Were he not a car dealer, Rob Gregory has what it takes to be a motivational speaker — glib delivery, expressive body language, compelling content.

But he says it's hard to imagine himself as anything but a dealer. He's become more than that. He's a dealer with a vision.

“I was the kid in the neighborhood who fixed old bikes and sold them,” says the native of Grand Forks, ND, where his father was a newspaper printer and his mother a schoolteacher. “People back then said, ‘Rob's going to sell cars.’”

He started selling those in 1988 at Rydell Chevrolet, Wes Rydell's flagship store in Grand Forks. Working for Rydell changed Gregory's life.

“He's one of the most authentic people I've ever met,” Gregory says of his mentor and backer.

Rydell, 61, an iconoclast of automotive retailing, runs a 20-store network in North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota.

It's a long way, in many ways, from the Great Plains to Southern California. But in 1999 General Motors Corp., impressed with Rydell, asked him to resuscitate five dealerships in the San Fernando Valley after GM market share there dropped to 13%.

Rydell's style is to scout for industry talent, instill them with his core values and ultimately set them up in their own dealerships. He's done that for many prospects, Gregory included. It's like a privately run dealer candidate-training program.

“What makes him unique is that he never gives with a hook,” says Gregory. “People still don't believe he doesn't retain ownership in any of those stores. He's ecstatic being helpful to others. He isn't the Red Cross, but he could be.”

Rising up the Rydell ranks, Gregory became sales manager of a Saturn store in St. Paul. He went on to open four Saturn stores for Rydell. During that time, Gregory became an advocate of Saturn's no-haggle pricing. In 1997, Rydell established him up as dealer principal of a small Ford-Chrysler store in Owatonna, MN.

In 1999, Gregory bought an ailing Universal Ford Toyota in Rochester, MN. He says Rydell saw Rochester as a good platform.

Gregory changed the store's name to Rochester Ford Toyota. He also changed its business environment using Rydell's tenets as well as Fish!, a new-age business approach stressing on-the-job fun, kindness and teamwork.

Says Gregory, “Wes Rydell says do the opposite of what the rest of our industry is doing and you'll be close to where you should be.”

Rydell points to five areas essential to business success: 1) Customer enthusiasm, 2) Employee satisfaction, 3) Ability to generate profits, 4) Growing market and 5) Continuous improvement.

“All are necessary, but say you can only pick one as your favorite,” says Gregory. “Most dealers pick 3, profits. Wes Rydell decided to focus on 1, customer enthusiasm.

“Any one of these isn't necessarily better or worse than another. But when you focus on customers first, it puts you on a different journey. You stop focusing on what you want, and start focusing on what the people you are serving want.

“In the end, whoever gives the customer more, wins.”

As a believer, Gregory brought that to the troubled Rochester dealership when he took it over from essentially absentee owners. He doesn't blame them for the store's woes: “If you're sent a big check from the dealership on a regular basis, you're unlikely to change things there.”

Despite under performing and scoring badly on customer satisfaction surveys, the store was able to fall back on its two solid full-line franchises in a healthy mid-size market.

“The No. 1 focus was making money,” says General Sales Manager Brian Kopek whom Gregory brought in with him.

“In this industry, you can do it lousy and still do well,” says Gregory.

Customers were worked over during negotiations. If CSI scores were low, so was employee morale. It was so bad, many workers privately recommended that friends and customers go elsewhere.

“There were days you wouldn't want to be here,” recalls Al Utesch, a 31-year employee who in October became general manager.

Kopek and Utesch are the main implementers of Gregory's vision of how a dealership should be run.

That includes a one-price approach, stemming from Gregory's Saturn days.

“Who really sets the price, the market or the dealer?” asks Gregory. “It's the market. But I've no beef with the traditional way. If a dealer wants to negotiate, fine. To me, it can quickly become high-pressure selling.”

Besides using the Rydell strategy, Gregory uses the Fish! approach, the brainchild of John Christensen of ChartHouse learning, a Minnesota business-training firm. Christensen got the idea for Fish! — now a multi-media, multi-million dollar enterprise — watching playful workers at a Seattle fish market.

“A friend showed me the Fish! tape,” says Gregory. “I thought it was a good and easy way to communicate four great principles.”

Those are: having fun on the job, making someone's day, being there and choosing your attitude.

Kopek and Utesch say Fish! helped transform the dealership.

When a dealership billboard ad, across from the store, asked, “Have You Tried Our Fish?”, it heralded a new attitude at the once beleaguered store.

