When Your Controller Leaves You

How to make the best possible decision at the worst possible time.

January 2017, Auto Dealer Today - Feature

by Harlene Doane - Also by this author

What is the worst thing a dealer wants to endure in the dealership? Near the top of the list, just below a DMS conversion, is when your controller or office manager (if that’s your highest-level HR talent) gives notice.

Suddenly, the person you have trusted to keep your operation running smoothly — by paying your bills and providing timely, reliable financial data — decides it is time to retire, relocate or simply move on. A similar situation can arise when you finally realize the individual you have in place has been outgrown by the operation.

Thankfully, these situations don’t happen too often. But when they do, most dealers hit the big red panic button — repeatedly.

The Bumpy Ride Begins

Most dealers know how important their controller is, but few have any idea as to what it takes to do the job. They never spend time in the HR office; they just see the statements and reports it generates. Some dealers don’t even understand the difference between a great office manager, a controller and a CFO.

When a panicked dealer calls me, the first thing I do is assure them the dealership will survive the ride, but it’s likely to be a bumpy for a bit. Then we walk through the duties of the individual who is leaving to identify the type of position we need to fill. Once we have that done, we can begin the process of finding their next great hire.

Ideally, the person leaving will be available to help transition the new person, but in the last several years, I think I’ve only seen that happen once. Hiring and training for this position isn’t an easy task. First, great automotive controllers aren’t in abundance. Second, they don’t move around much. So you have to be open to hiring outside of automotive if the right fit comes along.

You also have to know what the right fit looks like. It takes specific skill sets to transition into auto at that level, and being a CPA isn’t a required component for all positions.

Get Help

When your controller leaves, and you don’t fully comprehend their job, and you don’t have experienced candidates knocking on your door, I suggest you consider doing the same thing you would do with any other task you either aren’t equipped (or don’t want) to do yourself: Outsource it to a specialist!

The entire hiring process for one highly skilled individual can consume 30 to 50 working hours. Is it really prudent to spend all that time filtering through applicants, screening, interviewing and skill-assessing individuals who may or may not be a good fit for the job? Do you even know enough to judge their skills and qualifications?

Hiring the right person is likely the difference between a short, bumpy ride and an extended, wreck-ridden route. Both can get you to your destination eventually, but how long do you want to take to get there? Next time, consider outsourcing the job to a team of specialists. Maybe you won’t have to hit that panic button at all.

Harlene Doane is COO of DealerStrong and co-organizer of the annual Industry Summit. She is the former editor of Auto Dealer Today and has expertise in accounting, HR and operations. Email her at


  1. 1. F&I Dude [ February 02, 2017 @ 10:17AM ]

    Crazy guess here, but I assume the author of this article operates a business that provides recruiting services?

  2. 2. Jeff Askew [ May 27, 2017 @ 07:35AM ]

    Great article and some really good advice, I am the guy who fills the gap while I help you find a qualified replacement and keep the accounting process going for the short haul.


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