Viking mascot sets Jim Hansen Gateway Ford Lincoln apart


April Chadwick

Jim Hansen Gateway Ford Lincoln in Prairie, Alta., was founded in 1984 by owner Kevin Hansen’s father Jim as a Lincoln-Mercury franchise.

At the time, Grand Prairie already had an established Ford store. The disappearance of the Mercury brand from the Canadian market in 1999 meant re-establishing the dealership as a Ford-Lincoln store.

Grand Prairie is a regional hub for northwestern Alberta with a combined population of 250,000. As the commercial centre for the northern Peace River area, the city draws sales from within the province and northern British Columbia.

According to Chris Wall, general manager, “as the biggest retail centre north of Edmonton, competition in the marketplace is intense with two GM, two Dodge, two Ford and a host of import dealerships vying for business.”

Sales reflect the rugged environment with light-duty trucks and SUVs comprising 90 percent of business.

“The dealership is retail-centric,” says Wall “and not as dependent on fleet sales as some of our competitors. Nevertheless, the downturn in the oil and gas industry has hurt the region and sales are down from 2015.”

“Over the last two decades, Alberta has had a very competitive employee environment,” explains owner, Kevin Hansen. “As a dealership, we have focused on keeping the best people in the industry.”

The early implementation of an HR department, flexible shifts and encouraging work-life balance has been part of a long-term strategy of employee satisfaction. It is not uncommon to have staff in the five to 10-year range.

“People are the way we really differentiate ourselfes in this business. A customer can buy a vehicle anywhere. It’s the staff’s relationship with the customer that counts.”

Long a family environment, the dealership has still benefited from participation in Ford’s global “Customer Experience Movement.”

Not well known to the general public, the automaker launched the program in 2010 to change the dealership culture. The voluntary program uses staff surveys and coaching to foster frontline employee engagement.

As Hansen explains it “Happy employees equals happy customers and that creates long-term loyalty and higher profits”.

To better capitalize on the program, the dealership created the role of customer experience manager. Mike Harris, who had previously looked after Internet sales, is a champion of the CEM program.

Harris says feedback showed staff primarily wanted two things, recognition and training.

“We implemented the bright spot program, a peer-to-peer initiative that allows staff to recognize teamwork and has produced over 400 nominations. Each person nominated is obliged to pass it on to another employee. Awards are given in each department at a monthly luncheon.”

Ongoing training is a priority for all staff members through coaching and performance labs.

Training has to start off on the right foot, Harris says. “New team members go through an onboarding process that reinforces our family environment, how we do business, how we treat each other and our customers.”

The idea of a Hansen family that permeates the work environment is given physical form in the shape of the dealership’s mascot, Arnie the Viking. Arnie is a product of both the region and Hansen family’s Scandinavian heritage.

The dealership had a dozen professionally produced videos featuring Arnie’s epic journey from being unfrozen from a block of bronze age ice to Hansen Ford where he is welcomed as part of the family and gently introduced into the world of customer service.

The humorous videos which can be found on the dealership’s website and YouTube have helped create a popular character that differentiates Hansen Ford in a crowded marketplace.

Arnie is so part of the Hansen family that he is in demand for public appearances across the region and is the public face of Hansen’s many charitable initiatives that span a wide range of giving from women’s shelters to film festivals.

Due to the economic slowdown, it is difficult for the management team to judge their efforts by sales alone, however employee turnover is down and positive feedback from customers is up.

“We have really moved the needle on employee satisfaction,” says Hansen, “we plan to continue with CEM and our focus on engagement. I don’t believe that our employees can be happy enough.”