Building a Culture-First, Mission-Driven Organization with Eric Savage, President and Owner of Freedom Auto

Eric Savage, President Freedom Auto

Eric Savage, President of Freedom Automotive out of Pennsylvania, joins me on the podcast this week for our deep-dive into the people side of retail automotive. Eric tours the country talking to folks about building a company that is mission-first, not money-first. He’s discussing how he’s built his renowned company culture on this episode of The Best Team Wins Podcast.



































Adam Robinson: Welcome to the Best Team Wins podcast where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results.
My name is Adam Robinson. For the next 25 minutes, I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring.
Today on the program, we have Eric Savage, president of Freedom Automotive Group in Pennsylvania. Eric is a maestro with the talent side of a business that, from the outsider’s perspective, has not always been known for being good at that kind of thing.
We’re excited for Eric to share his experiences with us today, because we know the best learning happens through hearing about these experiences shared by our fellow entrepreneurs and leaders. Eric, we are really excited to have you on the program. Thanks for being here.
Eric Savage: My pleasure, glad to be here. I’ve never been called a maestro, usually it’s just very handsome, but I’ll take maestro.
Adam Robinson: There you go. Add that to your list, a very handsome maestro. We’re glad you are here. As is the the tradition here on the podcast. We always start off with what we call the right foot. That’s the best news business, or personal that happened to each of us in the last seven days. Eric, why don’t you kick us off? What’s your right foot for last week?
Eric Savage: The best thing that happened in the last week dates back actually to Christmas, so it’s a little more than a week. The good news that comes with it is about a week old. That is that my daughter, for Christmas, she’s 11 years old. She gave me a present that she had entered a contest, an essay contest, with the local newspaper about what she would really want to give someone for Christmas.
It was a beautiful essay that she had written about a project that we do that we call Holiday Helpers here at the dealership where we help really needy families, provide them with about a week’s worth of food. We give them a great Christmas party and a wonderful experience. We do this every year. We’ve helped we think somewhere around 12,000 people in 10 years. It’s been really extraordinary.
Long story short, she wrote her whole essay about this, submitted it to the paper. She thought she did not get published. We found out a week ago that, in fact, it was published in the paper. She was just really excited about that.
It’s just great to see an 11 year old who’s so thrilled about our concept for living, which we call the Life Improvement Business and how she was demonstrating that in this essay that she had written and how it got published. It was just great.
Adam Robinson: Incredible and congratulations.
Eric Savage: Thanks.
Adam Robinson: On our side, we packed up the family. I have three young boys. We drove to grandma and grandpa’s house in Jacksonville, Florida from our home in Chicago.
We made a lot of memories, let me tell you. We’re already looking back fondly on the things that were good and we’ve immediately forgotten the near Lord of the Flies experience we had passing through Nashville, both ways. Excited to be back home. The kids had fun and nobody got left behind.
Eric Savage: That’s good. I’m amazed that everyone survived that long a drive with three little kids. That’s amazing. Good job.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, there we go. They’ll always remember. That’s what we hope. All right. Let’s jump right in. We are here today to focus on the people side of your business. Before we get into that, let’s set the stage. Give us the 30 second pitch on Freedom Automotive.
Eric Savage: Sure. If you look at us from the outside, you’d see Freedom Auto Group. You would see four car dealerships in two different locations. That’s what we would look like. In fact, from the inside we don’t believe we’re car dealerships at all.
Freedom, we believe we are in the Life Improvement Business, which means that our one and only job is to improve the life of any and every person we meet in any and every way possible every single day.
To boil that down, what we really mean is we don’t sell cars to people, instead we make car buying fun, easy, and hassle free for people. We’ve really transformed our concept of businesses instead of doing things to people, to doing things for people.
Adam Robinson: Excellent. If listeners want to learn more, at the end of the program, what’s the best way to reach you?
