Modern Dealership’s Interview with Steve Ewing, President & CEO of the Wade Ford Franchise in Smyrna, Ga.
1. Tell us a little about Wade Ford.
The store has been in Atlanta since 1933. Sixteen years ago I had the blessing to have an opportunity to buy it and join a great group of people. But I’ve been a dealer for 27 years, and this is my fifth franchise. I feel that my life’s work is culminated right here in Smyrna, Ga.
I’ve been a Nissan dealer, a Lincoln dealer, and this is the third Ford store. Right now I only have one store, which is this store, and it’s just been a great opportunity. … We’re the 21st largest private company in the state of Georgia based on revenue.
2. When did you get into automotive?
I’ve grown up in the car business. I graduated from college and went straight into selling cars. I remember my mother had to drop me off at the dealership because I didn’t have a car – my college car had just finally given out. She drove me to work every day until I earned a demo. Back then, top sales people earned a demo for 30 days, so you had to keep selling, but I was excited about the opportunity.
3. Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
I went to college at Delaware State University and played college football, got my degree in English/journalism, and went straight into the dealership.
4. Why a dealership?
My parents looked at me like, “You want to go sell cars?” But I couldn’t get a job that used my degree, in media, so the idea was “Well, I have to work.” I took a job at a General Motors franchise. My uncle worked for GM and he wanted me to go work at a Chevy store his friends owned, so they could teach me the business. So, I went there, and these guys were really tough automotive guys – the kind of dealer I never wanted to be, but I learned a lot. They were screamers. To motivate people, they believed you needed to scream and holler at them and put your foot in their backside. It’s so far from the way I want to lead and the way I want to treat people.
5. What is your style of leadership?
My job is to motivate people to be their best. Anybody can fire someone, but it takes true management to develop a person. You took the time to hire and train someone, you saw something in that person – you can look at it like your own failure if they don’t meet your expectations.
6. Outside work, what’s important to you? Do you have a family?
I’m blessed beyond belief. My daughter just graduated NYU and my son is a rising sophomore at the University of Miami. Keeping him focused in South Beach is one of my jobs, but he’s such a great kid – made the dean’s list his first semester, and is just doing everything right.
My daughter is getting ready to go to DC to work for one of the U.S. senators, which I’m really proud of. My son is working at the store right now. I don’t know if he’s going to love the business.
But the auto business is my dream. If my kids really want to go into the business, then it’ll happen. My son is more likely. But it has to be something you really love. I’d much rather be in a position to help my kids fulfill their dreams than force my dream on my kids.
And my wife and I, October 1st we’ll be celebrating our 24th year of marriage. She’s been with me from the bottom to the top, literally. She’s stuck with me through it all. I mean, my first franchise was in probably one of the worst neighborhoods in America, right outside Newark, New Jersey. … I had an 8-foot fence around the dealership, and the last thing I did every night was let out the guard dogs, just to protect the inventory!
“Some dealers are all about looking at the numbers. I look at my employees’ faces.”
7. Can you tell us more about that dealership?
It really was in a tough neighborhood. The average dealer had about a 58 percent approval ratio, and I had 22 percent approval ratio with Ford Motor Credit. So the likelihood of me surviving, when not getting loans approved in the auto business – it just doesn’t work. Fortunately for me, some executives at Ford knew that I ran the place properly and I was just at a bad dealership. Even the guy who bought it from me – he was a multi-dealer, and he couldn’t make it work.
I was excited about being a dealer – I jumped at the opportunity. And then I was getting ready to go out of business. I felt like I had to start all over again. That’s when I met my wife. Things were really difficult, but I didn’t want her to know that. Then I got the call from Ford that they were going to close the franchise.
8. Wow, what did that mean for you?
Their action triggered a buyout of the dealer. So they bought me out, and I went back to my parents, who had sold everything they had, mortgaged their house … and I give them the check that they had given me. Because 90 percent of the money was theirs anyway. My parents did the most amazing thing. They couldn’t believe I got the money back; they were ready to start over, with paying for their home, etc. But they said, “Steve, we want you to take that check and go see if you can get a franchise.” I went back to Ford – I wasn’t one of their performing dealers, but they still took a meeting with me.
I told them I wanted to put money in escrow; they did. Next thing I know they hired me. I ran franchises in Maine and Massachusetts, and ended up in Scranton, Pa., where I bought the store. From that point on, things really changed. I borrowed money, and they told me it’d take nine years to pay it back – I paid it back in four. Then I bought another Nissan store in town, and the rest is basically history.
9. That’s a great success story. How did you come to Wade Ford?
I thrive on a challenge. When I went to buy the Atlanta store, it was being sold to a publicly traded company and they had a lot more money than I did. But I figured out how to make the deal; I had to borrow money, and I went to work. From 2002 to 2009, I worked hard paying down the debt and owned the dealership debt-free in 2009.
It’s been a wonderful journey; I’m so proud of the people I work with. Our franchise is a top 10 fleet store in the United States. We’ve been recognized as one of the better Ford stores. I take a lot of pride in that.
But it’s a tough business. You have to be able to get past that and bring humanity to it. It’s important to me every day to celebrate our employees. We have lunches, we celebrate birthdays. At the end of the day, it’s about being a family-run business. Some dealers are all about looking at the numbers. I look at my employees’ faces.
10. It does seem like it’s all about net worth for a lot of people.
We have people around us who own multiple airplanes. Good for them! I’m happy for them, but I’m not that guy. I still take the garbage out. You gotta get to a point where you’re never too big – you can’t let ego take over, because things can change quickly.
I never got into this business trying to be the richest guy. I have achieved more than I ever thought I’d be able to do – I’ve been so blessed in this business.