Graham Tash, who is pretty much the one that launched my career, didn’t care. He said it’s not about what you know technically. It’s about how you take care of the customers. I said yes.”
Tash recalls Walston experience a bit of a learning curve — as do all employees — when she began at various posts. Yet he says he never doubted she would excel.
“She has a tremendous appetite and energy level that is so vital to the automotive industry,” Tash says. “She brought it every day to the point where she was inspiring those around her. Transitioning to the service manager post in the Ford store and making it happen truly put her on the map with the manufacturer, and with me. She just did a marvelous job. Her next promotion was to general manager of the Ford store, then I transferred her to the Toyota store.”
Walston credits Tash’s support with her success. After he brought in a consulting team to help her learn the service-management ropes, she devised a plan to bring various factions within department together.
“You need parts to support service, you need sales to support service, and vice versa. We just developed one team. I did that from 1998 until April 2007,” she says of her service manager role. “And during that time, I was honored by being part of a parts and service advisory council for our region. I used to go to Detroit twice a year and sit on a roundtable.”
Promoting Walston to Ford’s general manager was not just a major step for her but for the dealership. Founded in 1938, the dealer-owner had always filled the GM role at the family owned-and-operated company.
“The board of directors voted me vice president and general manager,” she says. “This is a family-owned and -operated company, so to be a non-family member, in this position, is just amazing. [My work anniversary] was 34 years last November.”
When Walston was first offered the GM position, she told Tash she’d do the work in combination with her role as service manager without changing her title or benefits. It was her way of supporting the store during the Great Recession. Tash insisted she become GM.
One of Walston’s first duties was to hire the right service manager. Walston found the right candidate and trained him. The results included watching labor grow from about $100,000 to $500,000 per month.
The Great Recession
That service success was no small feat, but it’s only part of what Walston considers the dealership’s greatest achievement.
“I was most proud that we got through the recession,” she says. “And we didn’t lay anybody off. We were able to find ways to save money without affecting employees.”
This was a daunting task. But Walston says the dealership pulled together, dissecting financial statements to find savings. The team also told ownership they’d forego 401(k) contributions to keep the dealership profitable.
When Walston discusses those moments, it’s clear she saw her work as an extension of customer service.
“Car sales were hurting,” she says. “People were watching every penny. Once you rebound — and I knew we would — you have shown you care. That’s always been my motto. I do things with an element of fairness and utmost integrity.”
It’s difficult to prompt Walston to discuss how her talents positively impacted both the Ford and Toyota stores — without her turning the conversation back to Tash other dealership staff.
“I’m just surrounded by incredible people,” she says. “You can train the skill, but you have to have core people. I’m lucky that way.”
A Rarity in the Auto Business
It’s been about 18 months since the board of directors voted Walston vice president and general manager of the family-owned and operated company.
She is excited that, as she has grown in her career, so has Toyota and the dealership group, which she mostly credits to a focus on customer service.
“A Camry and an F-150 are pretty much the same no matter wherever you go. As a salesman you think, ‘I just spent two weeks with you. Why would you buy from someone else?’” she says. “You have to understand and either get out of the business or understand once that, once they start coming into service, the next time, they won’t shop around. Make it to where they want to visit you in the waiting room.”
Walston motivates staff with pay plans that inspire staff to strive for top customer service scores, accessory sales, retention numbers and more. Flexibility is key.
“You’re a new Toyota salesperson but they want a used Ford,” she says. “Stay with them and find them another opportunity.”
And she ensures that her sales managers follow her lead and allow salespeople to bond with customers.
“That’s where your people come in. If my managers — I run separate used and new for Toyota — won’t support their salespeople, they can’t work for me. You have to take care of your salesperson. That’s your family.”
And Walston knows her family. She routinely shadows different staff on their jobs and has occasionally spent time on the phone scheduling service appointments.
With the recent discussion about the difficulty of excelling in business, Walston says the process is all attitude.
“For me all you have to do in this business be willing to keep an open mind. Always evolve. Always look outside of the box you’re sitting in,” she says. “I’m not a family member of an existing dealer. I’m rare in this world.”
Tash agrees she is a rare find in the automotive industry, but not for the reason she mentioned. It’s unusual to find an employee who wants to advance the company and colleagues as they build their careers.
“She had too much success for this to be a coincidence. Obviously, she possessed talent,” he says. But she was also adaptive, accommodating, energetic. And she made those around her better. She did it then and still does it today.”
Nancy Dunham is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist. Contact her at [email protected].