Leadership with a Long-Term View:
How getting to the top requires taking a few steps back
By Agata Antonow and Aleksandra Corwin of Round Table Companies
The first time Brandi Beakley met Steve Hall, owner of driversselect, she was attending an event for conscious businesses with her then-employer. Hall stood out from the crowd in his “Be Transparent” shirt. In a sea of businesses concerned with social justice and the environment, his sector also made an impression.
“I found out he ran a car dealership, and I thought, ‘Who is this guy to wear a Be Transparent shirt?’” she explains. “Within a year, I had switched companies to work for him.”
At the time, Beakley remembers thinking, “If a used car dealership owner can become a Conscious Capitalist—then everybody should be able to do this.”
Beakley was instantly intrigued. How does a company in this sector embrace Conscious Capitalism? Was it even possible? Those questions and that meeting led Beakley to her position at driversselect today, where she is now Chief Experience Officer.
Steve Hall is taking a different approach to retailing used cars, and he has been achieving notable success in every metric that matters. After decades spent focusing exclusively on growth and sales, Hall has now embraced the wider view that comes with running a business from the unique perspective of Conscious Capitalism.
Hall’s non-traditional approach to business has meant that sales jumped to a projected $240 million this year, up from $74 million in 2015. Profits increased fivefold in the same period. At last count, they had 118 employees, up from 56 two years ago. Employee satisfaction, both with compensation and overall, beats the national average on Glassdoor.com by twenty points. The company offers an attractive living wage to all employees, with most employees enjoying a starting base salary in the range of $40,000-$50,000, well above the Dallas average of $31,000. There is also plenty of room for extra compensation in benefits packages and bonuses. This ensures everyone has security and reduced stress in an environment where all workers feel they belong.
They have been able to achieve this by bucking traditional business advice, which says to focus on monthly earnings and expanding the customer base. Instead, driversselect caters to a narrow group of price-conscious consumers who want to purchase a nearly new car at a lower price, and from friendly, caring staff. All their cars are less than three years old, have clean Carfax reports, and are still under the original factory warranty. They don’t buy cars off the street, don’t take credit cards, and don’t deliver vehicles to customers. It’s a simple, pared-down model built for those who want the best value and least hassle, and who want to be treated fairly on such a large transaction.
“I am as profit-driven as ever,” Hall says. “But when you are climbing a mountain, if you are only looking at the pinnacle, you will likely never reach it.” Climbers on Everest often spend more time descending because assimilating to a higher altitude requires frequent backtracking. Yet most businesses focus on a rush to the top. In spending more time climbing than descending, though, they may not have the foundation or ability to summit.
Hall’s belief is that sometimes you need to backtrack in order to build the capacity to make it to a higher altitude in business. Who he climbs the mountain with matters more to Hall than any other aspect of the journey. Building a strong team in base camp, learning to deal with challenges, adjusting to changes, and finding out who can withstand the pressure can all make a business stronger. It’s about leadership with a long-term view that benefits every stakeholder—and the bottom line.
“If the only thing you are focused on is sucking out profits, your account will eventually overdraft,” Hall explains. “The Conscious Capitalist approach is about making deposits first—coming back down the mountain a ways—which actually leads to more value creation and more profit in the long term.” Hall explains that the deposits in the relationships with your stakeholders earn discretionary effort, loyalty, and first-mover advantage from suppliers. The relationship with stakeholders completely changes through reciprocity.
Hall launched driversselect in 2004, and the company has experienced tremendous evolution over the past 13 years. Hall’s Conscious Capitalist journey began when he realized that by most measures set by his mentors, coaches, and teachers, he was a success. His dealership had multiple locations and had grown rapidly in profits and sales over its first four years. But at the same time, he knew there was a large part of the business’s true potential that had not yet been unleashed. “I had everything I thought I wanted,” Hall explains. “We were profitable and stable, and yet I could see that not having a healthy relationship with my stakeholders was starting to wear on my physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health. I was putting in around 75 hours a week, and it was taking a toll on my personal and professional relationships. I kept thinking things would get better if the business just got bigger.”
By 2012, he realized that the leaders of many of the companies he admired most were living by a set of principles called Conscious Capitalism, and Hall dove in to learn more. It didn’t take long to realize this was the missing piece of the puzzle.
Today Hall commits fully to “walking the talk”—a key tenet of Conscious Leadership. Beakley explains that when she started with driversselect, she was told about transparency and the company culture: “You can ask anyone upstairs for help—there are no egos up there.”
Beakley was stunned to see Hall open his books with vendors, show deep trust in his team, and listen to everyone’s input.
“It’s hard to develop an organization higher than its level of leadership,” says Hall, which is why at driversselect, Conscious Leadership means investing both emotionally and financially in all stakeholders, including employees.
In April 2017, the company missed some benchmarks by a significant margin. For most typical businesses, and particularly in retail, this might mean an e-mail from management about identifying mistakes, solving problems, and an increased focus on meeting the company’s targets. Instead, Hall wrote the employees a note telling them not to be too hard on themselves and explaining how proud he was of all of them.
Part of the conscious approach is the balancing act, “If we over-invest in the tribe, we could squeeze our customers. If we over-invest in our customers, we could squeeze our suppliers.”
And the bottom line backs up this approach—driversselect enjoys a gross revenue per employee of over $2.3M, which shatters the industry benchmarks of $400,000. And it does this while striving to create a better experience for suppliers, employees, customers, and other stakeholders. It’s not just that the company tries to balance profits and “doing good.” The company has found that aligning with these values is itself a path to greater financial success.
Still, some of the benefits of running a company this way aren’t measurable. Beakley describes a recent day off at home. When her phone lit up, it was with an incoming video of colleagues dancing in a panda head—something of a new trend at driversselect. It made her both want to head back into the office on a Saturday to have fun with her coworkers and appreciate that a Conscious Capitalist approach made all the difference in creating a great place to work.
“Steve is proud of what we do, what we are building, and proud of the fun we have,” says Beakley.
“The worthwhile thing to do is to build the capacity to reach the summit together,” says Hall. “That is how we create massive value, have fun, and do it with people who genuinely care about your wellbeing.” It is the only way to summit a mountain and create serious, lasting value for everyone in your wake.