A Lesson in Southern Business for Know-it-all Carpetbaggers

What do car dealership groups and the music business in the South have in common? Know-it-all carpetbaggers, that’s what.

There was a time when “Go west, young man” was the call to opportunity and everybody flocked to Cali. These days the call is heard around the world, “Go to Atlanta!”

For quite some many years I was embedded with a small but fast-growing regional car dealership group here in Atlanta. As a vendor, I worked closely with the CEO, management teams, and the front-line employees at corporate and the dealerships. (What I’m going to tell you about this group was and is not unique to them so I will not mention their name.)

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The dealer group’s department managers and employees were a rather stable bunch. I could count on them being there from one visit to the next. Their emails never bounced. They returned calls. They worked together as a team for the good of the whole. It was an absolute pleasure dealing with them. But one group I couldn’t depend upon was the general managers of the individual dealerships.

At first, GMs were long term, these folks were great. Then they started disappearing to be replaced with another whose tenure would last a year, until finally if a GM managed to stay for three months he was considered an old hand. As they onboarded, I was to interview the new GM, write a piece about him for the company-wide newsletter (going to over 1200 employees), and in general introduce and welcome him in print to the company family.

However, I kept noticing a pattern. It seems all these new hires were not from Georgia, coming instead from car dealer hot spots in every northern and western state you can name as well as Florida. Inevitably they all confided that business was down in their state, and so they came to Georgia looking for a job because Georgia — for some mysterious reason — was at the time actually doing better than from whatever state they hailed.

Another pattern was that each of these were a superstar. They were turn-around experts. They were the go-to guy when it came to fixing problems…in their old location.

We now know that during this time (the early 2000s) the economy was heading for some major issues and that the ripples of downturn were to be more permanent and catastrophic than we could imagine. At that time, though, nobody knew and had no way of knowing what was coming down the business pike. They thought their problems were local, due simply to employee issues. So turn-around superstars with plans and methods were a godsend and hired right and left.

The turnover among the GMs got so bad that after I’d meet one, I’d predict how long before he tucked tail and ran. I got very good at this prediction. Here’s why. You see, what else I noticed about these new hires was that they were a smug bunch. Some politely, some bluntly, some downright insulting, but in any case each new GM said some version of this:

The problem with Georgia is that you’re all stupid, lazy, and have no clue what real business is like. Why, you’re stuck back in the Civil War.

The first time I heard one say that I thought I had misheard and asked him to repeat it. He did! Word for word, and added raised eyebrows, a slow and serious nod, and a finger pointed at me for emphasis. Each would also strut and say some version of this:

Yeah, you just wait. You won’t recognize this dealership in three months. We’re going to be selling so much we’re going to be rolling in the dough because we from [name the state] know what’s what.

Of course I was thinking, in sort of wickedly humorous fashion: Alrighty then. 10-4, good buddy. Ting-ta-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting. Hey, ya hear the banjos playing? Skeert yet?

Part of my sick fun was popping in on the GM to see just how successful he was at Months 1, 2, and 3. Invariably his demeanor was changing. It was sort of sad. They went from an open-door policy and strategic daily staff meetings and managing by walking around and snapping fingers and popping gum in Month 1, to please-knock policy and weekly strategy meetings in Month 2. Month three was locked-door, don’t answer phone, and I’ll get back to you on that emails until one day I’d be given the heads up that the next superstar had been hired and I was to go interview him.

I finally made a unilateral decision to wait to interview any new GM until he’d been there for over three months because employees were telling me it was a big old downer to get excited about a guy only to have him hit the road so quickly. And why did they hit the road? Here’s where it gets interesting. Versions of the below were said by each and every one:

“Angela, I just don’t understand it. I mean, I can’t sell one car here. I don’t understand why these stupid people won’t buy. Don’t they know I know better what they need than they do? And the salespeople won’t listen to me either. When I go into their little cubicle to help them with a customer who obviously will never buy from that guy, everybody gets mad. Look! Sales are down! I do not know why my brilliant and previously successful sales process isn’t working.”

The meltdowns were all different in their own special ways, but each meltdown was always complete ending with them leaving, often without any notice.

Readers of this column know I’m also in the music business. I’ve had these very same conversations with music business carpetbaggers and know-it-alls who’ve flocked from everywhere around the world to the new music business mecca, Atlanta. In all the conversations above, simply substitute songs for cars and artists for salespeople, and you have the same story.

In 2013, I met with a music guy from New York who had moved here. He was putting the whang-dang-doodle on me. He sent me a link to a profile of him in an online magazine that was blatantly not real (the profile or the magazine). He sent me a two-page management contract that was so bad and incomplete that it looked like he’d written it with the help of a first-year law student. (He had; his cousin.)

I asked him to meet me at a coffee shop where I gently, sweetly, and ever-so politely told him the following. I’ve summarized:

Look, S—, if you were so hot in New York, why’d you leave? Let me take a guess. Because business sucks up there, right?…Exactly. So you come down here where the people say y’all and they smile at you and they’re polite and they talk with that slow Southern drawl that makes you think everybody’s stupid and just ripe for the plucking. Well, S—, you aren’t the first carpetbagger and know-it-all to think that and run for home with their tail tucked between their legs when they find out we aren’t so stupid.

And that polite smile hides a surprising amount of savvy because we see you coming. Honey, when I first sat down with you and you opened your mouth I knew you were a weasel. I simply allowed you to prove it to me, and this stupid contract…You’re cousin the first-year law student helped you with this, did she, now?

Well, dude, this is a small town and you can bet I’ll keep my eye on you. And you can bet when you mix in my circles and anybody asks me about you — and they will — I will tell them exactly what I said to your face…You think not? Then you just wait, sweetie.

And you know what else?…I’ll tell you. You are going to shake a ton of hands and you’re going to have lots of people smile at you and slowly drawl “Welcome to Georgia”, and just like me, they will allow you to present your case further, but — and this is a big but that you should listen to — if you don’t change your attitude you won’t do a damn bit of business in this town and it will be your own fault…

Yes, that is the end of my speech to you. Do not contact me again. Good day, sir. 



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