It’s quite a leap from farming to owning car dealerships, but Mike Aus made the transition brilliantly. While in his mid-20s, the North Dakota native suspected he wasn’t going to make a great living as a dairy and grain farmer. He turned to his mother and stepfather for advice, and they suggested he go to school to become an auto technician.
The funny thing was, “I had no previous interest in automotive, had never worked on cars,” he recalls. “It was just a whim.”
Some 30 years later, that whim has led Aus to a place he probably never imagined the day he asked for his parents’ advice. Today, he is the owner of Rhinelander GM Auto Center, Rhinelander Toyota, OK Used Cars, Auto Gear (a store offering aftermarket vehicle accessories) and Detail Pros. Among his locations in Rhinelander, he employs about 135 people. Aus also owns an auto dealership in Colorado.
In his sunlit Rhinelander office overlooking a sea of cars and trucks for sale, Aus explains that the focus for him and his team is not just on selling cars. Instead, they take a more holistic approach, providing services guests are looking for. “We try to provide everything a guest could want or need relative to their transportation needs,” he says. Encouraging customers to return for services is an important part of his business model, which accounts for the presence of Auto Gear and Detail Pros.
Before he became the owner of multiple dealerships, Aus proved his mettle while working for The Rydell Group, an organization that owns more than 60 auto dealerships across the U.S. After studying automotive technology, Aus went to work for a Rydell-owned North Dakota dealership. Over the years, he rose through the ranks of management and in the late 1990s, he moved to California to revive several auto dealerships there. His dedication and abilities earned him a position as president of The Rydell Management Company in 2000.
His long association with The Rydell Group became the springboard from which Aus launched his own dealerships. The Rydell organization is recognized as one of the largest auto dealer groups in the U.S., with dealerships in several states. Dealers who are part of The Rydell Group independently own their dealerships.
Aus, like the other dealers in The Rydell Group, adheres to the organization’s philosophy, established by founder Leonard Rydell, of striving for guest enthusiasm, employee satisfaction, financial performance, market effectiveness and ongoing improvement. The Rydell philosophy is firmly entrenched among the dealers associated with the organization. “We’ve never had a dealer stray away from it,” Aus says.
In addition to the five-part philosophy described above, the Rydell organization and its affiliates adhere to a specific set of values: honesty, individual responsibility, dedication to excellence, cooperation, respect for employees, ongoing improvement and being good corporate citizens.
While he enjoyed a bright career with The Rydell Group, “My ultimate dream was building a new dealership here,” Aus says. In 2003, he left his position as president of the organization and came to Rhinelander as owner-operator of Rydell-affiliated Rhinelander GM Auto Center and Rhinelander Toyota.
Aus brought with him the values and philosophy passed on to him by The Rydell Group, and he is dedicated to them. “The values are the guides of any decisions we make,” Aus says. “If we read our values, the answer’s always in there.” Employees are also expected to adhere to the Rydell values. “When we hire new people,” he says, “their values need to align with the company’s.”
He doesn’t merely pay lip service to these values. For example, good corporate citizenship is so important, he says, that there are full-time positions in his organization that focus on community involvement. Employees are encouraged and empowered to join Aus’s organization in giving back.
Many contributions aren’t immediately obvious, says Tarsie Goes, marketing coordinator at Rhinelander GM. For example, the hanging flower baskets that Downtown Rhinelander Inc. puts up each summer are watered using a vehicle donated by Rhinelander GM. The list of organizations and events to which Aus and his team have donated time and/or money is strikingly long. It includes youth sports organizations, the Oneida County Humane Society, Hodags on Parade, Angel On My Shoulder, scholarship awards, local snowmobile clubs, to name only a few. “Last year alone, we gave over $40,000 in donations and services,” Goes says. “We believe in supporting the community because, in turn, the community supports us.”
It makes perfect sense, but “I think a lot of businesses overlook that,” Aus says.
Those businesses that overlook it may be doing so at their peril. A 2013 study by Cone Communications and Echo Research revealed that 82 percent of consumers in this country take into account corporate social responsibility when they’re considering making purchases.
What’s more, experts say, a culture of encouraging volunteering offers leadership opportunities for employees, fosters collaboration among them and helps provide them with a sense of fulfillment. It can also strengthen employee loyalty and ties with the community.
Even with a strong history of customer service and building relationships within the community, Aus and his team don’t let themselves become complacent about their standing among their customers.
“We’re always moving forward, never being content,” he says. Overlooking improvement, he adds, has led to the decline of a number of national companies that were once at the top of their game. Keeping up with the times and being aware of guest expectations is crucial to remaining relevant for customers who can easily take their business elsewhere.
And ensuring the enthusiasm of their guests is the value that has the highest priority among Aus and his people. “We’re a team here,” he says. “Everyone’s equal, we all have the same job.
“If we drop the ball, we fix it fast. That’s what sets good companies apart.”