Business Spotlight | Spring 2019
Roush Auto Group

Roush Auto Group’s ESOP creates a team-first mentality at its dealerships

By Adam Burroughs

Jeff Brindley never expected he’d spend nearly four decades selling cars.

“I needed a job,” says Brindley, who today is president and CEO of Roush Auto Group. “I had a teaching degree and was not able to find work. A friend was working at a dealership, and I made a comment to him one day that I needed to find a job. And I did what everybody does when they get in the car business: I said, ‘I’ll sell cars until I can find a real job.’ That was 36 years ago.”

His friend set him up with an interview at Roush Honda, and much to his surprise, he received a job offer the same day.

“I had never sold a car,” he says. “I went home and told my dad that I got a job selling cars and he said, ‘How are you going to sell new cars? You’ve never ridden in one.’”

In 1994, when general manager Jim Jonard—who had hired Brindley in 1982 and whom Brindley credits for teaching him the business—passed away, Brindley took over the dealership.

Smooth transaction

Roush Auto Group is composed of Roush Honda and Roush Ford, the latter a result of its January 2017 acquisition of Jim Keim Ford. It’s the first dealership Brindley has acquired and brought under the Roush umbrella.

“It’s the only company we’ve purchased,” he says. “We bought several pieces of real estate, built new facilities and done all that with the Honda store, but this is the first business we’ve purchased.”

Brindley says he had been looking for an opportunity to acquire another dealership, but although a few opportunities have come across his desk, none were the right fit. One issue was distance.

“Two of those were out of state, so logistics becomes part of the decision-making process—is this such a good deal that we can work around the challenging logistics?” he says.

The Jim Keim Ford opportunity, however, was a good fit.

Of all the boxes Brindley wanted to check with any purchase, the most important was that it was a popular franchise.

“That was No. 1,” he says. “We wouldn’t just buy any automobile franchise because we could get it. Ford fit. Jim Keim fit,” he says.

Second, the Keim dealership was successful, which meant they could bring it into the Roush fold with minimal effort. There was a need for culture transfer and some horsepower to be added from a marketing and community involvement standpoint, but it was essentially a turnkey deal.

“It wasn’t a store that we needed to go in there and blow it up and start from scratch. It was very successful and had been for a long time,” he says.

From the start, much of the deal fell seamlessly into place. Brindley says the deal kicked off when he struck up a conversation with Jim Keim, the dealership’s owner and someone Brindley knows in part from positions they’ve held together on boards. Through those conversations, he learned that Keim might be looking to sell.

“I knew that Jim didn’t have any kids in the dealership, and I’ve known him for, a long time. He had already been thinking that way. We just happened to talk one day, and there it was,” Brindley says.

The deal was done quickly, and the transition was seamless.

“We had our first conversation about this in August and we had it done in January. That doesn’t happen on these big deals. It typically takes longer than that,” Brindley says.

Our technicians, our service department staff know they need to keep the promises the sales department makes. They really care about how many cars get sold.
Jeff Brindley
President and CEO, Roush Auto Group

Taking care of employees

Brindley says he believes Keim felt good about selling to Roush Auto because he knew his employees would be taken care of—that Roush Auto would welcome the Keim dealership’s 88 employees, giving them a chance to earn a spot on the new roster.

“Jim was very conscious about taking care of his people and his employees, and their model fit our model,” he says.

By model, Brindley means employee owned, making Roush Auto Group a rarity in the business.

Brindley says Edwin Roush, the founder and former owner of the eponymous dealership, was a forward thinker. He insisted that his employees were better taken care of than any others in any other business. Edwin Roush sold his company to his employees in 1991, forming the employee stock ownership plan that continues today.

And that program’s advantages are apparent to those who work there. Brindley says that because of the ESOP, many employees stay at Roush Auto and make it a career.

“It’s an incredible retirement benefit,” he says. “I have several people at the Honda dealership today with very significant account balances. And employees do not contribute. It is totally 100 percent a company contribution.”

The ESOP-as-retention-plan model is working. More than 70 of Roush Auto’s 225 employees have at least 10 years of service, and 28 have 20 years or more.

“It has way outperformed any 401(k) or anything else that we could have put together in 1991,” Brindley says. “It helps us attract top-notch talent. If someone has decided that the car business is their career, then they ought to go where they’re most rewarded, and I think that’s here.”

Roush Auto Group
(Photo by Jay Laprete)

Part of the team

Brindley likens the Roush Auto culture to that of a sports team. And he should know. The graduate of Otterbein University played four years of collegiate baseball. He says the ESOP, much like a sports team, means everybody’s accountable to everybody else.

“The person working next to me is accountable to me and I’m accountable to that person,” he says. “That’s the mindset we have to have. Our technicians, our service department staff know they need to keep the promises the sales department makes. They really care about how many cars get sold. The sales department really cares that the service department is taking care of the customers, and that the customers want to come back and that those customers are satisfied.”

And the employees who joined the Roush Auto Group through the Keim Ford deal are also ESOP participants. They were immediately welcomed into the ESOP, which has a five-year vesting schedule.

That commitment to its employees has paid off for the auto group. Brindley says business was good last year for Roush Auto, and the dealership exceeded everything it did the previous year—used car sales, new car volume and service volume all trended up at both stores. And though it’s important that its employees are treated well, how they treat customers is just as high of a priority.

“Customers care first about their shopping experience. The fact that it comes from an employee-owned company doesn’t mean anything to them unless it’s better because of it,” he says. “So our goal in our dealerships every day is to have one person acknowledge that it felt different when they walked in the door.”

A helping hand

Though Roush Auto Group’s President and CEO Jeff Brindley says he’s glad his first major acquisition went well, he knows it may never happen like that again.

“I’ve talked to too many people who have been through this, and it just doesn’t happen that way,” he says.

Part of the reason the deal between Roush Auto Group and Jim Keim Ford went so well was because of the help of Huntington, which facilitated the transaction.

“They were very instrumental in our purchase of Keim Ford,” Brindley says.

“Keim Ford was a Huntington customer as well, so it could not have been easier, could not have gone more smoothly. Huntington was great in that regard,” says Brindley.

Brindley says he appreciates that the people he deals with at Huntington really understand his business.

“It’s more than just a banking relationship,” he says. “They understand the automobile business. They have an entire department that does nothing but our business. I appreciate what they offer relative to our auto show sponsorship for the Columbus Automobile Dealers Association. They’re very involved with the Ohio Automobile Dealers Association. They understand what we do.”

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