Sales and customer satisfaction scores went up. Employees went out of their way to help customers. Glowing thank-you notes poured in.

The challenge is keeping it going and making adjustments along the way. Kopek and Utesch conduct regular staff meetings to communicate and cultivate common purposes among the 135 staffers.

“You can't over-communicate,” says Utesch.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm when we first introduced Fish! here,” recalls Kopek. “It was electric. Employees would spontaneously toss around toy fish. But it started to wear off. It's more subtle now.”

Management also detected a big difference between having fun at work versus fun in lieu of work.

“In a couple of cases, if people were called on not performing up to standards, the response was, ‘Hey, you're taking the fun out of it,’” says Utesch. “But the fun is not there unless co-workers are accountable. One or two people just having ‘fun’ can bring the whole group down.”

Adds Kopek, “The four principles — have fun, make a difference, be there, choose an attitude — will never go away. But we've added: be accountable.”

Rochester Ford Toyota's embracing of Fish! led to the dealership being featured in a chapter of a 2002 book, Fish! Tales and included in a recent Fish! film.

Gregory says, “Fish! is built on four great principles. It's here for those who want it. It's an invitation. You can't make people do it.”

Christensen, meeting Gregory for the first time during a visit to the dealership, says, “Rob is right. It's an invitation, not a mandate.”

Gregory says his early value system is rooted in how his parents raised him in the flatlands of North Dakota.

He says, “It's simple to succeed if you define success as making money. People want to hook up with winners. I think of winners as people with values. Is Mother Theresa a winner? Not if the definition is being a millionaire. Should you work on your character or on making money?

“Believe me, I'm not opposed to making money. As a businessman I can't play without sand in the sandbox. But way too much attention is paid to money when, in fact, excellence always precedes money.”

He speaks a lot about the journey of life.

“Most people, pre-40, are not yet on a journey of significance,” says the 41-year-old, who met his wife, Pam (“an angel”) in college. They are the parents of a boy, 13, and girl, 12.

Gregory doesn't claim to have all the answers.

“I don't know quite how it works in life. If I did, I'd have down two of the three attributes of God.”

Nor does he claim to be perfect. “I tell people, ‘It's not if I'll disappoint you but when.’”

Nor does he claim to run a perfect dealership.

“We're an imperfect company with a good set of values. Other dealers might see room for improvement. Guess what? So do we. Becoming an overnight success takes five to 10 years.”

The store has been selling about 150 Fords and 75 Toyotas a month. A common showroom displays vehicles of both brands, Fords on one side, Toyotas on the other.

“We do a good job with both,” says Gregory. “We want to be dominant with both.”

Conventional wisdom is that the dealership could sell more Fords and Toyotas with separate showrooms and staffs. Such plans are in the works.

Meanwhile, Gregory copes with a unionizing effort by some of his mechanics. It's essentially part of a nationwide frustration among Ford dealership auto technicians miffed about what they perceive as Ford Motor Co. work rate reductions.

His father once headed a local typographers union. Yet Gregory is bemused that some of his mechanics want to unionize. He thinks he treats and pays them well. “I don't understand it.”

He was the store's first owner to meet with mechanics early on to make them feel appreciated and “to let them know the work environment was changing from negative to positive,” says ChartHouse senior writer Philip Strand, who wrote the Fish! Tales chapter on the dealership.

That “Have You Tried Our Fish?” billboard ad has been replaced by a new one from Rochester Ford Toyota. It says, “Business Is Great. People are Terrific. Life is Wonderful.”

“What dealership has that on a billboard?” says Gregory.

On the Road with the Founder of <i>Fish!</i>

By Steve Finlay

It began with John Christensen trying to get a cheaper flight for a 1997 business trip to Seattle.

“It was fortuitous,” says Christensen, now the CEO of ChartHouse Learning, then, 38, working at the suburban Minneapolis business-training company founded by his pioneering filmmaker father, Ray, in the 1950s.

Six years ago, ChartHouse was hurting, down to a handful of employees and fighting a lawsuit and a hostile takeover attempt by a former collaborator.

Meanwhile, the owner's kid was anxious to prove himself as a filmmaker in his own right.

Staying over Saturday night in Seattle got the younger Christensen a better price on a plane ticket. With time on his hands, he asked a hotel worker where the popular tourist spots were.

The worker pointed him to Pike Place Market where John Yokoyama's fishmongers take a have-fun approach to their work; playfully throwing fish to each other, joking with customers, showing teamwork and putting on bright faces at an otherwise tough job.

Christensen was mesmerized by it all.

