Though he didn't follow his father into the ministry, Jim Willingham, the 1999 chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, preaches customer service with evangelistic fervor.
His father's call has shaped not only the way Willingham does business, but has given him a desire for community service that led him to take on the NADA chairmanship.
As a preacher's son, Willingham also developed the ability to get along with people and put differences aside, equipment that could prove useful in resolving conflicts with the factories and on Capitol Hill.
'If you are a preacher's kid, you learn to make friends fast and you learn who the bully is quickly,' says Willingham, the owner of Boulevard Automotive Group in Long Beach, Calif. 'What it taught me is to get along with just about anyone.'
Willingham, 70, has demonstrated that diplomacy in 38 years as a dealer. He has befriended factory executives, employees and customers.
'We have never had a complaint from the attorney general or district attorney. We have probably had five complaints in 38 years with the DMV (California Department of Motor Vehicles), because you just can't please everybody. But we can go 10 years without a complaint' from a customer, he says.
Willingham's employees are just as content. Though there is some turnover on the sales force - mostly those who switch dealerships to sell the hottest models - most employees seem to stick by Willingham. He considers a service writer who has been on board for 10 years a fairly new employee. Many on his staff have worked for Willingham for 20 years or more.
ARBITRATION IS KEY ISSUE
Willingham speaks fondly of factory executives such as Bob Coletta, retiring general manager of Buick, and Ross Roberts, champion of the Ford Retail Network, Ford Motor Co.'s program to consolidate dealerships in various markets. But he can be tough when his franchise is at stake. One of his key issues has been, and will continue to be, agreements that force dealers to accept mandatory binding arbitration in disputes with the factory.
In 1985, Ferrari North America added a provision for mandatory binding arbitration to its dealer agreements. Willingham at first refused to sign the agreement, but was told he had to sign the contract to continue as a dealer.
Ten years later Ferrari offered Willingham a buyout, saying his market would no longer support a Ferrari dealership. Willingham filed a protest with the California New Motor Vehicle Board and won.
But when Ferrari took its termination suit to federal court in New York, Willingham lost. The federal judge ruled Willingham would have to handle the dispute through binding arbitration. Instead, Willingham just agreed to the Ferrari buyout and lost the franchise in 1996.
'Binding arbitration puts dealers at the mercy of the factories. The cost would have been enormous to continue fighting,' he says.
Though he lost his own battle, Willingham intends to revive the issue in Congress, lobbying for a bill that would prohibit mandatory binding arbitration. The push is high on his agenda as NADA chairman.
Willingham's background helped shape his traditional American values of hard work, discipline and honesty.
He was second-oldest in a family of nine children. The family moved 13 times during his grade school and high school years - every time his father was called to lead a new church. Raised in small towns and on farms in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, Willingham learned hard work. When he graduated from high school and joined the Marines at the end of World War II, he learned discipline.
'The Marine Corps was actually easy for me,' he says. 'When I was in high school, I would get up early to open the hardware store (where I worked), go to school, come home to work at the hardware store and close it up, then milk the cows and do my homework.'
After finishing his tour of duty as an aerial radio gunner, he received a football scholarship to the University of Missouri. The training he received from his coach reinforced his strict upbringing. 'He was tough on us,' Willingham says.
Willingham, a geology major, thought he would wind up working on an oil rig. But he was sidelined by knee and ankle injuries during his junior year and moved to California to recover. He used his geology skills during a brief stint with Shell Oil Co. But when Shell tried to move him from California, he rejected the move and took a job as a car salesman in 1952.
'It was so easy,' says Willingham. 'I made $1,000 in my first two weeks as a salesman. A top geologist out of college made $300 a month.'
SETTING AN EXAMPLE
Willingham worked his way up into sales management at Long Beach, Calif., dealerships. In 1960 he became a junior partner at Campbell Buick. Campbell Buick was renamed Boulevard Buick, and Willingham became president a year later.
Although he did not follow his father into the ministry, Willingham is practicing what his father preached. He encourages employees to be active in the community and to go the extra mile for customers. He and his team of managers train employees in professional ethics.
And Willingham says he leads by example. He often offers to pick up a customer's car to take it to the dealership for service, leaving his own car with the customer as a loaner.
'I probably do that 50 to 60 times a year for customers,' he says, adding that his managers follow suit. 'We motivate and we lead through example.'