Mercedes-Benz’s Avant-Garde Auto Dealership

Mercedes-Benz Burlington is redefining car buying with never-before-seen amenities, and leaders Owen Tseng and Christine Ridgley know that to make that happen it starts with happy employees

Christine Ridgley, Head of Human Resources and Owen Tseng, General Manager. Photo by Grant Rushton

A car dealership is probably one of the last places people associate with a relaxing weekend destination. The Ontario-based Mercedes-Benz Burlington is working hard to buck the industry stereotype that buying a car has to be a stressful experience. In fact, the team at Burlington aims to turn trips to its dealership into the ultimate luxury-lifestyle experience. And if the popularity of its café, driving range, or award-winning spa is any indication, it seems to be doing a pretty good job.

However, according to Owen Tseng, Burlington’s general manager, and Christine Ridgley, Burlington’s head of human resources, being an auto-industry game-changer has a lot to do with creating a corporate culture that puts employee satisfaction on par with customer satisfaction. Advantage sat down with Tseng and Ridgley to see how developing a stellar work environment impacts life and business.

Where does the employee-focused culture at Mercedes-Benz Burlington stem from?
Christine Ridgley: There’s an understanding from top-level leadership at Mercedes-Benz Burlington that employee satisfaction is what makes a successful business. We focus on making sure that our people are happy because that comes through in their interactions with customers. At the end of the day, what we want to provide is a luxury-lifestyle experience for customers, and top-notch customer service is a key part of that experience.

Owen Tseng: To become an innovator, we know that we need to have and develop top talent. It’s not just about attracting top talent but also grooming and developing top talent.

We are an organization that’s very heavily focused on innovation. Innovation cannot be a top-down approach: it’s idea-generation from the bottom-up. We embrace the attitude of learning by trying. On a daily basis we have creative ideas that we say, “You know, let’s just try it.” We truly believe that with every failure we learn something, and that’s going to make the next experience even better. That’s how we can continue to raise the bar and differentiate ourselves from our competitors.

When it comes to corporate culture, knowing we cannot do everything—we cannot generate all the ideas ourselves and we cannot execute all the ideas ourselves—we need our people. That’s why having a strong corporate culture to attract, promote, and develop the people is so critical.

“Our mandate is that our staff treats Burlington as their house. So any guest that comes to our house, we look after them. At the end of the day, that’s what really counts.”

–Owen Tseng

Have there been any challenges creating this type of environment with a different type of business?
Tseng: Often the challenge is: “Why should we do it if no one else is doing it?” This is where culture becomes so important as well. Internally, we use the Apple analogy. Apple is not just doing something because their competitors are doing it; in fact, they are good at innovation because they are willing to take risks and be the forefront of innovation.

The auto industry is a big industry. Most people experienced in the industry, or who have worked in other locations, are not used to the type of culture we have, where we really embrace feedback, continual improvement, and the process of innovation. We do find that this culture makes us very attractive to the younger generations. In our corporate environment, experience is not the be-all and end-all. Even though a candidate may not have experience, we will take a chance on them if they have the right attitude, a collaborative approach, and are innovative and want to make a difference.

Ridgley: Our recruitment process is more detailed than many other dealerships. I’ve had numerous candidates say to me that it’s new to them to have met so many different people. Our recruitment process is typically three steps or even four steps—at higher levels five steps—because our focus on corporate culture is such that we want to make sure that every person is the right fit. That extends our timeline a bit—but it’s a marathon not a sprint. We’re in it for the long haul.

There are quite a few cool facilities at Burlington a driving range, a spa. What’s the most popular at Burlington right now?
Ridgley: It’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing that’s popular because it’s an overall experience: our spa has won the prestigious readers choice award for best spa in the Burlington/Hamilton area; the service carwash that we provide as a courtesy to all customers; the soup at our café is made from scratch every day—it’s the combination of these expert amenities with our outstanding customer service that creates an overall experience from the minute a customer or potential customer walks through the door.

Tseng: The reality is anybody can offer a free courtesy carwash, have a nice café, and have a nice award-winning spa in their dealership. But one of the common compliments that I’ve received from customers, which I’m very proud of, is that the overall experience is nice. Our mandate is that our staff treats Burlington as their house. So any guest that comes to our house, we look after them. At the end of the day, that’s what really counts.

“At the end of the day, what we want to provide is a luxury-lifestyle experience for customers, and top-notch customer service is a key part of that experience.”

–Christine Ridgley

From the HR perspective, how do you foster this kind of employees-first attitude in the company? Are there specific ways you make sure employees are getting the most out of working at Burlington?
Ridgley: Mainly it’s about listening. That’s the most important thing that we do to ensure that our people are happy and engaged in what they’re doing. Keeping an open-door approach. Owen as a general manager is very approachable and employees can come to him at any time. Architecturally, our dealership is very open; the entire leadership team has an open-door style and our building was designed to facilitate that. Really it’s about listening and making sure that our people know that we care. You can feel amongst all members of management a real caring for the employees, which I think is pretty different than some businesses out there.

How is fostering this culture reflected in sales and output?
Tseng: We are growing at a very fast pace. Year after year we have continued to post double-digit growth. So far this year, we are at approximately a 50 percent increase in sales and 30 percent increase in service. That is significantly higher than the regional average and the national average.

I have a philosophy of the 3P principle: the people, the process, and the profit. Most other dealerships would focus on the profit, and they’d make certain short-term decisions based on the profit. They might cut staff or cut training. We have a totally different business model. We manage people and process. With Christine’s assistance, we’re focusing on recruiting the right talent that fits into our corporate culture, and we’re focused on training and improvement. I truly believe if you have the right people and the right process, profit will follow.

Is there anything else about Burlington that people should know?
Tseng: I want to add our focus on collaboration and communication. This is something that we, as a management team, really work hard to lead by example and cascade down to our 130 employees. No one can do it themselves. For a customer to have a positive experience, everybody has a role to play. So we really invest a lot of time to communicate openly to make sure that silos don’t come up.

Ridgley: One thing that is key for our corporate culture is our community involvement. We have key partnerships with two local hospital groups. We’re involved in raising money and letting them use our facilities for events. We’ve hosted hospital tours so that our people can see where the dollars and efforts are going. It creates a feeling of ownership, belonging, and community within the business. Our employees feel good about the things we do, about the events we host, about the runs that we go and volunteer at. That, I think, is another piece of what makes us special.