Wilson Auto Group, with stores in Mississippi and Tennessee, has won every major customer satisfaction award from the manufacturer, including being recognized as the #1 in Dodge Sales in Mississippi for over 10 years, while consistently remaining profitable for 18 straight years. The group added its first KIA franchise in 2000 and another one in 2003, followed by a Hyundai franchise in 2004. Wilson Auto Group is a Chrysler 5 Star Award for Service Excellence (15 years), Service Professional Award, Top 40 under 40, Top 40 fastest-growing private companies in Mississippi and KIA Presidents Club Winner.
Dealer Principal and President of Wilson Auto Group, Doug Wilson was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, where he attended public schools. He went on to graduate Cum Laude from Ole Miss, with a BBA in Managerial Finance. A 2019 TIME Dealer of the Year award nominee, Doug is very active in his local community, where he has served as president or board member of several organizations, including Easter Seal, New State Theatre and Better Business Bureau. He is a Sunday school teacher, Deacon, and Men’s Ministry Director with Broadmoor Baptist Church. Doug and Melanie Wilson have been married for over 30 years and have four children.
Join us in our interview with Doug, as he talks about his positive approach to overcoming disruptors and disasters in retail automotive, the importance of running a strong used car operation and his experience as an early advocate of the digital revolution.
Dealer Magazine: How did you get your start in retail automotive?
Doug: My father was the used car manager for a Buick dealership for many years, so I grew up in and around a car dealership. I started washing cars. Then I was a body shop helper and a painter helper. I worked in the mechanical shop. During and after college, I worked in the food business for a short time before returning to the car business. And that’s when I started selling cars. I was a fleet manager and a training manager. After that, I became a finance manager and then a sales manager and general sales manager.
Dealer Magazine: You were only 27 when you started your own store. What compelled you to take the leap and buy a franchise?
Doug: I left my father’s dealership and started my own store, a Dodge franchise. Dodge, back then in 1988, was like getting a Mitsubishi franchise today. It was an affordable franchise. We were in an older, declining part of town. We loved Dodge cars, trucks, and caravans. We became the #1 Dodge dealer for 15 straight years.
We built a new facility in 1998 but couldn’t sell the old real estate because nobody wanted to invest in a crime-ridden, declining neighborhood. Then KIA came to me and said they thought it would be a good location for a KIA franchise. I started a KIA store in the old Dodge store location in early 2000 and it became very successful.
I fell in love with the way the Koreans did business. They’re all about selling cars and taking care of customers. At the time, there were only something like 300 KIA employees nationwide.
Dealer Magazine: What one word or expression best describes your approach to business?
Doug: Our slogan has always been, “Where there’s a Wilson, there’s a way.” As part of that, we talk about the Wilson Way, which is honesty and integrity in the way we do business. We’re in a relatively small town in the Jackson, Mississippi, metro area, which has about 400,000 people. There’s not a lot of turnover in the local population. When you operate in a town with little population turnover, you’ve got to deliver good service and treat people right, or you’re not going to last long. I like to say, “My answer is yes, what’s the question?” The Wilson Way is the ultimate expression of a can-do attitude.
Dealer Magazine: You participated in a panel discussion at the Digital Dealer 26 Conference & Expo. What was the topic of the presentation?
Doug: Yes, that’s correct. The panel was on the theme of dealers getting more involved in their local community. That’s another reason why we’ve been so successful over the years is we support the community, with events, organizations, churches, hospitals, non-profits, sports groups, you name it, we’ve supported it. Even with the internet and all, if you’re supporting something that is near and dear to someone’s heart, that’s strong medicine and they’re much more apt to do business with you. All things being equal, you still must have a competitive vehicle and a good price, but I think people are more likely to want to do business with you when you’re heavily involved in the community. I also gave a solo presentation at the conference.
Dealer Magazine: Two presentations? That’s great. What was the subject of your individual talk?
Doug: The topic was “Surviving Disruptors, Depressions, and Disasters.” In other words, how to pull your dealership through challenging times. The way I think you’ve got to do it, is to look closely at used cars, service, and parts.
Dealer Magazine: I’m glad you mentioned survival because I want to talk now about how Wilson Auto Group survived the Great Recession of 2008-2009. What steps did you take during the downturn?
Doug: Well, we lost our Dodge franchise during the recession. Back in ’08, a lot of the small dealers thought Chrysler would get rid of these small dealers. The industry has probably thousands of dealers who sell fewer than 100 cars a year. Little bitty towns that had virtually no other car dealerships – at one time, they probably had a Chevy store or a Ford store and maybe they still do – a lot of those small dealers were hanging on by fingernails and toenails. Surprisingly, manufacturers pretty much left the small dealer alone in the small town.