Eric Savage: Best way to reach me is on email at Don’t make fun of the A-O-L address, please. I’m a very late change agent on those things.
Adam Robinson: Retro is in. That’s authenticity. They call that authenticity now, Eric.
Eric Savage: My son said to me, “Dad, the Smithsonian called. They’re looking for your email account.”
Adam Robinson: That’s pretty funny. Yeah. Listen, what that says is that you were an early adopter of one of the most important technological innovations …
Eric Savage: There it is.
Adam Robinson: … to hit humanity. I applaud you for that. Again, the maestro reference is apropos, so well done. All right. Let’s talk about the people side of your business. So excited to dive into this, because I know how passionate you are about this stuff.
Let’s start off with core values. Do you have defined, specific core values for your organization?
Eric Savage: We have defined, redefined, and over-defined core values for our organization. We believe that defining, redefining, and over-defining is really what makes one organization better than another. The more we talked about, in detail, things like core values, mission, purpose, vision the more time we spend on that, the better we become, so absolutely we do.
Our core values spell out the acronym reach, R-E-A-C-H. The R stands for results. The E stands for enthusiasm. The A stands for accountability. The C stands for connection. The H stands for honesty. Again, that spells out reach.
Adam Robinson: That’s great. Take a few minutes and walk us through what they mean in daily life.
Eric Savage: Sure. Results is pretty simple. The idea behind it is that we are a mission based organization. We are not a money based organization. Not saying we don’t have profitability. Of course, we do. We’re not money first. We’re really mission first. Results means that we can’t disregard getting results, or creating results. Our purpose about results is different than most.
What we say about results is this. I deliver results. I work hard to deliver the desired results for my customers, co-workers, community, and company. I want you to hear the order of that. Customers first, co-workers second, community third, and actually company last.
We believe that developing results for all the other parties first will end up yielding results for the company in the end anyway. First, let’s get those results for our customers. Let’s get those results for our co-workers and then certainly for the community. The company will end up it’ll all work out. That’s results.
Enthusiasm is pretty simple. Our people believe that Freedom, Freedom Auto Group, without fun is no fun. Why would we do that? Enthusiasm is required. If I give a statement that says,”I approach each day and each task and each moment with energy and humor,” then in fact, I am an ambassador of smiles. That’s a really important statement. I love the fact that our people felt that our company could not exist without fun.
Accountability, this is the 800 pound gorilla. That’s the A in reach. That is I’m responsible for what I see, what I hear, what I think about, what I say, and what I do. That is the most important of our core values.
If we can’t be fully responsible for everything we see, hear, say, think, and do, then we have no place here in this company. This is one that takes a lot of training and dedication to learn and to express to our people.
We have connection. This is really important. C is for connection. A lot of people say, “You mean communication.” No, C is for connection. Communication is just the exchange of data. It’s just what you and I are doing. I’m sharing information with you and you’re receiving it. You’re share information with me and I receive it.
Connection is when we take a deeper dive. What we do is we use the communicated information and leverage it for a greater purpose of shared. By the way, we use that leveraging to create better results for our customers, our co-workers, our community, and our company. That’s really what connection is about. It’s about being together, in a very symbiotic way instead of just exchanging data, actually leveraging it.
Finally, is honesty. This one’s very interesting. Honesty starts with, “I am true to myself.” I believe we are the only organization that has the definition of honesty first about the person being true to themselves and then I have earned the trust of my …. You guessed it, customers, co-workers, community, and company.
We believe that until you can be true to yourself, you have no ability to be true to others. That’s why we have this as part of the definition. Every word was carefully weighed out and measured before it was put into this process.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, I get the feeling, Eric, that you’ve communicated these once or twice before. That was as crisp as I’ve ever heard anybody walk through core values. How do you communicate and promote those daily inside of your stores?
Eric Savage: That’s a great question. It’s funny. We talk about this in advertising all the time. I’m a big proponent of radio advertising. I know that a lot of people think that’s dead. Let’s argue that it’s not for my sake.
