This year, Duff Willey would have celebrated Willey Ford's half century as a family-owned car dealership.
Willey's grandfather, Marion, founded the business outside Salt Lake City in 1949. Willey's father, Don, succeeded Marion. Finally, Duff Willey became owner and president of the dealership.
But last November, the dealership became part of Ford Motor Co.'s Utah Auto Collection, with Duff Willey as CEO. And Willey Ford is no longer family-owned.
'This business is changing,' he says. 'It's not a matter of if, but when.'
A few years ago, Willey, 43, sensed change as he began following news about the spread of publicly owned dealership groups - and their penchant for purchases.
'Early on,' Willey says, 'It became apparent to me that Salt Lake City, as one of the top 50 markets in the United States, would become a target.'
Then Ford, with a plan of its own, began talking with several dealers in Willey's area. Ford wanted to consolidate them into one large group.
So, 'I started asking myself a lot of questions,' Willey says. 'I wondered about my survivability if I wanted to remain in the car business.'
By no means was Willey desperate. In 1998, Willey Ford averaged 140 new and 60 used vehicle sales per month. 'We were very profitable,' Willey says. 'We had good people.
'It was a matter of assessing the environment; what was happening in the marketplace. Could we continue to grow in the same fashion we were accustomed to? I don't think so.'
At the time, Willey was the only family member who was active in the business. Neither of Willey's two sisters was involved. His father had remained an inactive partner.
He turned to his sons, Walker, now 17, and Buzz, 14. 'I looked at those two and wondered about their future,' he says. 'What did the future look like for the Willey family?
'I realized I had to be part of something different,' he says. 'Something was going to happen, whether I chose to get involved or not.'
The choice was emotional, of course. But, Willey says, 'A friend told me that after 49 years, what really mattered most was preserving the assets my family had built.'
Willey received offers from other publicly traded groups. Had Ford not made its gesture, he says, he would have pursued those other options. When Ford wanted to talk, 'I think everybody was willing to listen,' says Willey. 'We felt like there was some real benefit to be gained, and we could all be a part of it. As we discussed it, we thought: If we were going to have a partner, why not Ford?'
Eventually 12 dealers in the Salt Lake City area sold to Ford. All have retained stock; 10 have remained active in the business. Knowing no other trade, Willey was far from ready to leave the auto business. And, 'It was not my intent to sell and head out to the golf course,' he says. 'It was important for me to have some kind of role.'
That role, he says, is 'to succeed. Not only to sell and service, but to succeed.' In that way, it is 'no different than when I was at Willey Ford,' he says. That is: Succeed or lose your job, since Willey has no contract with Ford.
There have been changes, certainly, especially in Willey's relationships with his former rivals. 'To take a group of people who had been strong competitors, to get them together, to work together, it's amazing, just amazing,' he says. 'Though we are all in the same business, now the challenge is to create a culture that is common and very good.'
As for Willey's daily routine, 'clearly there is a difference,' he says. 'We had a very close group of people (about 110 employees), with day-to-day interaction. Now, there are about 1,000 employees. I miss that day-to-day contact.'
Willey was concerned about the transition's impact on this close-knit group.
'Dealerships ... for most of us, we've spent so many doggone hours there, it's like a family,' he says.
The challenge, Willey says, was 'trying to relate to them that what we're doing is best for them, that employees really understand what we're doing.'
Even though Willey now leaves home earlier and returns later than he used to, he is at peace with his choice. He enjoys the challenge of being a pioneer, he says.
Adds Willey: 'My wife has never seen me so happy.'