Today, Mark Wilde is continuing the legacy his father, the late Harold Wilde, began in 1945, with a used car dealership in Muskegon, MI. The Wilde Automotive Family is now comprised of seven stores selling 13 different franchises located in WI and Florida.
Mark, along with his partners, have built on the legacy selling 12,597 new and 12,015 used vehicles while generating $745,782,978 in total revenue in 2014.
Through the years, the group has reduced the number of stores but has increased its overall sales volume. The group continues to grow strategically without sacrificing operational excellence, and recently added a new Honda and Maserati point. They approach every new opportunity asking the question, “Can we do this with excellence?”
Mark recently talked with Dealer magazine about the legacy his father created and how the group is continuing in his footsteps.
Mark, your father, Harold, began the Wilde Automotive Group in 1945 in Muskegon, MI with a used car dealership. What was his first new car franchise?
His first new car franchise was Lincoln in Muskegon, MI in the 60’s. He sold it in 1966 and purchased a Pontiac dealership in the Milwaukee Market. He expanded from there.
Today, you’re in Milwaukee, WI and Sarasota, FL with how many stores?
Currently, the Wilde Automotive Family has a total of 13 franchises in seven locations. We have four stores in Sarasota, Florida – Wilde Honda (est. 1975); Wilde Lexus (1992); Wilde Jaguar (1997) and Wilde Maserati (2012). We have eight franchises in the Milwaukee, WI area – Wilde Honda (1973); Wilde Toyota-Scion (1977); Wilde Chrysler (2003) Jeep (2008) Dodge (1984) Ram, and Wilde Subaru (2009). Wilde also partners in a dealership in Madison, WI (2013) – Wilde East Towne Honda.
Walk us through the history of how the Wilde organization got to its current size. Was the growth through acquisition or adding new points?
The Wilde Automotive Family was founded by my dad, Harold L. Wilde, and is still a family-owned and operated business. Dad’s career began in 1945 in Michigan where, after returning from World War II as a pilot, he opened a two-man used vehicle sales operation. Hard work, perseverance and keeping family first were major elements in his life, and these elements continue to influence the organization today. After he passed away in 1998, we crafted and put in place a complex plan to trade and sell franchises to get our desired setup. We felt that if we spent our time and efforts on what we were already really good at — providing a superior customer sales and ownership experience — we could make more improvements than in any other way. It was amazing to see the plan come to fruition. Although we have shrunk our footprint of franchises, the Wilde Automotive Group has grown substantially in total sales volume. We have since started new acquisitions, but very strategically. Our analysis of every opportunity is underscored by the fundamental question, “can we do this with excellence?”
You added Maserati in 2012. Any more on the horizon?
In 2013, Wilde partnered with Jorge Hidalgo and opened a new Honda store in Madison, WI – Wilde East Towne Honda. But yes, we are very interested in carefully expanding our group but only by adhering to our philosophy of excellence. We want to expand doing what we can truly excel in. We are working on a few possibilities right now.
How did you prepare or manage the growth?
We have an amazing team of people. We work together closely and plan our growth carefully to ensure that customer care remains our primary focus. Our philosophy is to plan ahead by enhancing our team in anticipation of reaching our growth goals. It is a long-term strategy that has paid off for us. Our personnel expense is usually above benchmark, but so is our CSI, employee retention and customer loyalty.
Describe the management structure and how you manage dealerships in two states?
I am blessed with amazing partners. In Wisconsin, Pat Donahue and Sharon Bloom have been with the family almost from the start. They handle all of the day-to-day operations. Jorge Hidalgo has been a strong new partner in Madison. In Florida, our partner, Dean Palmer and I work closely with our excellent team, along with my sisters, Tracie Pierce and Kathy Wilde. My Mom, Mary Ann Wilde, also has years of expertise in the auto industry and offers a unique perspective. Her wisdom continues to guide us. We have a wonderful, long-tenured team that helps define who we are as a dealer group. Our success depends on all of them. While most dealers have very high turnover, our executive management team have all been with us for over 25 years – some for 38 years! Our department head average tenure is over 14 years. With good communication and common core values, I am blessed with teams that know what to do and do it well. We structure our pay plans to reflect and reward for performance and customer care. I don’t micro-manage our teams, I give them the freedom to get the job done.
Why did you set it up this way? Was that how your father designed it? Or has it evolved through the years since his passing in 1998?
Dad set it up this way. It was a brilliant strategy and we have stuck with it. The seasonality of Florida and Wisconsin are on opposite cycles, and the markets are so different. While being in the same business, we are able to experience almost a diversification on both an annual and long-term basis that few dealer groups get to enjoy. We are not closed minded to expanding outside of our current footprint as long as it works with our philosophies.
You grew up in the business. Did you always want to be a dealer, or did you have other ideas?
I started working at the stores during the summers at age 12. I started buying and selling cars with my Dad’s help at 15. I was too young, so I never got to drive my first two cars! My dad always told me that I could do anything I wanted to do. I went off to college to be a computer science major. Like many in college, I found I didn’t like that as much as I thought I would and decided to get a degree in Business Management and jump into the car business. I love it. It is different every day; there is no way someone could get bored. It was the best decision I could have made.
What was your biggest challenge being part of the “PHD” (Papa had a dealership) club?
That is funny! Never heard “PHD” before. Assuming you mean the classic “dealer’s kid” slacking-off stereotype, that was not how we were raised in my family. My parents both have an amazing work ethic. They taught us all well. When I worked for my dad as a kid, he was harder on me than anyone. He taught me the value of money early on and nothing was handed to us. Don’t get me wrong; my family has been blessed. Dad made sure we understood you must earn things; they aren’t given or owed to you. So for me, the biggest challenge was personal: I knew I had to prove myself. Dad’s been gone for over 16 years and as a dealer group, we are larger and more profitable than ever. My Dad was an amazing businessman and dealer. I am just fine with him getting the credit. Really, that’s the way it should be.
How many new and used cars did Wilde sell in 2014, and how much revenue did it generate?
Again, we had a very good year selling 24,612 units total. We sold 12,597 new and 12,015 used vehicles, generating $745,782,978 in total revenue. My dad instilled in me a used car operational philosophy that permeates through our stores. It’s our secret sauce.
Mark, you’re a progressive dealer, always looking for what’s next. What are you looking to add or change over the next year or two – in terms of process or solutions?
We are always entertaining new technologies to streamline our processes and further enhance our customer experience and not just chasing the latest and greatest technological solutions. We focus on a store by store basis. We put the processes in place that work for that store and its particular product and clientele. We build on our strengths.
There’s been a lot of talk about sales process in our industry. What, if anything, needs to change? Does the industry need to move to one-price?
I think the sales process will continue to evolve. I’m not certain the industry will settle on a one-price system. In my past and current experience, most customers still feel the need to negotiate on the value of their trade-in vehicle and some level of accessorizing.
What do you see on the horizon – 10 to 15 years out for the automotive retail industry?
I see the industry continuing to evolve in exciting ways. Some technology on the horizon is mind blowing. The manufacturers will continue to bring to market high-tech, quality products designed to enhance the creature comforts and driver experience. The digital age will continue to create well-informed and educated consumers. The industry is going to continue to focus on customer retention through the dealer franchise network, thereby building and strengthening our relationship with them. If I had an answer I think I would have written a book already.