It used to be that you needed a frequency of four in order for people to hear your radio ad and remember it. Then it went to seven. Then it went to 11. Then it went to 14. Today’s it’s somewhere around 17 to 19, which means that somebody has to hear your ad 17 to 19 times before they remember it.
The reason I say this is because here we are knowing this works for the external world, but internally, is that how we communicate? Is that our process? The answer is most people don’t. They say, “I have a great idea.” They bring people together. They say it one time. They say, “I did that.” They check it off their list and they move on. They’re dumbfounded when, three weeks later, no one remembers what was talked about.
The reason is because we have to talk about the things that are important to us, not once, not twice, but all the time. We have to talk about it all the time. Every time that we’re observing behaviors, leaders in our company, regardless of what your position is, everyone can be a leader.
Leaders in our company will say, “Adam, I saw what you did there. Man, that looked exactly like a REACH value when you did such and such for the customer. I saw you connect in a way that was fantastic. You leveraged that information to create an outstanding result.”
That’s a beautiful thing to see that happening. That’s a great example of how we talk about this stuff every day. The best leaders we have in our organization, they do that. They speak every day on that subject.
Adam Robinson: That’s fantastic. Let’s shift and talk about the structure of your leadership team, the organization. You can’ do it all yourself. Walk us through the senior roles at the weekly management meeting. Who’s sitting around the table? Who are you relying on to execute on your behalf?
Eric Savage: We have general managers who are really the operational managers in charge of most of the departments. Like most car dealerships, you would see people that resemble things like sales managers, or finance managers, service managers, et cetera, et cetera.
We are changing the way we apply that. For example, our sales managers are no longer sales managers. They’re customer experience managers. Their real job isn’t to sell cars. Their real job is to really elevate the experience for customers. That’s an entirely different aspect.
What we really find is this. Most of the duties and work that we do in this business, the behavior sets that we have aren’t all that different on the surface from what most dealerships do. The major difference is the motivation for those behaviors.
Our dealership is a Life Improvement Business. We don’t engage in any behavior to get something from someone else. Our motivations are entirely the other direction. Our motivations are entirely to give to someone else. Our job is not to go close a deal if we’re a a sales manager, or a customer experience manager. Our job is instead to go create a fit and offer outstanding value.
When we change the language, the behavior changes behind it. The motivations for those behaviors change. Yet, they can still look tactically similar, but they have very, very different origins and very different outcomes because of that.
Adam Robinson: You’re saying, for our listeners who are not as familiar with automotive retail, the language and how you describe what you’re doing daily, you’re saying that really matters. Tell us why that matters in your business.
Eric Savage: In short, what I find is that it’s one thing to talk culture say the things we believe. It’s another thing to behave consistently with that culture and that statement. Every day we’re on a tightrope walking. We’ve stated what our belief system is. We have very clear values. It’s very well understood. Our mission is entirely crystal clear to everybody here. It’s a totally different thing to actually walk that talk.
Every day is a tightrope. How do we make it easier to get on that tightrope? The answer is it starts with language. The more that we can shape the language to resemble the behaviors we want, the more the behaviors will start to resemble the language.
The more the behaviors start to resemble the language, the closer we get to executing the culture the way we want it to be. For us, we believe it starts with language.
We don’t have salespeople anymore. In fact, everyone’s title on our sales floor is a Life Improvement Specialist. Their one and only job is to improve the lives of every person they come in contact with. You don’t have to sell cars. Your job is to make car buying fun, easy, and hassle free for people if they want to buy your product. If not, you want to serve them as best as you can to help them find the answer to their problem for their automotive need anywhere.
Adam Robinson: I’ve heard you talk about this, to improve someone’s life no matter whether they’re a customer, or not. Give us an example of that in practice.
Eric Savage: You might have somebody who walks in the dealership here. We had a situation, I don’t know, about six, eight months ago. There was a customer who was looking to buy a truck.
