Michael Cannon, a Memphis State college football standout who dreamed of being a head coach, had just gotten his first big break when the death of his father, a small used-car dealer in Calhoun City, Miss., made him rethink his life's path.
It was the summer of 1986. Cannon was 25, heading into his first season as offensive line coach at Ole Miss, and he did not want to give up the position.
He planned to sell his father's remaining cars, collect the outstanding payments and close up shop. But he enjoyed the business, so he stayed and bought more used cars -- and ultimately parlayed that one little store into one of Mississippi's largest dealership groups.
Now Cannon Motor Co. of Oxford, Miss., has three rooftops dedicated to used cars as well as five new-car dealerships -- two Nissan stores, a Ford-Lincoln store, a Chevrolet-Buick-Cadillac store and a Chevrolet-Cadillac store. The company says it's close to adding a Toyota franchise.
Cannon, 53, spoke with Staff Reporter Gabe Nelson.
Q: How did you get into the car business?
A: My dad was in the car business. He had a little buy-here, pay-here dealership -- just a 12-by-12 building with a dozen cars or so. It had a pull-chain light bulb in the center of the building and one desk, a little refrigerator and a couch, and that was it.
I was coaching football at Ole Miss when he passed away. I've got one older sibling, and he didn't want anything to do with the car business. He was more of an 8-to-5 guy, and obviously we all know the auto industry is not 8 to 5. So anyway, when my dad passed away, I went to tie up all his loose ends -- take care of his outstanding accounts receivable, sell off what cars he had. I was going to have my mom close the store out. That was in June of '86.
What changed your mind?
I'd been there a year, and the next spring or early summer I decided to stay. I had wanted to get back into coaching -- it's what I always had wanted to do when I finished playing -- but the more I got into [selling cars], the more I realized that I enjoyed it. I got to interact with a lot of people all the time. I seemed to be doing pretty well at it. And as I started adding employees, I kind of realized, hey, this is a lot like coaching.
Was it hard to give up on your football dreams?
No doubt. That was all I ever wanted to do.
When I was a small kid, I dreamed of playing in the NFL. What I got for Christmas was those little helmets and cheap shoulder pads, and I'd go out in the yard. My neighbor was bigger than me and he'd knock me down. Some kids want to be a fireman, some kids a preacher, some kids a policeman. My goal, for as long as I could remember, was to be a football player.
I still miss it every time I go to a game. I miss it every day. But the car business has been good to me.
How did the company grow?
When we started in 1986 we had 12 cars on the lot. I started out selling, you know, 15 cars a month. We grew that into 30 or 35, pretty much all buy-here, pay-here. We did all our own financing. In 1988, I added another used-car dealership in Grenada, and then in 1990 another one in the same town, with a little bit of a different inventory. I went almost 10 years selling just used cars, trying to tweak that and do better.
When did you get into the new-car business?
In 2001. That September I signed a contract on a new-car franchise. ... We signed the contract, put down a good bit of honest money, and then 9/11 came along. And I thought, "Oh lord, what have I gone and done?" We all thought the world was going to end.
Why did you take that step?
I felt we needed to diversify a little bit. It's kind of like a mutual fund. You don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. I had curiosity about the new-car business, I had several buddies who were in it, and I knew it was a much bigger operation.
What is your split between new and used cars nowadays?
We're at about 1-to-1 new to used, and we're selling between 5,500 and 6,000 cars a year, new and used, between all the stores.
What lessons did you learn from football that helped you as a dealer?
How to work hard. You have to practice every single day to be good at what you do. And it may sound a little bit corny, but you can't have just one star player. It's got to be a team effort to make things run the way you want them to run. You've got some guys that are big-time performers, and some, you know, are just very average. But you have to have those guys along with your top performers. Everybody can't be a hero, you know? Everybody can't be a first-round pick or a five-star recruit.
What's the problem with looking for stars?
There aren't very many of them. You can take a below-average performer and make him a good performer, just by being consistent -- by running the same play all the time in practice, over and over. It's easy to put a sales procedure in place, and then, when you're not selling any more cars, say: "Aw, hell, let's scrap that and go back to where we were." You have to stay the course.
Does it take similar skills to be a good coach and a good dealer?
I believe that a person who's a good coach as a sales manager or whatever, that person could go and be a good football coach or basketball coach or baseball coach. I really believe that. And vice versa. [University of Alabama Head Coach] Nick Saban could come run this dealership. He doesn't know anything about the car business, but he understands structure, he understands people, and he understands how to motivate them and get the most out of them every single day.
Football is a religion in the South. How do you use that in your marketing?
We support all of the local high schools in football and basketball and baseball. At all of our local colleges, we're very involved. We run a car program where we donate them a car each year and the coaches or the administration uses it.
You were thrust into this business. How are you making sure you'll be able to hand off your company when the time comes?
We hired a COO this year. I've never had one before, which may sound crazy. And I have an older son who's 25 -- his name is Tyler -- who by choice wants to be in the car business. I've sent him off to work for a buddy of mine in Virginia for a year, to be just another employee up there to prepare him for the future. If we don't prepare, we all get ugly surprises.