Instead, they took advantage of bankruptcy protection to force marriages, say, between Chrysler Jeep and Dodge dealers, especially in major metro areas. Previously, they had been adamant that such franchises had to be separate.
That’s what happened to me. I was Five STAR Certified, and we were not going broke, the manufacturer was, but they terminated my Dodge franchise and gave it to my brother, who had Chrysler Jeep and who was literally next door. I was left with nothing but Hyundai and KIA, so we decided to be the best Hyundai and KIA dealer that we could possibly be.
There’s a verse in the Bible, Hebrews 13:5: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what such things as you may have, for the Lord has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So, we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
I felt like God spoke that verse to me. I thought how in the world could I be content when businesses were going bankrupt and whole industries were being supported by the government and even the largest insurance company in the world went broke?
When I lost my primary franchise, a lot of dealerships went broke that hadn’t lost their primary franchise. It was an especially tough period for me because not only were we dealing with the Great Recession and the credit crunch and everything that went with it, but we also lost our primary franchise. I decided to be content with what I had, a KIA and a Hyundai franchise, and I was going to make a living with the franchises I had. So, that’s what we did.
Dealer Magazine: Finding and retaining talent is an industry challenge we’re hearing a lot about lately. What do you look for in a new hire?
Doug: We look for people who have the three Cs: chemistry, competence, and character. We look for smart people, obviously. People who will fit in with our organization. Most of my problems in business were the result of bad hires. A lot of that can be traced back to when we hired the person, we should have known or dug deeper to learn more about the person. I think the problems that all businesses have with employees can be traced back to hiring people who lack character. My motto is: “When you need people badly, you hire bad people.”
Dealer Magazine: Which DMS and CRM solutions do you use?
Doug: DealerTrack has been our DMS provider for over ten years. We’re a very satisfied DealerTrack user. We’re on DriveCentric and CAR-Research for our CRM. And we use Dealer Inspire on our websites.
Dealer Magazine: Let’s jump into marketing. In what ways do you utilize social media?
Doug: We’ve been very involved online since the beginning. We were one of the first car dealerships in the world to have a social media account, Facebook account, YouTube, Twitter. We’ve been very active in social media. Instead of having a group account, we have a separate Facebook page and advertising for each of our entities. We’ve got four different franchises: KIA, two Hyundai stores, and a Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram store. Then, we have a group site as well as a couple of credit sites. So, we have seven different channels, seven different Twitter accounts, seven different Facebook pages, and I’ve created what I call different swim lanes for each of our brands. Each one has its own website, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook presence.
Dealer Magazine: From reviewing your websites, it’s obvious you use a lot of video in your marketing. How’s that working?
Doug: I think the three biggest trends today in digital marketing are mobile, video, and social. In my opinion, the automobile business lends itself extremely well to video. One of the sexiest things on the internet, in my opinion, is real cars really for sale by people who really have cars.
What I spoke on last year at Digital Dealer was the opportunity to use video, social, and mobile when it comes to servicing cars. For instance, if you’re doing a brake job on a car or replacing a dirty filter, it literally lends itself to a video showing a clean filter versus a dirty filter.
Dealer Magazine: Do your service technicians text customers to keep them informed on the progress on their car?
Doug: Yes. They have iPads in the service drives so they can text or email people quotes and pictures of their vehicle directly from their tablets. It’s very easy in either DriveCentric or Car Research to text and send videos.
Dealer Magazine: With all the technology you’re utilizing, how do you keep your employees up-to-date on their skill set?
Doug: I believe the three big things it takes to be successful in the car business are skills, attitude, and work habits. The trend toward mobile lends itself to telephone training. As mobile gains more ground, people are less apt to submit a form, and they’re more apt to just press the call button. Phone calls are coming back in vogue. Traditionally, car people have been terrible on the phone. We use the Alan Ram phone training process and consider it the best phone training in the world.
Dealer Magazine: I’d like to point to one specific program you offer that benefits the community, your “Help on Wheels” program. What is it, and how did you come up with the idea?
Doug: Back during the Great Recession in ’08, like a lot of companies did at the time, we did away with the company Christmas party. We felt our employees were already blessed in that they had a job in a warm place to work and a steady paycheck coming in. A lot of people weren’t nearly as fortunate. Instead of a party, we bought and served dinner for those less fortunate at a local rescue center for the homeless.
Out of that we started thinking of other ways to help. From my previous ministry partners in bringing Promise Keepers to the area, we started “Help on Wheels” and have been doing it now for ten years. Those ministry partners are 100 percent solely responsible for picking the recipient, and my job is simply to provide the vehicle.