They came looking at one of our Toyota trucks. The truth is is that this customer was driving a Ford F250. They were looking at our Toyota Tundra. They didn’t want it. They were thinking about buying it. It was just a very odd moment. The customer’s giving us buying signals, but not happy about it.
The manager involved, the customer experience manager involved, said, “I’m just picking up that you don’t really want to do this. What’s the real story?” The man said, “The truth is is I want another F250, but I was up the street at the Ford store. They would not give me enough for my trade. They really ticked me off, because I want to buy that truck, but they won’t give me enough for this trade. You guys are giving me enough for the trade, but I really don’t want the Tundra.”
The customer experience manager said, “Tell me which dealership you were at.” He told him. He said, “I happen to know the used car manager there.” Right in front of him, he picked the phone, calls the dealership, talks to the used car manager and says, “Listen, I have this customer here. He was just there. You’re $500 away on this trade to make this deal. Are you willing to put another $500 on the truck?”
This is all happening right in front of the customer. The used car manager agrees. The customer experience manager says to the customer, “Go on back. They’re going to give you the $500, so you can buy the truck that you want, because it’s what we’re really about is helping you get what you want.” He did. He went back. We lost a sale, you could argue. That’s easy to see, but in fact, what we did was we built a relationship.
What I want to tell you is that this is not why we do this, but the serendipitous outcome of this is that that customer ended up referring his daughter and his neighbor to us. We sold a Camry and a Rav 4 to his daughter and to his neighbor, respectively.
What could have been a single vehicle transaction to a person who would’ve been unhappy with the product ended up becoming two transactions to people who love their products. That’s a much better deal for everybody.
Adam Robinson: Yeah, I agree. What an awesome story. For listeners tuning in on this, just the impact of people knowing the values and having the confidence that they’ve got leadership’s back to execute against an authentic set of core values, leads to results like that. Pretty awesome.
Our listeners also love to hear about the people model for the business. That’s the business model that governs your human capital processing. For example, are you hiring entry level, high potential hires from outside of your industry and investing in training and development, or are you more the model of hiring the veterans and just bringing the high producers in having a little higher comp and just working on retaining the best? Walk us through how you’re approaching this.
Eric Savage: I think part of that is a departmental question. Let’s take the sales department as an example. What other dealerships call sales people, we call them Life Improvement Specialists. How do we hire there? The answer is that we’re less interested in whether or not you have skills, or you’re a veteran. That’s uninteresting to us either way. Whether you have a lot, or don’t have a lot, it’s not really relevant.
We’re looking for cultural match. If you have a high cultural match, we want to hire you. If you got a great wealth of experience and lots of skills, that’s great. They may or may not be useful in our environment. If you have no skill, that’s not a problem. We can certainly train on that.
The bottom line is that what we’re most interested in is are you a match for us. We’d like to say that our culture is very distinctly flavored. If we were an ice cream, we’d be butter pecan. There’s only one butter flavored ice cream and it’s butter pecan. We’re not a chocolate, or a vanilla, which is the standard in the industry.
If you come to our dealership, and you work for us, if you’re in life improvement business, we’re going to serve you heaping scoops of butter pecan ice cream and we’re going to watch you eat it. If you are not eating that ice cream like it is the best thing you’ve ever had every day of your life, then you’re not going to make it with us and we know that.
If you’re allergic to pecans, you’re totally screwed. The bottom line is we want cultural match. That’s it. I don’t really care about your skills.
What’s more interesting, though, than that is that we’ll do skill base training, because we know that we do need some skills. Believe it or not, 90% of our training budget’s, and it’s phenomenally large — it’s outrageously large.
Our training, 90% of our training budget is about personal development. It’s not even about skills. It’s not even about business. It’s about how to become a better human being, how to become a bigger, better, and brighter version of yourself.
The more I can invest in helping one of our associates, one of our family members become their biggest, best, and brightest version of themselves, the better they are going to be at serving our customers, serving our co-workers, serving the community, and serving the company. That’s really where we spend most of our dollars is helping people just become better people.
