“Looking for Innovation? Go Outside Your Office”

For new ideas, get out of your office, urges Rhett Ricart, co-owner of Ricart Automotive Group, a car dealership in Columbus, Ohio, that chalked up more than $600 million in 1999 sales.

Join a trade or professional association and attend their national meetings. Visit a supplier or customer in another region. If you never leave your turf "you’ll be lost," says Ricart, who spends about one week each month on the road. Attending trade shows, visiting manufacturers and other dealerships provides an endless stream of ideas. "I always learn something," says Ricart. "I’ve even taken issues from other industries and applied them."

For example, 14 years ago, Ricart began using a greeter at his car dealership — something he adapted from Wal-Mart. Ricart uses his greeter to first welcome customers, then find out if they need a salesperson or just want to browse on their own.

An idea gleaned from a vendor: Instead of "salespeople," Ricart hires "product specialists." Paid a salary rather than working on commission, the specialists can focus on sharing knowledge and educating the consumer rather than swinging a deal. Once a customer is ready to buy, the specialist turns him over to a manager who works out pricing. Nothing boosts innovation like a change of venue.