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Selling cars and selling groceries don’t tend to coincide. But in the case of Pittsfield, Mass.-based Haddad Auto Group’s long history the two have a lot in common.

More than 90 years ago, George L. Haddad’s grandfather, George A. Haddad, arrived from Lebanon to a foreign land, armed with little more than an eighth-grade education and the clothes on his back. He started working at a Massachusetts grocery store to help support his mother and brother after his father died.

The seeds of ambition helped him learn the grocery business and eventually purchase a store. It wasn’t until he sold it that he started selling cars, perhaps seeing a better future in the higher-priced product, Haddad doesn’t know for sure.

“He bought a used car lot and soon acquired a Pontiac franchise and started selling new cars,” says the grandson of the original founder and current president and CEO of the company.

Haddad’s grandfather passed the dealership along to his father, Louis, who Haddad says made a decent living and added a Toyota franchise 53 years ago. “For the longest time, that’s all we had was a Pontiac and a Toyota franchise.”

He entered the family business after graduating from college in 1981. “I’d been working there all along, but that is when I started working with my father full time.”

Eventually, Louis passed on the business to his son, and that’s when it “almost went broke,” Haddad recalls.

A mix of circumstances combined to create challenging times. He said he purchased a Jeep and Buick franchise, and, at the same time, Pontiac required him to build a new facility that could house all the brands under one roof. A short time later, General Electric, a major area employer, laid off thousands of people in Pittsfield, where the dealership was located.

The auto group teetered on the precipice of bankruptcy when Haddad says an unexpected encounter with a Toyota representative named John Brown altered the course of his business trajectory. Brown stood Haddad in front of a mirror and asked him what he saw.

“I thought this was odd, and answered, ‘I see me,’” he recalls with a chuckle.

But Brown said he saw something different—the problem and the solution to the dealership’s troubles. “He said, ‘You are the problem and can be the solution if you allow me to help you fix it.” Haddad recalls, explaining that Brown meant that Haddad was ultimately responsible and must make tough decisions.

Under Brown's guidance and Haddad’s resolve, the dealership experienced a metamorphosis.

“I had to lay off 10 people, change a few things around, and soon I started making money again,” he says. “That was in 1989, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Today, Haddad Auto Group comprises four stores, one representing Toyota, one Hyundai and two Subaru dealerships, one in upper Vermont and the other in western Massachusetts, combined employing over 250 people and selling about 5,000 cars a year.

Haddad said his recipe for success revolves around a core philosophy rooted in respect and fairness toward employees. He said he’s convinced that nurturing loyalty among employees is the key to achieving outstanding customer satisfaction and, consequently, profitability. The business’ own profitability has paved the way for other ventures, including adding more dealerships and a collision center.

Haddad said he considers the collision center a crucial part of the business. “This offering makes us a full-service operation for the customer. If they crack up their car, we have a collision center and a full-service rental division available for them.”

The group's success also supports a commitment to community service.

“If I hire the right people, build loyalty with them, and keep the right people on, I’m going to have great customer satisfaction. If I have great customer satisfaction, I’m going to make a fair profit. If I make a fair profit, I can give back to the community in the areas that need help.”

A Nurturing Environment

Group employees aren’t seen as mere cogs in the machinery but treated as extended family, their well-being considered a top priority, says Haddad, who particularly emphasizes commitment to employees who’ve given years to the company.

“I do not push people out. I have two people in their eighties working for me. One is scanning documents and works three to four hours a day. The other delivers mail to the different dealerships in the area. They, along with many others, have been with me for decades, and I feel an obligation to them.”

Helping employees in their struggles is another focus. When an employee’s son was recently hit by a car, every dealership in the group provided financial support. “We stepped up and showed her what family is all about and helped her through a time when she had to stay home and take care of her son,” Haddad says.

He also makes it a point to give credit where credit is due. For instance, the group has won Toyota’s President’s Award for 15 consecutive years, an honor only a small percentage of U.S. dealerships win.

Haddad says that if it wasn’t for the employees, the awards wouldn’t be possible. To ensure they know their efforts are appreciated and seen, he plans employee holiday and summer parties for employees and their families and an overnight event for them and their spouses with an open bar and bountiful presents.

“They have to spend the night, have a great time and be safe. They can take advantage of the spa services on us,” he says.

There are turkeys given out for Thanksgiving and quarterly luncheons to update employees about the business. At Christmas, the dealership brings Santa to the local country club and invites employees and their children.

Excellence in Customer Service

Customer service has also been a priority at Haddad Auto Group since its inception. Haddad says customers are warmly welcomed and catered to by a staff who genuinely care about their needs.

“When employees are paid well, and treated well, they take better care of customers. If they not going to be friendly and go the extra mile, then they don’t belong here.”

Haddad says he brings in the right employees for the service department through a program he created between Toyota and Taconic High School, one of the largest vocational schools in the area.

Program participants complete eight Toyota learning modules to receive a certified Toyota technician credential. Toyota provides equipment, Toyota-focused training for instructors, and on-site training for students at its regional headquarters in Mansfield.

The auto group has hired students who complete the program. He tells the story of Hannah, a once-shy young woman who became an express service writer at the Toyota dealership. “She takes excellent care of our customers, and at 18 years old she just bought herself a new car. She’s full of life. Our customers see her enthusiasm and are excited to see her.”