Adam Robinson: That’s great. Let’s talk then about the pitch to candidates and talk recruiting. What’s your single biggest, or best source of new applicants for your stores?
Eric Savage: I don’t mean to give you a call out so intentionally on your radio show, but right now, it’s Hireology. The work that we’re doing with you is generating a lot of lead activity for us and quantity of applicants that we’d otherwise …
Adam Robinson: The gratuitous plug bell has gone off. I’m sorry.
Eric Savage: Is that what that was?
Adam Robinson: That’s was. It’s exactly right.
Eric Savage: The shameless plug bell?
Adam Robinson: There you go. Thank you, sir.
Eric Savage: Yeah. Anyway, that’s definitely a meaningful chunk of what’s going on there. The truth is is that the very, very best candidates that we’ve ever had have always been referrals from people currently working for us.
Someone working for us, who’s a butter pecan eating Freedom lover life improvement business associate, who really gets it and they bring somebody in who they know, those candidates work out really well.
Adam Robinson: Fantastic. If I’m a new candidate, take me through your hiring process. What should I be expecting?
Eric Savage: You should be expecting, especially today, utilizing your platform, is obviously there’s going to be a fair amount of testing that’s occurring prior to the interview proper.
We would probably conduct a phone interview after that, then an in person interview if things are going really well. We’re applying Caliper testing to make sure that we’re seeing the personality traits that line up with us culturally.
We have a series of interviews that occur depending on the department. We do some cross-functional interviewing. A service manager might interview the sales consultant position. A sales manager, or a customer experience manager might interview a technician, or a service advisor position. There’s a lot of that cross functionality to make sure that everybody’s seeing the same picture the same way, or getting that wide perspective.
Upon hiring, we do a lot of different onboarding pieces. Some of them are interesting. We’re very celebratory about onboarding. When somebody comes onboard, we have a cupcake party. If you’re getting hired, the day you’re hired, there’s a big thing of cupcakes. Everybody comes around. We’re all loving, and hugging, and kissing, and thrilled. We post it up on Facebook with your picture, because we’re super proud you joined the team.
We go through a process of having that associate shadow somebody for a period of four, six, sometimes eight weeks depending on how quickly they acclimate to the environment.
Then we start moving through the real more vigorous training, the book learning training after they’ve got a feel for the department and the area where they’re working.
All these things are departmentally based, and skill based, and discipline based. The bottom line is we are believers in a quality onboarding process.
Adam Robinson: Amazing end to end process, Eric. I love the cupcake party. I’m often surprised with companies that throw parties when an employee quits. When a good person leaves, they get the cake. You’re turning that on its head. You’re throwing the party the day they start. I think that’s awesome.
Eric Savage: We do both, by the way. That’s important to us. I’ll just make a mention about that. If we believe we’re in the Life Improvement Business and we care about our associates’ lives improving, if somebody has an opportunity to go work somewhere and receive a promotion, or to receive more pay, or to work closer to home, or to have better hours than we offer, if that’s going to improve their lives, then we celebrate that movement.
That means that we bring everybody together and we say, “Congratulations. This a wonderful opportunity for you and we’re thrilled for you and what this means for your life.” We don’t see it as negative. Even if they’re going to a competitor, we still give you a party. The only way we don’t is if you’re leaving on really bad terms like you just stop showing up for work, we’re not going to give you a party.
Otherwise, if you do it the right way, and you give notice and you share the information of what’s going on and you share why you believe that it’s going to be better for you, we love you all the way out the door and we mean it and we keep the relationship open.
Adam Robinson: What if you’re looking back on your experience in transforming into this model that you have now that’s really culture and people first, what’s the biggest people related lesson you’ve learned since embarking on this journey?
Eric Savage: Yeah, that’s an outstanding question. Number one is that people will often prefer to be told what to do, or they will seem like they prefer to be told what to do. The truth is is they want to know what to do. In order to accomplish that, they need to learn and grow. They can’t learn and grow if all I do is bark out orders.
