Full Throttle

No longer in neutral, Bill Perkins has shifted his retooled dealership into high gear to zoom past the competition

Bill Perkins Sr. with his son outside of his GM dealership

Bill Perkins strides across the spacious showroom floor of Detroit’s Cobo Center right on the riverfront. As the frigid January winds howl outside over the icy waters of the Detroit River, the 6-foot-5 entrepreneur appears to be everywhere at once—speaking with the media one minute, pressing the flesh with Mayor Dave Bing the next, doing whatever it takes to make the North American International Auto Show a success.

He did his job well. As chairman of the NAIAS, one of the largest auto shows in North America, the Louisville, Kentucky, native was ultimately responsible for the show’s success. “Attendance was up from 730,000 last year to 770,000,” Perkins says with a smile. At times, the 2.4 million-square-foot Cobo Center nearly burst at the seams as the press, auto enthusiasts, and the general public buzzed with excitement over new offerings from major automakers.

It looks as if the domestic auto industry has got its mojo back. “I think a lot of people thought that the love affair with the automobile was over, but I think it’s alive and well,” Perkins says, beaming. Over the past year, he’s traveled to cities both near and far, including Chicago, New York, Paris, Geneva, and Tokyo, to promote the auto show. Perkins, who marks his 40th year in the industry this year, used the opportunity to promote his own enterprise. “You get a lot of exposure in that position, which can also help you in your own business.”

Perkins isn’t just the 2012 NAIAS chairman. He’s also CEO and president of Bill Perkins Automotive Group (No. 12 on the BE Auto Dealers list with $118.3 million in revenues), a pair of auto dealerships in the metro Detroit area. While globe-trotting, he still has to keep his eye on the business back home. Fortunately, sales are picking up, and the slow but steady climb out of the automotive downturn of 2008–2010 is continuing. With two locations that sold 2,079 new and 2,834 used cars last year, business is improving. “We did very well in used cars,” says Perkins. “We didn’t sell as many new cars as we wanted to, but we made it up in other areas, like service, parts, and body.”

Bill Perkins Automotive Group, which sells Chevrolet vehicles exclusively, epitomizes the resilience of the U.S. auto industry. As automakers continue to emerge from their worst downturn and reposition themselves for growth, demand for the dealerships’ Chevrolet cars, especially the top-selling Chevrolet Cruze and Malibu, has helped Perkins Automotive steer clear of the wreckage caused by the Great Recession and sputtering recovery. The company is now back on the growth track. For its tenacity, Black Enterprise has named Bill Perkins Automotive Group its 2012 Auto Dealer of the Year.

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