Sometimes success comes from a loving push

SAN FRANCISCO -- A few months ago, I interviewed a West Virginia car dealer named Mike Wood. You might have caught the article we ran in Automotive News.

Wood struck me as a dynamo. He is building a dealership group the old-fashioned way -- long hours. Wearing many hats. Doing without. Getting by on too little sleep. Praying for good weather. Celebrating every little move forward. Buying underperforming stores in small markets and working his tail off to turn them around. He now has four stores in or near Morgantown, W. Va. -- a Ford, a Toyota and two Kias.

It’s the kind of story dealers sometimes tell you about when describing their grandfather. This is the way grandpa built our dealership back in the 1950s, or whatever.

But in talking to Wood, he kept mentioning another source of power that was propelling him: his wife, Mary Jane Wood.

“My wife is my partner,” he told me last fall, but I didn’t think about it much. “My wife made this possible,” he said. And he added several times, “I couldn’t have done all this without her help.”

Who says that sort of thing?

I was asking for hard business facts, and he was talking about matrimonial support. My article might have mentioned Mary Jane in passing.

Looking back now, I see I missed something. Mary Jane Wood really has been the dealer’s partner like no other could be.

They met during a short-lived stab at graduate school in Tennessee, which was home to neither of them. Mary Jane was a Detroit girl who found herself working in the food industry. Neither she nor Mike finished the program. In fact, it turned out to be the only class Wood took, so it was a long shot that the two of them met in the first place.

Wood, a West Virginia sawmill operator’s son, dropped out to take a job to make ends meet. He was making $26,000 a year as a clerk at a small insurance company when “that girl” he met down in Tennessee told him to quit. They weren’t even married yet.

You can do better than that, she chided him. You’ve got the power to build your own business, Wood remembers her saying. It turns out that she herself had the itch to be a car dealer.

And in fact, he did have the power to do it -- with her help. She gave up her career to make his happen. She encouraged him to use their savings for a down payment on a store. From the first dicey startup at Wood’s Freedom Kia, she was there with him until late at night, on any night he needed her. She cleaned the floors. She scrubbed the restrooms. She helped him with the books. How many little things need doing to run a car dealership?

She sent him home for badly needed sleep while she stayed at the store to unload a trailer of new inventory and process the paperwork.

And as the business expanded, she became a one-woman PR firm in Morgantown. Getting her hair done at the local salon, if she saw a car in the parking lot with Wood’s logo, she would pay the customer’s tab -- compliments of Freedom Kia.

Last year, as the holidays approached, Wood offered her anything she wanted for Christmas. She laughed. She knew he was watching his spending as he prepares to build three new stores in the coming 18 months -- an expense he estimates at around $15 million.

Just pay off my credit card for the month, she shrugged.

But then one morning just before Thanksgiving, everything changed.

Wood learned that Mary Jane had been in a four-car collision on I-79 in West Virginia. She was killed. Just 47 years old, she left a son and daughter, as well as a river of family, friends and customers.

Wood is still stunned. Naturally.

I talked to him a few days ago. He told me he and his family are holding onto the joy that lives on in her memory. He has created a scholarship fund in her name.

But he is also feeling that spiritual hole that now exists in his life, in his business, in his daily life on the job.

“She wasn’t just my wife,” he says. “She was my soul mate. But I didn’t just lose the love of my life. I’ve also lost the best partner a guy could ever have.

“I know I said this already,” he apologizes, “but I really couldn’t have done all this without her.”

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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