When it comes to reopening the economy, most reports of businesses restarting are cautious at best, with the majority offering up ominous stories of new COVID-19 cases, lost revenue, and worse. But the reality when talking to most business leaders in our region is optimistic. “There is good news out there. The media would have you believe that it’s all different, but I’m telling you that every businessperson I’m talking to right now is doing really, really well—especially in the retail world,” said Aaron Zeigler, president of Zeigler Auto Group.
Aaron leads the Kalamazoo-based auto group including its 84 franchises in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois; Zeigler Motorsports located on Sprinkle Road; and TrakHouz Bar & Grill, also on Sprinkle. Here in Michigan, as soon as auto sales were allowed to happen in person by Governor Whitmer, Zeigler brought its employees back. “We had 100 percent of employees back as of May 1. It’s really easy to shut down a company. It’s a lot harder to open them back up.”
On Returning to Work
Zeigler talked about the positives and challenges brought on to employers by the CARES Act stimulus plan which adds $600 to weekly unemployment income. For workers some whose jobs have gone away, it’s a blessing, but for those who find themselves earning more on unemployment, it’s a reason to not return to work until the federal program runs out at the end of July. To entice his employees to return to work, the auto group created the Zeigler Stimulus Plan. “We gave everybody a $10 an hour raise for eight weeks, and then we gave them free health insurance in May and June to get them to come back on May 1,” said Zeigler.
Zeigler found his employees were happy to come back. The company has also kept the health and safety of the employees a point of concern following industry standard protocols. “We do a deep cleaning of the building each night. We’re wearing masks. We’re doing social distancing. We’re doing different shifts with our people out there.” He also points out that testing has gotten very good. “When this thing first hit, if somebody was exposed, they were off work for 14 days. Now they’re off work until they go get test [and can report back a negative result].” In some states, it takes a day right now to get results; in other places, like Chicago, testing results are returned in 45 minutes.
With a work environment built around the engagement of his people, Aaron believes that the only way to build a team atmosphere is to have people socially interacting on a daily basis. “You can do a Zoom meeting, and they work great. But you don’t get any of the relationship building wrapped around that,” said Aaron. “You don’t get any of the chit chat before a meeting or after a meeting. It’s just strictly the meeting, you go do it and you’re done with it.”
To get that social interaction, Aaron is a strong champion of getting people back to work. “From a social interaction, standpoint, human behavior [craves] getting together [with other people],” explains Aaron. “You can still do that with social distancing. You can do it in small groups. The only way that you can really build a team atmosphere is to have people having social interaction on a daily basis.”
The Results Are In
During the downtime when in-person sales were disallowed, the company drove its technical innovation to the finish line. The auto group was close—about 95% of the way there—to allowing a purchaser to complete a car purchases online pre-COVID. “We went to where you could do 100 percent of it online. You can literally buy a car from us and never talk to anybody at all—if you really want to,” said Aaron.
And the results have been through the roof. “We had a record month in May, and then we blew that away in June with another record month on both auto sales and motor sports. Interestingly, we had a record month in service and parts too,” said Aaron. Like many industries, inventory has become a challenge. “We saw this coming in April, We’ve been out buying cars all over the country since then to have enough cars. We’ve got about 6,000 cars in stock right now, and we normally have 10,000.”
Getting the Local Economy Back on Track
Right now, getting the local economy revved up is top of mind for Aaron. “The local economy can best be served by getting people back to work, back in their offices. If people are working from home, now all of a sudden. they’re not visiting stores and restaurants and whatnot. I think we need to get everybody back into their offices,” voiced Aaron. “You can do that safely. You can do it intelligently. We can still move the economy forward, because the longer we go, the harder it is to get certain segments of the economy going. The retail segment is on fire right now. It’s as good as it’s ever been, but we need to have the mom and pop stores in our region’s downtown areas get going again. And we need to have workers down there to be able to support those businesses.”