Automobile Dealer and Entrepreneur – Mentor, Don Thornton

Automobile Dealer and Entrepreneur – Mentor, Don Thornton



Don is an accomplished businessman who was twice recognized by Time Magazine as one of the top ten automobile dealers in the nation. Like many successful YPNG Mentors, Don came from a working class family and put himself through college in part by joining his college’s Air Force ROTC program. After graduation, he served his four-year commitment as an instructor, navigator and pilot. When he returned to civilian life, Don took a job as a stockbroker at a regional firm. But after three years, he switched career paths and began a new job as an automobile salesman. He quickly moved into management positions and in a few years became the general sales manager at a large Ford dealerships in Dallas. Because he had demonstrated success as a manger, he was chosen over a large number of other applicants to purchase a struggling Ford dealership in Tulsa, which he soon turned it into one of the highest ranked Ford dealerships in the state. He sold this Ford dealership after 26 years in 1997 but shortly reentered the auto business by purchasing a Lexus dealership when he was in his early sixties, an age when many men would have considered retirement. He has continued to expand and has purchased dealerships for five other brands. Despite his success, Don is a modest man. When you talk to him he will say a lot of his success was luck. But like many successful people, what he talks about as luck clearly represents opportunities that were presented to him because he had demonstrated that he stood out as a manager in his industry. His article should be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about how to successfully manage or own an automobile dealership and the variety of other career opportunities in this business. Don’s story is also a good example of how you can balance a successful business career with your family life. He and his wife, Barbara, raised three daughters and have been married for 59 years.


Overview of My Career

Screenshot 2015-06-16 12.49.39I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina where my father was a welder who worked at the local shipyard. Although he only had a seventh grade education, he taught me by his example how to get along with people, one of my most valuable lesions. He was friendly to everyone he met and always looked for ways he could help his neighbors. The way he treated everyone and the respect he was shown by the people who knew him left a lasting impression on me. I always tried to treat people like he did, which I believe is one of the greatest reasons I was able to succeed in sales and in my life.

I wanted to go to college and enrolled at the University of North Carolina on a baseball scholarship. But like many young people, when I entered college I did not know what I really wanted to choose as a career unlike one of my daughters who knew she wanted to be a nurse when she was six, got her degree and has continued to advance her career in medicine. When I talked to my college counselor, he suggested that I start out in the business school with a major in accounting. I followed his suggestion and made accounting my major for the first two years. But I knew that I did not want to sit at a desk all day and in my Junior year switched my major to marketing where I thought I would have more interaction with people. But at the end of my second year, my baseball scholarship was not renewed. I paid for my last two years by continuing to participate in the Air force ROTC program and working at the local newspaper writing copy for the classified adds. As part of this job, I would meet with car dealers on Wednesdays and get details on the vehicles they wanted to advertise in the weekend paper. The dealers took me around the inventory on their lots, showed me the cars they wanted to advertise and described each car’s features so that I had what I needed to write their ads. This was my first exposure to the auto business. During my Junior and Senior years, one of my classmates was Charles Kuralt, who later became a well-known television newsman for CBS. Charles was journalism major but had some classes in the business school that were hard for him and I had writing classes associated with my marketing major. So we studied together and helped each other. I graduated in four years with a Bachelors in Business Administration and then went into the Air Force to serve my four-year ROTC military obligation.

In the Air Force I was trained as a navigator and pilot in Houston to fly the C-124 Globemaster, which was the primary heavy lift military aircraft during the 1950s and 1960s. I was married when I entered the Air Force and my wife, Barbara, pinned my wings on my uniform when I graduated flight school, which was the custom for graduating pilots. We were shortly transferred to Hawaii where I flew in the Pacific for the Air Force. I entered the Air Force as a second lieutenant and left as a captain.