I can’t solve problems for people even if I know the answer. My job, instead, is to ask really hard questions to help them grow themselves and figure out the answer for themselves.
That means that I have to allow them to make mistakes. I have to allow the process to be slow for learning. I have to allow repetition to occur and be patient about it. When I do that, people grow. They used to line up at my door and ask me every day, “Hey, this just happened. What should I do? This just happened. What should I do?”
That used to be my daily life. I got to tell you this is what happens now. Someone shows up at my door and they say, “I already know the questions you’re going to ask me. I just figured out my answer. I got this solved, boss. Don’t worry about it.” They turn around and they walk right back out.
That is the mark of true growth in a human being is that they can come to their own answers. They know the right thing to do.
Adam Robinson: That’s awesome. Not to mention that just improved you life pretty considerably, I would imagine.
Eric Savage: Yeah. My whole role has changed. That’s a beautiful thing.
Adam Robinson: How would you describe your role as the leader of the organization? Give us your job description.
Eric Savage: My job is to ask questions of people, of processes, of preconceived notions. When you’re a question asker and there are no boundaries to the questions you’re willing to ask, you basically become this hit man for sacred cows. I spend most of my day lobbing off the heads of cows, sacred cows in our organization.
I’m not talking about people. I’m talking about those processes, or those notions that we have of this is how something has to be. Those limited view perspectives that we have, those are the sacred cows that I have to kill every day. It’s amazing. They spontaneously generate at a rate that’s terrifying. I kill one off and three magically appear.
The truth is is that that’s the most important thing that I can do, is everything that we have an assumption about, go challenge the assumption. Go ask questions about it. If you do, people really rally around it. Yeah, why are we doing it that way? Why do I always think it’s going to work out that way. What’s the data that I have to prove this? What am I willing to do to change that? Those are the types of things that we rally want to try to stimulate conversation around.
Adam Robinson: Excellent. Thank you for taking us through that. Here we are in the final couple of minutes here of the show. Time for a lightening round. We’re going to throw some questions at you here about just broad sentiment.
Do you think the US economy is getting better, or worse over the next 12 months, Eric?
Eric Savage: Holy moly. I’d love to give you a trumped up answer. That was supposed to be funny. I truly have no idea what’s happening. I think we’re in a new era because of the politics of this world. The predictions were that post-election are we going to see a stock market slump. The opposite happened. We had this incredible rally.
I think it’s anyone’s guess honestly. The other thing is that they don’t worry about it. What the economy is, the economy is. I still need to create the maximum value for the people that I interact with every day. That’s all that matters to me.
Adam Robinson: There you go. Do you think it’s getting easier, or harder to find the people you need over the next 12 months?
Eric Savage: I think finding people in general gets harder and harder. In fact, we’re low  in employment, it gets even harder to find really good quality people. That’s all the reason more why you want a mission driven business. It’s so much easier to attract people when there’s a strong mission at the core.
Adam Robinson: What book are you reading right now? Would you recommend it to our audience?
Eric Savage: Yeah, Leaders Eat Last. That’s a Simon Sinek book. It’s an outstanding book on leadership. Everything that Simon Sinek says is pretty freaking awesome. That’s a really outstanding book. I’m certainly enjoying it.
Adam Robinson: All right. All right. If you were to come back on this show a year from now and report on whether or not you accomplished what you consider to be the most important thing on your plate for this year, what’s that going to be?
Eric Savage: It would be that people here, the associates at Freedom have lifted themselves to a new kind of space with their personal relationships, their professional work, their relationships with their customers, that they are in a completely different zone than they are today.
Adam Robinson: That’s the final word. You’ve been learning from Eric Savage, President at Freedom Auto Group in Pennsylvania. Eric, thank you for being with us on the program today.
Eric Savage: Completely my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Adam Robinson: That’s a wrap for this episode of the Best Team Wins podcast where we’re featuring entrepreneurs and leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results.
I’m Adam Robinson, author of the book, The Best Team Wins, which you can find online at We will see you next week.