“I stood there with more than 100 people,” he recalls. “I watched in awe for two hours.”

The filmmaker-as-anthropologist in him studied what was going on. He says it went deeper than playing catch the carp. It was an approach to business, one Yokoyama fostered as a way to make both customers and employees happy.

Christensen saw a film in it, a breakthrough one for him, if he could translate what was happening into business principles. He came up with these:

Play: Work made fun gets done, especially when workers do serious tasks in a lighthearted way. Play is not just an activity; it's a state of mind that sparks energy and creativity.

Make Their Day: When you make someone's day (or even a moment) through a small act of kindness, routine encounters become special.

Be There: The glue of humanity is being there for each other.

Choose Your Attitude: People have the power within to decide if they'll have a good or bad day at work.

Christensen made the film. He christened it Fish! Released in 1998, it's sold more than 31,000 copies.

Moreover, it launched the Fish! movement, leading to sequel films and a series of best-selling books including a 2000 release that's been translated into 11 languages and distributed in 27 countries. Overall book sales are nearing three million copies, with a new volume on the way.

Among businesses using Fish! films, books and study guides are departments and units at Target, Sprint, McDonalds, Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, Ford, Proctor and Gamble and Pfizer.

“It's a ‘curriculum’ for lack of a better word but it's not step one, step two, step three. Everyone's pathway is different,” says Philip Strand, senior writer at ChartHouse.

Fish! has transformed the once-ailing Burnsville, MN company. It's doubled its workforce to 38 since the first film opened the floodgates.

Annual revenue is currently more than $10 million. The company grew by 25% in 2001.

Ray Christensen retired as head of ChartHouse in 2000, ceremonially handing son John a director's viewfinder. The presentation represented a filmmaker and family changing of the guard.

The viewfinder is front and center on a shelf in Christensen's whimsical office in a new 2-story wing of ChartHouse headquarters. Its colorful, playful and eclectic interior includes a hunting lodge-like gathering room and a lunch room done up as a chrome-accented '50s diner.

Six years after that fateful trip to Seattle, Christensen is on the road again. He's driving a new Range Rover (“I told my wife, ‘This is my sports car.’”)

He's headed south on Highway 52 to Rochester, MN, to visit Rochester Ford Toyota. He's anxious to meet dealership owner Rob Gregory for the first time. The store follows the Fish! philosophy. It had a chapter devoted to it in Fish! Tales, a best seller released in 2002.

Christensen motors by prosperous southern Minnesota farms, dormant fields covered with snow. Wearing a tidy beard and a Rolex watch, he talks about what makes him tick.

“That trip to Seattle was life changing,” he says. “I was able to put a ‘language’ to what was happening at the fish market. It was my coming of age. My eureka moment.”

Fish! essentially is a fresh packaging of time-tested words to live by.

Says Strand, “A lot of it is old wisdom, but when it's presented effectively people say, ‘I can do that.’ There's a lot of wisdom in the world every day.”

Fish! has hit home with companies large and small, including hospitals (where, at one, practitioners range from doctors to janitors), a roofing company, ski resorts — and at least one coffee shop, as Christensen happily discovers during a stop in Rochester.

Driving there, he recalls that detractors said, yeah, the film works for employees who interact with customers, but not with backroom workers. Collaborator Stephen Lundin's response to that triggered the book series.

“Steve gets the idea to write the first book to show that Fish! does work in the backroom because it's not just about how employees treat customers, it's also about how employees treat each other,” says Christensen.

This is his second trip to Rochester in as many weeks. He went there earlier for a film in progress on a teacher using the Fish! philosophy in her high-school classroom.

“Fish! is a platform we can build on in many ways,” says Christensen. “The most successful to do that is the Chicken Soup series. They keep building, one on the other. One leads to the other. Every day I'm thinking about what to do next and how to do it. That's the challenge.”

Arriving early in Rochester, Christensen pulls into a Caribou coffeehouse to kill time before the dealership appointment.

In a state that's proud of its homegrown businesses that make it big, Caribou is Minnesota's answer to Starbucks. The manager of this one, Annette Hefti, notices and comments on the Fish! logo on Christensen's colorful shirt. She's thrilled to learn he's the founder of Fish!

“We use it here,” she says. “It's easy to relate to, whether you're 16 or 60. It makes a difference.”

Sitting nearby, customer Bruce Williams overhears the conversation.

“I read your book,” he tells Christensen, who's day has clearly been made. “What is it again? Oh yeah, Make someone's day, be present, have fun, choose your attitude. I loved it.”