We’re able to put a vehicle in the hands of a deserving person who is not looking for a handout but is looking for a leg up. We also provide a little car ownership counseling to each recipient. Car ownership is a responsibility. We originally called it “Working Cars for Working People.” We’re not giving people brand new cars; these are point A to point B cars. We had five ministry partners and each one could select two recipients. Since then, some of the ministers retired or moved away. We’ve given away 50 cars over the last ten years.
I think before this program, all the cars I gave away went to the wrong people, and the right person is probably not the one who is asking for a car. The ministry people deal with poverty and tough situations every day. They know which people are trying to better themselves and are worthy recipients, and I trust their judgment.
Dealer Magazine: Are you doing anything special to attract millennials as either customers or employees?
Doug: I think everything we’re doing with video, mobile, and social media attract millennials. I think our brands, especially Hyundai and KIA, probably have one of the youngest ownership bases in the entire industry.
By the way, I’ve had a car dealership website since 1996. I had one of the first dealership websites in the world, and that was two years before Google was founded. We’re in an unusual place where you might not expect to find an innovator in the digital revolution, but we’ve been heavily involved with digital marketing literally since the beginning. I love it. To this day, I run our Google Adwords account and do the digital marketing for the four stores.
Dealer Magazine: How do you ensure customer satisfaction?
Doug: I try to always be accessible myself and make sure my managers remain accessible. People in Jackson consider me something of a celebrity because I’ve been on local television for the last thirty years. Everybody knows I own the dealership, so when they have an issue or a problem, I’m not that hard to find. I think it helps customer satisfaction because it keeps everyone honest. I better keep this customer happy otherwise I’m going to hear from Doug, and he’s not going to be happy if I didn’t handle the customer properly.
Dealer Magazine: What’s ahead for Wilson Auto Group?
Doug: We’d like to continue to grow our group. My favorite business model is to have general managers who own some equity in their store, and they are more than a general manager, they’re an operating partner. In competing in a marketplace where some general managers will not have those opportunities, I think it makes our group stand out. We are a place for that guy who wants to own a piece of the action.
Dealer Magazine: I’d like to go back to your presentation about disruptors. There’s much talk in the industry about how ridesharing and autonomous vehicles, for instance, will impact the business. Is it too early for such concern?
Doug: I think that if somehow suddenly the government mandated that everyone drive electric vehicles and completely outlawed the internal combustion engine, I think there are enough ICE vehicles on the road today—2018s and 2019s already sold, not to mention older ones—to last decades in terms of a used car market for those used vehicles, as well as service and parts.
If the pundits are correct and people give up the right to own their own vehicle, which I am not convinced is what people want, if that car is going to be in service all day, taking people around and not just taking me to work and sitting in my parking lot, that means the number of miles driven is not going to come down, it’s going to go up.
Electric vehicles need service, too. On average, they’re going to weigh 30 percent more than an ICE car, so they’ll wear out their brakes faster. They’re going to need tires and alignments and wheel balancing and air filters and windshield wiper blades and so on. There’s no such thing as a car that doesn’t need maintenance.
That’s really the buzzword now: industries that technology can disrupt. Wall Street is looking for the next television set, the next Apple computer, the next Google or whatever. You know what? The car business got disrupted by the internet, starting back in 1996. So, now we have complete transparency. If you don’t have your car listed on the internet, it ain’t for sale. I tell my used car managers, if your car is not listed with a price, then it ain’t for sale because it’s invisible to customers. It’s been that way a long time. But, if you look at other industries, it’s not like that in those segments. I think the disruption that the internet and the computer has done has introduced transparency. Now consumers can know what markup we have on a car, what their trade-in will be, what their credit is and so on.
All I know is, if you have a strong used car operation and service and parts department, you can survive pretty much anything.
Dealer Magazine: What advice do you have for anyone considering the car business as their career?
Doug: The way I understand it, there’s over $300 billion a year that changes hands in the car business, and that’s just on new vehicles alone. The used car market is twice the size of the new car market. So, that’s over a billion dollars a day that is going to change hands in the new car business before you lay your head on a pillow tonight. My advice to a young person would be to get in an industry where there’s a lot of money, and there’s big money in the car business.
I developed a sales meeting where I show a picture of an old cross-cut saw and a picture of a modern chain saw and ask which one would you rather try to cut down a tree with? The “saw” is an acronym for “skills, attitude, and work habit.”
Your communication skills, product knowledge, closing skills, telephone skills, all the skills you need to be good at your chosen vocation. Then there’s your attitude: what’s your attitude toward the industry and toward your brand, your used car manager, your fellow employees? And most especially, your attitude toward your customers. Do you make derogatory comments about customers and put them down? If you do, you’re in the wrong business. And finally, their work habits. You must be present to win. We all know, the harder you work, the luckier you get.
If you have the right “saw,” I think you can be very successful in the car business. It’s a great business and it’s been very good to me. I love it. To me, it’s still fun, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.