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A Culture People Crave

How Autologue’s Jim Franco creates a business people want to be a part of.

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Amy Antenora has been reporting on the automotive aftermarket since 2002.

When asked what the secret to his decades of success is, Jim Franco, CEO of Autologue Computer Systems, said it boils down to one simple action: Treat people like family. 

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“A lot of family companies, even though they have family who take it over, if the kids aren’t fully invested and involved, it doesn’t work well. And I’ve got some good roots,” said Franco.

Franco is joined in the business by his two daughters, Jamie Picco, vice president of accounting, and Tiffanie Krause, who focuses on employee relations and marketing. Both of Franco’s daughters went into the medical field after college. His youngest daughter, Jamie, is an emergency-room nurse who managed a sizable ER for many years before coming to Autologue. His other daughter, Tiffanie, managed two out-patient surgical clinics for 17 years before coming to Autologue. Both Tiffanie and Jamie wanted to be a part of the Autologue family because they wanted a better balance between work and raising their children. The two daughters both say their decision to leave their chosen careers was the best decision they could have made. Not only were they able to find the life balance they were looking for, but they also both fell in love with the Autologue culture and have now been at the company close to 14 years.  

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Krause’s husband, Donny, also is involved in the family business and was recently named chief financial officer and chief operating officer for Autologue, after more than a decade with the company. Franco proudly shares that his youngest grandson, a student at Arizona State, will intern at Autologue next summer – the third generation to be involved with the family business.

Franco acquired Autologue Computer Systems, moving the business from New Jersey to California in 1985 with about six employees, after selling his Unlimited Auto Parts stores, which he ran for a number of years. Today, Autologue has 92 employees in all. Franco said it’s the family culture and “team-nurturing” environment he has created that makes his business so successful. It’s not only about having family involved, but also about treating all of your employees like part of the clan, too.

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Bonding and Benefits

“One of my employees said, ‘You know, Jim, we have a really different company.’ When I asked what she meant by that she said, ‘It’s outstanding.’ I asked her, ‘How do you know that?’ She said, ‘I’ve been with you over 20 years and I talk to a lot of people at other jobs, neighbors and friends, and everybody wants to work at Autologue,’” Franco shared.

“No wonder I have 14.7-year average tenure, and a lot of employees at 25-30 years,” Franco said. “It’s only because I learned along the way how to really nurture a team and create that culture. With a big, bad dictator ‘hire and fire’ culture, you’re not going to get any respect from your crew.”

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Donny Krause said witnessing the culture Franco created – first at Unlimited Auto Parts and now at Autologue – made it something he wanted to be a part of as well.

“Jim established that culture in the beginning before Autologue. In the early days of Unlimited Auto Parts, Jim would take his employees and their families on annual trips to the lake where much of the family bonding took place, and personal relationships developed outside of the office setting. Those trips continued for many years into the Autologue era, and those bonds created are still going strong today,” Krause said. 

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“Of course, it takes much more than those annual trips though to keep that culture going and being able to successfully integrate new team members into that family culture. Being a part of the Autologue family means you are not simply a role or title – you are a person, an important member of the team first,” he adds.

Autologue offers its employees much more than annual trips, as enjoyable as those may be. In a 2017 interview with aftermarketNews, Franco shared that Autologue offers employees an extensive array of benefits, ranging from an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, a 401(k) plan and health benefits to birthday pay and team lunches, annual bonuses, Thanksgiving and Christmas gifts and surprise awards given for exemplary effort. “We distribute an Autologue Visa Rewards card that gets loaded with a small bonus every time a team member goes above and beyond and is recognized by a customer or their peers,” Franco said.

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Franco added, “I don’t choose to refer to our Autologue team as employees. They’re family. This family consists of 92 experienced team members whose average tenure is 14.7 years, and we have a total of more than 1,800 years of experience combined. We hire for life, so consequently we hire very few new employees. Most of the team came from our acquisitions over the past 25 years. We treat every team member like they’re family, because they are!”

