Family values important to company

Apr. 11, 2013 @ 10:06 PM

The Wilkinson family has been selling automobiles in Sanford for 60 years now — including about 40 in their present location off of Spring Lane — and they are counting on recent renovations to keep them in that building for at least another decade.

As the dealership reaches the milestone of six decades in business this year, most of the dust has settled on the work at Wilkinson Automotive. The improvements have included updates to literally everywhere a customer would set foot — the showroom, offices and waiting areas, the parts counter and more — and father-son duo Doug Wilkinson Jr. and Doug Wilkinson III, who goes by Wil, said they’ve been blessed to be able to do all of it at a time when dealerships around the country are struggling or even closing down.

And by passing the business down through the generations and simultaneously treating customers like relatives, they said they can attribute their success to one thing: Family values.

“This business isn’t about cars. It’s about people,” said Wil, the company president and head dealer. Doug added that even in the Internet age when most people do online research before coming to buy a car, the business’ sales associates still deal with customers one-on-one, not skipping any steps. And for the last decade or so, Wil said, he has been trying to extend the dealership’s family to include the whole community through civic work and especially through a deal with Lee County Schools to give the system’s “Teacher of the Year” honoree a brand new car, completely free except for the gas, to use for the next year.

The family-style atmosphere isn’t lost on employees, either — many of whom stay on long enough to seem like family themselves.

“I started young; I’m old now, and I still enjoy it,” Jimmie Thomas, the sales manager who’s still on the job after 40 years, said Thursday. “... They believe in the people, and they take care of the people.”

Thomas worked for all three Wilkinsons, and he said he couldn’t say a negative thing about them. Charles Kennedy, a 46-year employee who retired a few years ago, said he’s proud to have worked for all three generations and never had any problems working 12, 15 or even 18-hour days.

“They all treated me so good that I knew I had to treat them good, too — that I had to do a good job,” said Kennedy, 80, who worked about 31 years as service manager and spent his final 15 years helping run the body shop, do odd jobs and sell vehicles.

He said he was always blown away by how generous his Christmas bonus was, but that was a small perk compared to the way the eldest Wilkinson doted on his employees.

“Mr. Wilkinson Sr., he was probably one of the best owners I ever seen because he looked after his employees so good,” Kennedy said. “Around February, we would close up the shop for 5 or 6 days, for a weekend, and go down to the Bahamas and rest. And if it was a woman working there, she could bring her husband. If it was a man, he could bring his wife.”

Kennedy started in 1962, about nine years after the business was founded in 1953, but Doug Jr. was only a first-grader when his dad moved the family from South Carolina to start the business and doesn’t remember the exact date. Through those decades, Doug Jr. said, there was never any chance the business wouldn’t stay in the family.

“I got out of college and went to the beach for two or three days,” he said. “And then my dad called me up and said, ‘Hey, when are you coming to work?’ And now, here I am.”

Doug has since passed the day-to-day leadership duties and official titles to Wil — who started working in the shop as a teen and became president in 2008 — although he still hangs around the business to lend his advice and expertise. Some day, Wil might pass it along to one of his children, although he said he won’t push it on them. But there’s no question the Cadillac/Chevrolet/Buick/GMC dealership is a big deal in the family.

“When I was born, I think they took me here before they took me home,” Wil said. “That’s serious. They really did.”