An Empire Automotive Group employee passing out food and supplies at a charity event. - IMAGE: Empire Automotive Group

An Empire Automotive Group employee passing out food and supplies at a charity event.

IMAGE: Empire Automotive Group

Automotive businesses are revving up their efforts to give back to the communities they serve.

In the process, dealerships and their employees are discovering the benefits of being active community contributors. Their efforts foster goodwill and make a tangible impact on local neighborhoods, proving the road to success is partially paved with philanthropy.

We explored the compelling stories of two automotive businesses that have embraced their roles as community stewards and found a remarkable transformation that unfolds when cars and compassion converge.

A Giving Heart

In the five years since Michael Brown took the helm at New York-based Empire Automotive Group, he has grown both company profits and charitable giving. But the two, he emphasizes, are not connected.

"We align our business with charities not for recognition, but to support the community. We do it because it is our responsibility. Successful businesses have a duty to help struggling community members.”

Empire prioritizes underserved children's access to necessary resources. The group supports multiple charities, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of America; Island Harvest; Family Service League; and the Marty Lyons Foundation.

“We just look to do as much as we can, especially to ensure local kids have the things they need,” Brown says.

Nelson Auto Group in Tulsa, Okla., also puts as much emphasis on charitable giving as it does selling cars and has experienced success with both.

Chief Operating Officer Brandon Murphy, like Brown, stresses the importance of separating selling cars from charitable works. “You don’t do good things to be seen. You do good things because they are good things. Giving back to the community is not about marketing or selling cars. It’s about helping those less fortunate in your community.”

Murphy says that when dealerships decide to serve their communities, they must do it with the right heart. “You need to determine what your motives are. The most genuine motive is loving your community and helping community members who are less fortunate.”

For Nelson Auto, charitable giving includes The Mission in Norman; City Serve Oklahoma; Habitat for Humanity; Ronald McDonald House; Night Light Tulsa; and other nonprofit organizations, as well as helping employees in need.

“Our first line of defense is taking care of our people,” says Patti Tremonti, CEO of MTN Automotive Training, a division of Nelson Auto Group.

She says the company expands the effort beyond fair pay and benefits. “When a team member is having a hard time or goes through a tragedy, we step in to help.”

How to Engage Employees

Brown and Murphy said they believe engaging employees in charitable efforts is crucial, whether it's through a backpack drive, monthly donations, or a Christmas giveaway for underprivileged families.

“Engage your employees in any charitable giving you’re involved in,” Murphy says. “Many business owners will donate money, but it means so much more when your employees are involved, too.”

Nelson Auto grants full-time employees 32 hours of paid volunteer time per year. Recently, the entire staff distributed school supplies in the dealership’s annual back-to-school backpack drive.

“They stopped working, turning wrenches, and greeting customers to serve others for about three hours,” Murphy says. “As people came through, team members offered encouraging words, prayer, whatever they needed to be encouraged in that moment.”

Leadership is needed to make it all work, Tremonti says, including involvement of the general manager or sales director and the appointment of someone to oversee every charitable effort. “But it starts with the GM,” she says. “When the GM, owner, or director wants to be involved, employees will want to be involved, too.”

Nelson Auto also grants entire teams time off to help specific charities. For example, Tremonti says her team shopped together recently to buy items for a local homeless shelter, then took the goods to the shelter together. “It was a great team event,” she says.

Empire Automotive keeps charitable opportunities in front of employees all year long. The group’s 1,200 employees receive regular emails about charitable events in need of volunteers.

“We encourage and welcome their support and help, but we do not push them to get involved,” Brown says. “Our communication keeps them engaged and encourages their participation.”

Nelson Auto hosts multiple charitable events a year, and Murphy says engaging employees isn’t a heavy lift.

“Most people have a heart to give, they just don’t have an outlet. When we provide experiences for team members in an organized way, where they can make a significant impact, they readily volunteer.” 

Volunteering also changes every individual who participates, he adds. “It gives meaning to your work, shows you how blessed you really are, and lets you put a smile on the face of someone less fortunate. It is life-changing to make a positive impact in someone else’s life while expecting nothing in return.”

It also changes the culture of the dealership, Tremonti says.

“Our team comes away more fulfilled, energized, and grateful. It’s a tremendous experience to focus on others in an intentional way,” she says. “When you give back, you teach your people to meet others where they are at, to communicate and encourage others, and to love on them, even if they are strangers.”

Picking Charitable Partnerships

Choosing from among charities to serve should be done with intention, according to Brown. He says Empire keeps the focus local because “we want to help people in our community,” and zeroes in on charities that help underserved children. Next, the group sets a giving budget and mission, then plans how to achieve it.

“We come up with a plan of action [for charitable giving] every year,” he says.

Planning starts after Christmas and involves the executive team. Employees are also encouraged to suggest charities. “We look at the list and review what we did the prior year. Then we come up with our budget spend.

Nelson Auto focuses its giving on local children and homeless people. Before choosing charities, it interviews their leadership to verify that each is legitimate and has genuine needs that it understands.

“You want to be sure you’re helping them with what is really needed,” Tremonti says. “It would be terrible to give a charity 20 pallets of water when what they really need is food, blankets and socks.”

Customers also benefit from Nelson Auto's charitable efforts, as each employee is given a Goodness Account to help those in need.

“If they see a single mom who needs a new set of tires, they can pay for that,” Murphy says. “We tell them to look for opportunities and give in the moment to impact someone’s life. When you empower employees to look for ways to give, it changes them. They develop an entirely different mindset.”

Getting Started

For dealerships interested in doing more to give back, Brown and Tremonti suggest taking the first step.

“Start small,” Tremonti says. “Do not start off giving away 1,500 backpacks or with a major Christmas drive. Just pick something smaller and do it. Start in the local community or maybe partner with a local church. Angel (gift) trees are a huge thing. You could set one up in your dealership.”

Include the entire staff by asking them which charities they want to serve, she adds. “[If you pick one in a vacuum], they may not want to serve. But if you get them involved and pick a charity they suggest, they will be all in.”

Listen to the community, Brown says. Look for the greatest needs, he says, pointing out that “they are everywhere.” He also recommends meeting with local government and school officials, who can readily identify local needs.

Also don’t feel like you have to give on a large scale, the groups say.

Give something, even if it’s small, Brown says. “If you’re a small- or a new business and cannot afford to give hundreds of thousands of dollars, give what you can. Even the smallest amount is something. Someone once told me a little plus a little is a lot. Do what you can do. If everyone did something, it would change the world.”

Ronnie Wendt is an editor at Auto Dealer Today.