In Rio Rancho, NM, one of the largest American flags in the state waves over Don Chalmers Ford, a 2016 Baldrige Award recipient. One of these large flags was even loaned to the state of New Mexico after 9/11 because of the patriotism of the dealership’s owner.
That owner, Don Chalmers, wanted to design his Ford dealership to feel different from other automotive dealerships, with a focus on the customer experience and an embedded culture of quality. With the help of Baldrige resources and a focus on sustainable processes, that culture has been sustained since Don Chalmers’s untimely death in 2014. And according to the people who remember him, his legacy of servant leadership, community support, and caring for people lives on through the dealership’s sustained results and a culture of continuous improvement.
“Typically, auto dealerships are focused on making the most money for the guy whose name is on the building . . . [but Don] wanted to have an approach that was different,” said Lee Butler, quality director/customer relations manager for Don Chalmers Ford. “He wanted to design his whole business around the customer experience and bringing them into a friendly atmosphere, [with] low pressure, highly skilled sales people”—and even a designated dealership parking lot for customers.
Butler said Chalmers’s legacy lives on at the dealership through the systems and processes—and satisfaction results—that have been sustained. “I still have the handwritten notes that he gave me almost 20 years ago of how we want to sell cars . . . [customers] being greeted by a friendly greeter and walking you into the dealership, treating you like you’re family. . . . All that was part of his unique approach that led him to be different, to provide an experience that was different.”
According to Butler, Chalmers was ahead of his time in the quality movement, embracing total quality management and seeing the benefit in taking care of his customers in all his dealerships, first in Oklahoma and then in New Mexico. “He was surveying employee satisfaction long before Ford ever said we should survey our employees to find out how happy they are. [Don] was very innovative, way ahead of the curve on quality,” he said.
Thanks to the cultures and processes instilled by Don Chalmers and his leadership team, customer satisfaction at the dealership is now at the highest level it has ever been, and employee satisfaction continues to be sustained at very high levels, Butler said; “The results tell you the outcomes of your processes and systems.”
Soon after his move to New Mexico in the 1990s and together with his Chief Financial Officer Kerry West and other senior leaders, Chalmers learned about Quality New Mexico, the Baldrige-based state program that is now part of the Alliance for Performance Excellence, a statewide network of Baldrige-based programs. The Baldrige Excellence Framework, which includes the Baldrige Criteria, was adopted two to three years into the dealership’s founding, said Butler.
Julia Gabaldon, director emeritus of Quality New Mexico, remembers Chalmers fondly. “New Mexico loved Don Chalmers!,” she said. “When Don served on our Board of Directors, he committed to meet with business leaders one on one to talk about the value of the Baldrige process and Quality NM. When I called business leaders to schedule lunch meetings, his immediate response was when, where, and what time.” Gabaldon added that Quality New Mexico recently created the Don Chalmers Passion for Excellence Award for state leaders.
From winning the highest organizational honor at Quality New Mexico, Don Chalmers Ford set out to compete for the national Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. In 2008, when the economy was in a free-fall and “nobody on the planet earth is buying a car today,” Chalmers still accepted a Baldrige site visit because it was the right thing to do and the right message to send, said Butler, adding that Chalmers valued the Baldrige examiners’ feedback. “I need to know,” was something he said.
After Chalmers’s death on Easter day 2014, Butler reflected, “Looking back, little did we know . . . that the Baldrige systems would be part of our succession plan. . . . Succession plans are more than just people. . . . It’s having the systems and processes in place so that transition [to new leadership is seamless].”
Because of Chalmers’s vision, leadership was seamlessly transferred to Gary Housley, who had been mentored by Chalmers for 20 years. Housley declared the Baldrige Award as unfinished business, and the dealership continued to apply for the Baldrige Award about every four years. In 2016, Don Chalmers Ford won the Baldrige Award.
“He would have been on cloud 9,” Butler said about Chalmers. “To us, even though he couldn’t be there, it was a culmination of what he did. . . . He would have been so proud, so motivational. . . . He was so passionate about what he does. We know he knows [about the win].”
Butler said that after Chalmers’s passing, his friends and coworkers realized that he was a “servant leader,” a leader whose focus is to serve others rather than to exercise power or control over others. The dealership wanted to embed servant leadership in its culture, so brought in a coach and trainer.
Soon, Butler said, employees started to ask themselves, “What Would Don Do (WWDD)?”
John Vinyard, an alumnus Baldrige examiner, who worked with Chalmers and whose wife JoAnn painted “Winning Spirits," a depiction of the dealership, describes WWDD as asking yourself to go above and beyond in your actions; “You do what’s right for the customer. You do what you would be proud for your mother, your manager, or the media to know about.” That’s what Don Chalmers would do, he said.
Employees of the dealership also knew Don’s kindness, and many can recount a story of how he helped them and their families personally. Butler said that Chalmers always put people first: “Family was important. People were important.”
Vinyard added that although there’s an incredible aura around Chalmers and who he was, his leadership legacy lives on through Housley’s “quiet vindication and stewardship to the principles” that Chalmers held, sustaining the culture of continuous improvement and putting people first.
“[The story of Don Chalmers Ford] is the best testimonial I have ever seen to the sustainability of processes,” said Vinyard.
Another part of Chalmers’s legacy was his focus on improving communities. He was nist-quoted in an Albuquerque Journal story from April 2014 as saying, “I want to be a great business in a great community. I don’t want to be a good business in a crummy community, and it’s up to businesses to get involved and give back to make it a great community.”
According to the story, Chalmers served on the University of New Mexico Board of Regents, Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Central New Mexico, the Rio Rancho Community Foundation, the state’s Higher Education Commission, the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Board of Directors, the Sandoval Regional Medical Group, the University of New Mexico Hospital Clinical Operations, and the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, as well as other economic development, community service, and health care and education boards. He also helped found the local affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
Chalmers believed that we have an obligation to make our community stronger, said Butler. “That starts with good employees with good benefits who make good salaries so that they can go out and spend those dollars in our community to help other businesses.” To continue this legacy, Don Chalmers Ford has an expectation that each employee spends 40 hours per year in the community doing something she/he is passionate about, said Butler. Community service is part of Chalmers’s legacy.
The Baldrige Excellence Framework has empowered organizations to accomplish their missions, improve results, and become more competitive. It includes the Criteria for Performance Excellence, core values and concepts, and guidelines for evaluating your processes and results.