If you are in Go Auto’s Edmonton headquarters and happen to cross paths with a tall young man that is radiating with enthusiasm and energy, chances are you’ve passed Jared Priestner, Go Auto’s CEO; and as he’s happy to point out, being on a car lot is in his blood.
“My dad was in the car business as I grew up,” says Priestner from the comfort of Go Auto headquarters’ on-site bistro. “That’s how I got a taste of the business. The only other job of any significance that I’ve had, other than working at Go Auto, was when I was in high school. I did work experience at Klondike Cycle and Sports, which was owned by a local entrepreneur named Dave.
“He was an unbelievable boss to work for. He gave us and a few other guys a ton of leeway to think about the inventory, compensation systems and the brands that we carried. That really helped me in my business today; he showed us, and gave us, hands-on experience in running a business on a smaller level.”
Priestner went to Georgian College in Ontario to attend a special program for car dealership management, and there he learned a valuable lesson outside of the classroom.
“I answered the student questionnaire very honestly,” he laughs. “Do you like to party? Yes. What time do you go to bed? 2 AM. I ended up in the loudest, rowdiest party dorm! I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work, so I came back to Edmonton and did two years at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).”
While he was at NAIT, Priestner’s father purchased one of Ford’s driving school franchises, so the young man finished up his schooling and joined his father in the car business, working in every position from teaching teens how to drive to learning the ins and outs of the dealership.
Priestner is a day-at-a-time kind of guy, investing in work when he’s at work, and engaging in play when he’s off the clock.
“I have a humongous music collection of both CDs and digital files!” he admits. “I have about 2,000 songs, from delta blues to hard-core punk to hip hop.” He credits his parents, who were into the Rolling Stones, Beatles and Bob Dylan when those musicians were in their heyday, to launching his love of music, and in high school, he was in a fledgling basement band.
“I picked competitive sports as a kid and I’m a diehard sports fan,” the CEO continues. “I look at business and sports as comparative. I looked at all the highest performing sports teams, such as the New England Patriots and the San Antonio Spurs. They are the most cohesive teams with the strongest leaders because their leaders figured out a way to tell them they would only win as a team. A collection of stars with their own agendas doesn’t win. Everyone achieves personal success from buying into the team. That is my core belief, and I brought that mentality to work from day one. As leaders, you have to go into the corners. You can’t ask people to do what you won’t do yourself. The team loses creditability if you don’t show you are willing to do that work yourself.”
That doesn’t mean it’s all work and no play for the man whose personality is larger than life.
“I love being in a business where everything is always changing! Sometimes you have to put business first, but I also love my life outside of my business too much to become a diehard workaholic. I have a great wife, a young son, I love to travel and be with friends. There is a lot more to life than work, and life is too short to spend it being obsessed with business. That being said, you have to turn on the work when it is warranted. The key is to have fun and exciting people, things and plans outside of work so you are not always defaulting back to work.”
When he is working, however, he puts just as much of his heart into his job as he does into his hobbies.
“When Go Auto acquires a business, we are typically able to double the revenues of that business within 24 months of operating it,” Priestner says with pride. “The benefits to Edmonton, and within Canada, are good quality jobs and careers that pay well and are stable. We’ve probably added, on the conservative side, 1,500 jobs to the market, and most of those jobs are in Alberta.
“We have a very strong promote-from-within policy. Someone can start as a sales person and end up running a multimillion dollar business in a shorter period of time than with another company. We have a different viewpoint on who gets promoted and how. What counts is giving the right people the right chances, over and above what’s on the resume. For example, we have people that have started in a detailing bay and now run a division at just 30 years of age.”
Priestner greatly enjoys “The ability to give people life changing opportunities: seeing someone new to Canada working their way up to running their own business; seeing them be successful and using their training to be successful with minimal supervision; looking people in the eye when they show up and letting them know that the only limit on your career is you. Go Auto has lots of examples of people in the company that took the chance and ran with it.”
The CEO addresses the industry’s challenges with his characteristic good humour, and with a sports-themed approach.
“It’s challenging, navigating the ups and downs of the Alberta economy,” he admits. “We’ve seen how things can get in the 2008 recession, and now the oil-based recession. It’s very challenging from a strategic point of view: how fast you grow, how lean you keep your staff, how much bench strength you keep, how much talent you keep on the bench. Also, we have some exceptional competitors in Edmonton. Some of Alberta’s largest dealerships are based in this city, and they are very good at what they do.”
Go Auto is able to attract and retain quality staff by differentiating itself on every level. For instance, headquarters has a commercial kitchen that produces 6,500 healthy lunches for the staff per month. “My mom taught me that the key to people’s heart is through food,” Priestner laughs. It’s precisely these small and unusual touches, over and above the employee benefits– development and training and the focus on a positive staff culture –that have grown the company from five dealerships and 350 staff to 40 dealerships and 3,000 team members.
Priestner cheekily admits to having had a little help when it came to the now instantly recognizable company name. “I was watching the Colorado Avalanche play in Denver and they had advertising in the penalty box. There were a few dealerships in Denver that were using ‘Go Auto’ and I like it, so I took it!” He laughs. “That’s a true story! But they stopped using that name in the States shortly after, so it’s okay.”
Go Auto is passionate about giving back to the community and supports the Bissell Centre, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, Canadian Cancer Society, CIBC Run for the Cure, CNIB, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Easter Seals, Edmonton Meals on Wheels, Edmonton Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, Heart and Stroke Foundation, Kids with Cancer Society, Little Warriors, Muscular Dystrophy Canada, Ronald McDonald House Charities, STARS, Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation, YESS, YMCA and ERA, to name just a few of the company’s philanthropic pursuits.
When he’s not dynamically running the brand or actively working in the community where lives, works and plays, Priestner is indulging in his love of cooking, music, sports and travel.
“Both my parents were great cooks,” he says of where he got his love for making and eating world cuisine. “I love to eat! I have high standards and want to make sure I eat well. If I was in a different position, or when I retire, I’d be a chef. I like to cook as much as I can.”
For now, he’s happy to cook on the side and drive Go Auto forward fulltime, taking inspiration from those that laid the foundation of the company and staying in tune with what the staff across Canada need to be successful, all in the pursuit of matching quality cars with deserving owners and growing budding careers in the automotive dealership industry.
“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” he says of his leadership style. “The more experience I get, the more success and challenges, the more I realize there is so much more road ahead of all of us as leaders. You can’t be humble enough, and you can’t be satisfied for a minute with where you are at. There are so many aspects, from being a self-learner to changing with the times to identifying good talents to being able to carve out a career path so they stick with you long term. Those are all things you never master; never stop learning.
“I learned so much from my dad. He was the main mentor to everyone in our business group. Mom was the other biggest influence in my life. No matter what was going on, mom made things a great home and always had a smile on her face. This brought a different dimension so things weren’t always so serious. If you didn’t score the winning goal or ace the test, mom loved you just as much, and that created balance.”
Priestner is excited about what lies ahead.
“The future has never been brighter! Go Auto is going to stick to the formula we always had to grow ambitiously, but not at a rate where we get too big for our britches. We have to be able to develop leaders at a rate where we can take on new opportunities. We don’t want to pass on opportunity, but we also want to have the right people in place to capitalize on it.”
He concludes, humbly, “I hope to parley my experience and learning. I lead the league in mistakes, and I hope I learn from those and apply those lessons to the next 10 years – and continue to stick with the plan, not rewrite the formula.”