A Culture That Creates Great Customers, Too

“Our emphasis is on people, not numbers. Everyone on our team is reminded often that what we do is we take care of our customers – customers who greatly depend on our products to run their businesses and, in turn, provide for their own families,” said Krause. “That really is the company focus, and what we are thinking about when we push our team to produce and improve. It is how our people can make a difference in our customers’ businesses and in turn their lives. The message is not about improving numbers on spreadsheets and P&L’s. Our company dialogue does not revolve around net profit and reducing overhead. As CFO, I am obviously very much aware of all those business numbers on a daily basis. However, Jim has continued to stress that by focusing on the people, the relationships, the customers and the culture, the good numbers will be the result, and that rings true as the company continues to grow today.”

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Krause added that team members are entrusted to make improvements and to serve customers in the best ways they know how.

“Jim created a culture of empowered people, to do what it takes to make sure customers are taken care of at the highest level. That was instinctual to Jim and I don’t think he realized that culture does not exist in many, if not most, companies today,” Krause said. “Investing in people and empowering them to make a difference may have a high cost, but the return on the back end is long-term customers who can both appreciate and trust the software company that powers their business. I cannot tell you how often we get customers calling us for help with problems not related to our software because ‘Autologue answers the phone.’ Not only do we answer the phone, but we commit to making sure they know they are backed by a company of people who care.  I believe this also goes a long way in maintaining our culture. When our team feels empowered to help our customers, it feels good. It’s satisfying, it’s motivating knowing that you are making a difference every day when you are at work.”

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Listen First To Lead

Another key element of Franco’s success is to listen to both his customers and his employees.  “Jim has built Autologue by talking directly with customers and listening to and understanding their needs. Because Jim and many of our employees have come from the front lines of the aftermarket, our understanding of the business is paramount to what we do and what we offer to our customers. Even though we are a software company, much of what has contributed to our growth and longevity is our consultative relationship and input we provide to our customers,” Krause explained. 

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“Our employees also are able to see their ideas and suggestions on how to improve our products and our internal processes be implemented. They know they make a difference; they know they are not just a role or title on a business card, they see their contributions to both our customers and the company.”

Franco’s generosity as a business owner extends not only to employees but customers as well. This past year, Autologue has been hosting a customer appreciation drawing for a 2021 Tesla or $35,000 cash. The grand-prize drawing will be held at the end of the year, with additional quarterly drawings in March, June and September for $1,000 and an additional entry for the Tesla giveaway. “Our Tesla giveaway is not a gimmick, or ‘snake oil,’ but simply a way to encourage business professionals to experience new technology,” said Franco.

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Here to Stay

“Today’s business environment continues to see big corporations becoming even bigger at an increasing rate. These big corporations often churn through CEOs at what seems to be a fairly rapid rate. That can oftentimes lead to additional changes at the middle management level, all which can result in an unstable culture of people always looking over their shoulder or making sure not to stick their neck out for fear of being next. For Autologue, to be a family-owned business today means longevity of business structure and upper management that provides continuity and a stable environment built around the family culture,” Krause shared. “Our team can draw confidence in the fact that they know we are a family business with absolutely no exit strategy in consideration.”

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Like many businesses coming out of the pandemic, Autologue leadership says it was fortunate that transitioning its team to remote work was quick and seamless – for both employees and customers. As the pandemic slowly wages on, Krause said the challenge will be to maintain that highly engaged family culture the company has become known for.

“I’m really proud of the way our team has adjusted to the new challenges presented by working remotely,” he said. “One of the challenges we face, and what we will work on over the course of this next year, is how do we continue to maintain our family culture and nurture those interpersonal connections that we feel are so important to the success of our team, all while not having the same level of face-to-face interaction. We already have a few events scheduled to help facilitate this like BBQs and such, but we are definitely dedicated to making sure we can adapt to the new environment while maintaining our culture.” 

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Never slowing down

While the team at Autologue was able to work remotely during the pandemic, Franco said he still showed up every day, and has no plans on loosening his grip. While he has put his faith in his Autologue family to continue to serve as stewards of the culture he has so carefully built, he still plans to be a big presence, ready to shake things up. “I’m getting called two, three times a week by private equity companies wanting to ‘invest in me.’ Sorry, I’ve got family in the business. I’m never going to sell my company. I’m never going to retire. I’m nurturing my family. Donny and both of my daughters have been running this company unbelievably well in the last few years, giving me an opportunity to slow down … just a little bit … Not much! COVID came along, my employees went home and I came in every single day, like it was nothing. I’m old-school, I gotta be here at the helm having fun. Stirring the pot,” he said. 

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