Continuous training and education take center stage at the company. Haddad’s commitment to the cause ensures each team member, from service advisers to technicians, is well-prepared and equipped.

“Everybody takes the Toyota, Hyundai and Subaru training,” he says. “My mission is to have 100% of the staff fully trained through these programs. Then you know they are competent. A lot of dealers don’t do that.”

The group also offers various classes to further foster employee growth. Sending employees who aspire to be general managers through the professional development series of the National Automobile Dealers Association. Every store is also part of a NADA 20 Group to encourage peer-to-peer learning for improved performance and success.

“We require all general managers to be part of a 20 Group, so they continue to learn,” Haddad says. “We also have service groups, collision groups and digital advertising groups. Employees can participate in these programs to learn as much as they can.”

The company helps employees develop their careers.

“If they want to move into new positions, we find spots for them,” he explains. “We’ve had two or three people work their way from the reconditioning department to sales. People in the collision center started in body work and have become painters. We just talk to our employees about what they want to do and help them grow.”

Adapting to Change

Haddad Auto Group, like most dealerships, has had to adapt to change, including all of the digital innovations. Its business development office, comprising 10 team members, ensures all online information gets entered into the customer relations management system before customers move from online shopping to in-store.

But Haddad says he believes people still yearn for the tactile experience of visiting a dealership. “We have many people contact us through the internet and do the legwork there. But we still find customers want to come in and see the car, touch the car, and buy the car. A very small percentage of people do the entire sales process online.”

When it comes to electric vehicles, Haddad says going full-bore is premature. “I don’t think the country is ready and I don’t think consumers are ready. Dealers must offer other solutions, from hybrid cars to plug-in hybrids, to EVs.”

He said that a family of five, for instance, might struggle to plug in five electric vehicles at night, a person living in an apartment might not have a place to charge an EV, while someone living in a freezing climate might struggle to keep an EV powered.

“You cannot force the public to depend on EVs,” he says. “Not only that, but if I can sell 90 hybrids versus one EV, that represents 130 tons of carbon savings versus 3.7 tons of carbon savings for one EV. You may think that is a high comparison 90 to 1. But what people don’t realize is that a significant portion of the precious minerals needed are controlled by foreign countries to make that one EV and the same amount can build 90 hybrids. Additionally, one can build 6 plug-in hybrids to 1 EV, using the same amount of precious minerals and that saves 19 tons of carbon emissions versus the 3.7 tons for the EV mentioned previously. We must have options. You need batteries that offer a longer charge. Toyota is working on a solid-state solution that gets 600-700 miles to a charge and charges in less than 10 minutes. We must have multiple options so that we can match each customer with the right vehicle for their needs.”

Family and the Future

As the Haddad family's enduring legacy enters its fourth generation, the question of succession looms large.

Haddad says his children are forging distinct paths. His daughter, a college senior at Bryant University, has aspirations outside of the family business, while his son, a sophomore at Boston College's Carroll School of Business, entertains notions of steering the enterprise someday.

Here, Haddad takes a unique stance from other owners of family businesses. Before his children can take a role in the company, they must hold jobs elsewhere to gain comprehensive training and learning first.

“I want them to work another job for at least three years before they even talk to me about working in the dealership.”

He said he also believes succession shouldn’t be a given. “I see too many people force their kids into the family business. That’s a big problem. I just want my kids to be happy and productive. If that’s in the family business, that’s great. If not, that’s great too.”

Contributions to the Community

Haddad's influence extends beyond dealerships to the wider community.  

His grandfather was known for his charitable contributions, including donating vehicles for driver’s education. Haddad has continued that legacy with the group supporting hundreds of local organizations since then.

“We believe that in supporting community events and public services, we help make our community and neighboring communities a better place to live, work and do business,” he says.

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The group created Haddad Helps to formalize its community service efforts centered on children’s causes, education, military veterans, community culture and animal rescue.

“I used to be a Big Brother, and I am still friends with some of the young men I mentored,” Haddad says. “I served on the board for years for the Boys & Girls Club and still fundraise for Strong Little Souls, an organization supporting pediatric cancer patients and their families. Supporting veterans through Soldier On and an organization that helps homeless veterans get back on their feet, is very near and dear to our hearts. In addition, we are a huge supporter of The Berkshire Humane Society animal shelter.”

Though Haddad says he doesn’t give back to receive recognition, the company has been lauded for its efforts, receiving the 2023 Subaru Love Promise Customer & Community Award, also known as The Subaru Love Promise Gold Award, for a 2023 Strong Little Souls event.

“I love to help children,” he says. “I am blessed. I have a beautiful bride and wonderful kids, a nice home and an enjoyable life. Why wouldn’t I want to help other people? There are so many areas where people need help.”

Haddad Helps contributions have benefited many other causes, but Haddad says he doesn’t push employees to get involved. “They just do. My general managers know they have to be involved in the community,” and their example draws others to participate.

Haddad stresses the achievements of Haddad Auto Group go far beyond the business of selling cars. In a profit-driven world, he says Haddad Auto Group serves as a reminder that true success is measured by making a difference in people's lives.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ronnie Wendt is an editor at F&I and Showroom.

About the author
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