It was a decade ago last week that I walked out of my large Ford dealership in Dallas-Fort Worth for the final time. I looked back, briefcase in hand, at the building I built and designed and it was a bittersweet moment. By 2006, the car business had gotten more competitive, the economy was slowing down, and I knew I had to sell while dealership valuations were high, or get mentally prepared for a long, hard, fight. I knew that the dealership could not support the current roster of 400 employees. My people were my greatest asset, and I didn’t want to make the hard decisions. Most had been with me for many years.
After almost 35 years in the business, starting at the bottom and realizing my dream of ownership, I had learned the car business was cyclical. I had seen the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. As I look back now, I realize I was tired…physically tired, and tired of the daily grind.
I think another reason I sold was because I had done everything I set out to do. I had been the #1 volume Ford dealer in Texas for eight straight years, the #1 Ford truck dealer in the United States for ten straight years, and for one glorious month -in April of 2002 – I was the #1 volume Ford dealer in the United States. For many years in a row, I’d say 15 or so, I had won every customer satisfaction award Ford had. At that time, top volume and top customer satisfaction rarely went together.
So as I walked away as a 48-year-old businessman who had never done anything else, I was virtually unemployed. I had the radio show on WBAP in Dallas-Fort Worth, but that was only two hours per week on Saturday morning. Maybe I’d take up golf for the first time. Maybe I would write a book. Maybe I would just be lazy. All of that was short-lived.
Even if I had wanted to get back in the car business after some time off, I had a non-compete clause that prevented that. At the time, I had a lake home in Mountain Home, Arkansas and retreated there for a week, mainly to escape the media. Selling the dealership took many people off guard. It was front-page news on the business page of the Dallas Morning News, and every trade rag in the country picked it up.
I had been what is called a “high-profile” dealer, mainly due to being the first back-to-back Chairman of the Ford National Dealer Council at a controversial time for Ford Motor Company. I had worked tirelessly to launch the first joint venture between dealers and Ford called FordDirect.com, which is still there today. We put together an insurance plan for all Ford dealership employees. Probably most significant, we beat back Ford from owning Ford dealerships in competition with those of us who owned them.
Much to my surprise, the radio show got an invitation to air in Houston in 2007, and it was off to the races, with strong steady growth that continues today on 40 stations across America, and the Car Pro Show is the most listened to auto advice show in the country.
Today, I am often asked if I regret getting out of the grind of the car business. In all honesty, I do not. Luckily, I am blessed to have our Certified Dealers, who have become friends, and that keeps me close enough to the business to keep up with it.
Yet, far enough away.