LANSING, Mich. - Wayne Williams still sells vehicles on the lot he opened in 1971.
Williams AutoWorld carries BMW, Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru and Isuzu vehicles. Williams' ties run deep in the area.
Selling cars, he said, takes passion for the customer, the brand and the community.
'I don't believe the public companies share the passion,' Williams said. 'Wayne Huizenga is selling stockholder equity, not cars.'
Huizenga's Republic Industries Inc., Planet Automotive and two other large dealer groups have approached Williams. But nothing substantial came from the discussions.
The 60-year-old Williams is not interested in selling, while others of his age might have jumped at the chance. Two of his sons work with him. And he is preparing to hand a thriving business to them.
From a volume of 400 new and used cars and light trucks in 1971, Williams' sales have grown to about 1,200 cars and light trucks a year today. True, profit margins have declined, from about 6 percent at the start to 3 percent today. But his dealership is well-managed and profitable - qualities that appeal to the public groups.
Williams AutoWorld is preparing for expansion. This spring, Williams will break ground on a seven-acre plot nearby. Son Jeffrey Williams will take BMW and Mercedes - two hot franchises - to the new site.
Second-tier markets such as Lansing, with a population of around 430,000, are not likely targets of the big public dealer groups, the elder Williams said. They are focusing on major markets. There is room in the marketplace for both locally owned dealers and public companies, he said.
GIVE THEM 3-5 YEARS
But Williams has his doubts about the trend. Public dealerships' true value will become apparent in three to five years, he said. Dealers who have become managers will feel the impact of their impersonal relationship with corporate headquarters. The long hours will not be as gratifying, Williams said. Their passion will evaporate.
In his office, commemorative plaques from the local Salvation Army and the Lansing Chamber of Commerce vie for space with a framed article Williams wrote for the 1981 Michigan Auto Dealers Association annual report.
The front end of an old-style Volkswagen Beetle appears to be driving out of an oil painting that dominates one wall. In the corner is the framed pen President Clinton used to sign the bill that rolled back the luxury tax on expensive cars. The legislation was Williams' goal in 1996, when he chaired the American International Automo-bile Dealers Association.
'A dealer builds from the ground up. When he sells (his business), he's financially secure. Is that person going to have the same passion as someone who is still in the hunt?' Williams asked. 'No. It's just a fact.'