When I returned to civilian life, I took a job at a regional brokerage house as a stockbroker where I also did underwriting for initial public offerings and worked with people at the Securities and Exchange Commission to get these offering registered. I soon found that if I took these applications for a securities underwriting directly to the people at the SEC in Washington and talked with them rather than just mailing the papers, we could often get these approved in a few days rather than having to wait several weeks. So I would get a plane and fly the applications to the SEC in Washington myself. While I was working at the brokerage, I met a Greensboro NC Ford dealer who told me that he thought I had sales ability and that I should try selling cars. I decided to take a chance and quit my job at the brokerage to start a new career as a car salesman. I was a young father with two daughters at the time and had bills to pay. My wife was not really happy when I told her the news. But I did well at the dealership and became a used car sales manager, finance and insurance manager and new vehicle sales manager. Working in all these positions taught me a lot about the overall operation of a dealership. In 1966, I was offered an opportunity to move to Dallas and became the general sales manager of one of the largest dealers in the city. After a few years, I was contacted by a man who owned the Volkswagen dealership in Tulsa who asked me if I was interested in buying the dealership from him. I didn’t have the money and I also had never been to Tulsa. Barbara and I both liked Dallas and were not sure about making the move. But the owner persisted and brought us to Tulsa. We liked the city and found it had a good school system for our three daughters. The dealer offered me a buy-in where after five years I would own 51% of the dealership and then would go to the bank to borrow the money to buy out his remaining 49%. I thought it was a good opportunity and my wife and I made the move. But in 1971 a Ford dealership in Tulsa that had been struggling went on the market. People who knew me from Ford asked me to put in an application to purchase it. There were many applicants and all of them had more money than I did. I did not think my offer would be accepted. But Ford awarded me the dealership because they felt I was the best person to manage it based on my experience as the sales manager in Dallas. I owned that Tulsa Ford dealership for 26 years and was able to turn it into one of the top dealerships in the state. We grew from a small company with 27 employees to 180. We won Ford’s Distinguished Achievement Award 11 years in a row, were number one in new car Ford sales for the State for nine years and I was listed as one of the nations top ten automobile dealers by Time Magazine.

In 1997 the chairman of Ford wanted to experiment with the concept of what he called “One Price” where the sticker price was the sales price and there was no negotiation. He also wanted to see if Ford owning the dealerships rather than franchising them would be more profitable for the company. To test his concept, Ford went into a few middle-sized cities including Tulsa and purchased all the Ford dealerships. The concept did not work well and eventually Ford abandoned the concept and sold the dealerships it had purchased back to local dealers.

Soon after I left Ford, I was approached by someone who only a few years earlier had purchased the Lexus dealership in Tulsa and was asked if I would like to buy the dealership from him. I considered the Lexus dealership a good opportunity. These cars had a reputation for quality. The company also treated customers the same way I liked to treat customers at my old Ford dealership by building lasting personal relationships with the customers and giving good service. That dealership has done well and ranks in the top 15% of Lexus dealerships in the nation. I later had other opportunities come to me to purchase a nearby Cadillac dealership, the Jaguar/Range Rover dealership and the Audi dealership. I also recently decided to purchase the only Volkswagen dealership in the city to give me a vehicle line at a more affordable price point. So after originally coming to Tulsa in the late 1960s to purchase a Volkswagen dealership, I have come full circle and now have done that.


Business Principals I Use To Manage My Dealership

To be a successful automobile dealer, I believe that you first have to build a sales team that approaches auto sales the same way as other professionals like a family physician, dentist, insurance agent, accountant, lawyer or banker does. All of these professionals build strong, personal relationships where people know they can trust them when they need help. We build this same kind of trust so they will think of us as someone they can consult and ask for help when they want to buy a car. We do this by first training our sales people so they understand the vehicles they are selling and continue sending them to regular training programs all over the country to keep them up to date. We also want our sales people to listen to our customers so they can help them determine the best vehicle for their needs. After the purchase, we have them follow up in a few days and then every four or five months to make sure the customer is satisfied and to let them know that we are still interested in them after the sale.

I also hire people who I not only believe have sales ability but also have demonstrated that they can see a task through to completion. Completing college is one way to demonstrate that a person has the tenacity to persist and reach a goal. We have 14 sales people at the Lexus dealership and 9 of them have some kind of college degree.

We also try to hire people who can set and reach goals. The business management schools call this Management by Objectives or MBO. To be successful in sales, it is important to set goals that keep you challenged and to be persistent in pursing them.

