Meet a Rockford-area auto dealership that’s finding new energy thanks to a 35-year veteran of the local car industry.
Whenever George Schaffner takes on a new employee, he presents the new hire with a gold coin that reads “Whatever It Takes.” It’s a fitting axiom for the general manager of Lou Bachrodt Auto Mall, a 35-year veteran of the auto business who brings a can-do attitude to work every day.
“I have one goal for my employees every day – make a difference in what you do,” he says. “Be relevant. You have a choice. Is your day going to go well, or are you going to be defeated before you even get started? You need to be proud of where you work, of what you do, and of your brand. You need to wear your logo with pride. You have to have faith that doing the right things will give you the results you’re looking for.”
Schaffner served as general manager at Saturn of Rockford for 10 years, until General Motors (GM) pulled the plug on the brand. Owned by Zimbrick Automotive Group, based in Madison, Wis., the Rockford dealership stayed open as a used car lot, before closing its doors for good in August 2010.
The first thing Schaffner did was help his 36 employees find new jobs. Then, after kicking the tires on a few options, in October 2010 he accepted the position of general manager at Lou Bachrodt Auto Mall, 7070 Cherryvale N. Blvd., which sells and services Chevrolet, VW and BMW vehicles.
According to Pat Bachrodt, dealer operator/corporation president, the company was in need of new energy and vision when Schaffner became available. “His reputation was tremendous,” says Bachrodt. “When my former general manager left for another opportunity, the only phone call I made was to George. His results have always been impressive.”
The feeling was mutual for Schaffner, who came away from a series of meetings with Bachrodt convinced that he could steer the dealership in the right direction. “I could help them do things a new way and re-establish them as a pillar of the community in a very visual way,” he says. “In turn, they could help me keep the vision we had for Saturn alive and well.”
The Saturn brand, which was unveiled in 1983 but wasn’t officially launched until seven years later, featured the iconic tagline, “A different kind of car company.” It was GM’s hope that Saturn could attract younger consumers by offering smaller, cooler cars, like the ION, VUE and Aura. In fact, GM built a new plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., devoted entirely to making Saturn vehicles. But the brand never made money and the factory stopped making Saturns in 2007. Three years later, GM shut Saturn down, marking the end of a brand that was supposed to transform the way small cars were built and sold.
“Business doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy,” Schaffner says. “It has to be based on good core principles. It’s more than selling a car, and sometimes we forget that. It’s about taking care of the customer. Most dealerships think the relationship ends with the sale, but that’s just the start of it. Saturn always excelled at building relationships.”
The first thing Schaffner did when he joined Bachrodt was to instill the Saturn core values and vision – to be known as a leader in customer sales and service satisfaction, community involvement and market penetration. “We wanted to be known as the company that ‘gets it’ and does it right,” he says.
He met with department heads and other staff members to discuss philosophies and strategies, and to analyze policies and procedures. Together, they reviewed job descriptions and ultimately reorganized departments and job responsibilities. “I had to learn a lot about the current structure,” Schaffner says. “It’s hard to get from A to B unless you know where A is.”
The transition was made smoother when several of Saturn’s former employees were invited to come along for the ride, including Rob Hamilton, Schaffner’s general sales manager for the past decade. Many of Saturn’s former customers brought their business to Bachrodt, which GM had assigned to handle Saturn’s service repair work.
Gene Lindsay, Machesney Park, has noticed the Saturn influence at Bachrodt. After the 1996 Oldsmobile he bought from Saturn 14 years ago was totaled in a car accident, he purchased a 2011 Malibu from Bachrodt this summer. “I honestly never thought about buying a car from Bachrodt before,” Lindsay says. “Saturn made you feel like you’re special, and I can see that same thing at Bachrodt. If your business is going to survive, you have to treat people the right way.”
That includes being a generous community supporter. Just as he did at Saturn, Schaffner, who served as president of the Rockford New Car Dealers Association, continues to host monthly fundraising activities at the dealership, including National Donor Day for the Rock River Valley Blood Center; an annual dog wash for local animal service organizations; and the Salvation Army’s Toy Drive. Bachrodt partners on other community-related events with businesses and organizations such as First Northern Credit Union, the Rockford IceHogs and Rockford RiverHawks.
“George has totally turned our direction around 100 percent, toward the customer and the community,” Bachrodt says. “Our family has been in town since 1953. We thought we were committed to the community with the things we’ve done, but George has taken our involvement to an entirely different level. We have 100-plus employees who carry that banner all day, every day.”
The results are in the numbers. Since Schaffner came on board a year ago, Bachrodt’s new car sales are up 130 percent. Total store volume has increased 62 percent, and traffic in the service department has improved 30 percent. “I give the Bachrodts all the credit for letting me do it my way,” Schaffner says. “Thirteen months later, we’re a substantially different company. There’s a solid breath of optimism in a tough marketplace. That tells us we’re doing something right.
“Not every customer is going to buy a car from us, and that’s OK. We’re not going to have every product they’re looking for, and that’s OK. We’re not always going to have the best price, and that’s OK. But you always have to offer the best experience. That’s where you become a better company.”
And the future looks bright. Sitting in his meticulous office one recent weekday, Schaffner proudly ticked off the names of various Chevrolet products and their features as if they were his children – there’s the Cruze, Volt, Malibu and Impala. There’s the Equinox, Traverse and the Silverado, voted Truck of the Year. There’s the Jetta, Passat and Beetle. “They’re well-built, priced well and great to look at,” he says. “Chevrolet has hit a home run with these cars.”
For 20 years, Schaffner lived and breathed the Saturn brand, and he admits that it was difficult walking away from that chapter of his career. But he’s been re-energized, he says, by pouring his passion into making Bachrodt relevant again.
“I love what I do,” he says. “I enjoy working with customers. I enjoy working with salespeople. I enjoy all of it. Saturn died, but what Saturn represented doesn’t have to. Saturn changed the way the car industry looked at itself. It brought humanity back to the car business, and that belief is alive and well, 1.6 miles south at Lou Bachrodt Auto Mall.” ❚