Bergstrom: Establishing a culture of caring


Bergstrom Automotive shows the industry how a dealership group can establish the intangible idea of culture and thrive.

John Bergstrom, who founded the company in 1982 with brother Richard, takes customer service extremely seriously. He traces it to his Scandinavian mother, who “taught the five of us how to behave,” Bergstrom recalled. Relatives were greeted for a weekly dinner by the Bergstrom children bearing shined shoes and thanking their guests for visiting.

“It all started there,” Bergstrom said.

The brothers’ first business was a bar, and it drew upon the same principles of saying hello and using patrons’ names. “It got to be how we lived,” Bergstrom said.

Building that emphasis on customer service into the dealership group, based in Neenah, Wis., was organic rather than a business decision, he said.

“It’s a culture,” Bergstrom said. “We feel the same way about the people we work with.”

Visitors aren’t called customers. “They’re always a ‘guest,’ ” Bergstrom said.

Employees receive monthly $100 bonuses if their store’s overall customer satisfaction scores reach a certain benchmark. The group uses secret shoppers to examine and glean lessons from dealerships around the Midwest. It has even sent such shoppers farther away, such as to Phoenix.

And then there are the Bergstrom bathrooms, which the company’s leader has called “the most important part of our dealerships.”

Every day, the bathrooms receive fresh flowers, and they are expected to be as clean as those at a five-star hotel.

“We’ve worked very hard to build a brand and a culture that says we care about people, and it all starts with our bathrooms,” Bergstrom, a former hotelier, told Automotive News in 2019.

Bergstrom Automotive holds an annual Race Shop Clean Day during which John Bergstrom and his general managers inspect every store in the group on a single day, looking for facility issues such as inadequate bathrooms.

“It’s part of the culture of who we are,” said Bergstrom, who has been known to leave a weed found on-site atop a manager’s desk to send a message.

“In the long term, your culture is what makes your business successful,” Bergstrom said in 2019. “It’s why people want to do business with you — why they come back time and time again.”

Bergstrom Automotive’s culture also values and is valued by employees. Bergstrom said he has had the same secretary for 45 years, and he noted a salesperson who had spent 40 years with the company.

This year, 10 of the group’s 30 dealerships made Automotive News’ Best Dealerships To Work For” list, and Bergstrom locations have frequently shown up on the list in years past.

John Bergstrom said the group measures itself against other retailers with regard to the number of its stores that make the annual list of 100 dealerships.

Bergstrom Automotive ranks No. 70 on Automotive News’ most recent list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., with retail sales of 13,721 new vehicles in 2021. The company made Glassdoor’s 2020 and 2021 Best Places to Work lists, and Bergstrom made the site’s 2019 and 2021 lists of CEOs with employee approval ratings above 90 percent. (Glassdoor did not publish the list in 2020 because of COVID-19’s impact on the job market.) Bergstrom stepped down last year as CEO in favor of his son Tim, but he retains the title of chairman and continues to participate in the business.

“This is what I do,” John Bergstrom said.

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