We also provide our customers with a full line of financial services when they purchase a car from us. Because we can offer them competitive financing, they don’t have to go anywhere else when they purchase a vehicle from us. Both our salespeople and finance professionals are well trained so they are able to explain our financing and lease programs to our customers and help choose the best one for them.

We want our customers to have a good experience when they come to our dealership for service. We have knowledgeable and friendly customer service representatives who first meet them when they bring in their vehicle. We maintain a large loaner fleet so the customer can have a car if they do not want to wait. For those who do stay, we have a comfortable lounge with what some of our customers tell us is the best coffee in town. We make sure that when they get their car from the service department it has been washed and vacuumed.

As the reliability of all vehicles has improved over the years and particularly with Lexus, our service department is only about one third repairs and two-thirds maintenance. Diagnostics are done by plugging the car into a computer, requiring our technicians to have a different skill set than people who maintained and repaired cars in the past. We try to hire the best and give them regular training to keep them up to date. We also have our technicians and service managers work closely with the factory to inform them of any problems we find that could have occurred when the car was being assembled or problems that might be occurring with certain parts.

I also try to promote the feeling among my employees of being part of a big family. We have events every three or four months where we all get together for things like a barbecue or dinner. I also try to be accessible to everyone and have all my employees call me Don so they can feel comfortable coming to me if they have a suggestion or problem they want to discuss.


Career Opportunities in Automobile Dealership

Sales positions are the best paying jobs at a dealership. It is not unusual for good salespeople on he floor and sales managers to earn well over six figures. To be successful in sales, you need to be able to build strong personal relationships with your customers and develop a book of repeat business. This requires you to in effect operate much like you are running your own business. You have to find customers, help them choose a vehicle that fits their needs, help them with any trade in and help them with their financing to make the total buying experience easy and convenient. You then have to follow up and stay in touch so they will think of you the next time they want to buy a vehicle.


Service technicians are in big demand and good ones can sometimes be hard to find. These positions now require that you have computer skills to be able to do the computer diagnostics not just mechanical ability. There are technical colleges with programs that will get you trained as an auto technician in a year and a half to two years. But you need to go through further company training to become a technician for a particular brand. Also understand that that you will continue to receive regular training to keep your skills up to date. Several of out techs earned over $90,000 with 4 over $100,000. There are a lot of opportunities is this field

Good paint and body shop people are also in demand. The increasing use of aluminum in auto bodies is opening up new opportunities for body repair people who are trained to work with this metal. While aluminum was first used in luxury car brands, the new Ford F 150 pickup, the largest selling vehicle in the U.S., now has an aluminum body. Many more body repair technicians will need to be trained to work with aluminum to meet the increasing demand as using aluminum to reduce weight and improve fuel economy seems to be a growing trend among automobile manufacturers.

There are administrative positions at dealerships including accounting, finance and IT. We keep our dealership’s salaries competitive for these kinds of positions


 The Future of the Automobile Business

I believe that in the future there are soon going to be self-driving cars. Proto types are already showing up on the highways. These are primarily driven by software programs using real time satellite imaging. Driverless cars will require technicians with even greater computer skills to maintain and service them.

I also think that cars are going to become even more reliable. This should continue the trend I described where more and more of a car’s service involves maintenance rather than repairs. All of the auto companies are working hard to improve quality.

The increasing cost of a dealership is making it more difficult for individuals to own one. The trend for several years has been to have more dealerships owned by public companies that can raise money on better terms than an individual. There is already one public company that has 250 dealerships and one with over 100. I believe this kind of consolidation is likely to continue.


I enjoy coming to work everyday and feel grateful for the success I have had. As a business owner, I am proud of the jobs my company provides so that my employees can earn a good living and support their families. I was particularly fortunate to be raised by a father who taught me how to get along well with people, something that has shaped all aspects of my life. While the automobile business will continue to evolve, in my opinion it will always be a business where success comes from building strong personal relationships with your customers and co-workers. I feel it will always be a good career opportunity for anyone who is good at dealing with people and has the drive to set high goals and works hard to achieve them.


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