40 YEARS IN
Perkins began his career in the auto industry in 1972, after graduating from Western Kentucky University and enrolling in graduate school, having been recruited to work in the marketing department at General Motors. Over the next 15 years, he held several positions at the automaker: auto distributor, product manager, sales communications coordinator. It was during his stint as a district sales manager that Perkins first considered going into the retail side of the business. “I signed one of their first African American dealers, Cecil Willis, out in Los Angeles,â€ recalls Perkins. “He always used to say to me, ‘You know, you’d make a very good dealer.’ So over the years, as GM started to go through downturns, they would reorganize. I realized that my goal of becoming president of GM was not going to happen. So I left.â€
In 1988, Perkins opened his first dealership, Perkins Pontiac Buick in Kansas City, Missouri. As Perkins struggled to bring the business to profitability–the shop lasted only a year under his ownership–Motors Holdings, the dealership financing arm of GM, bought him out. Perkins would spend the next three years or so working as a general manager and finance manager for dealerships in Pittsburgh and Detroit, before purchasing a Dearborn Pontiac and Nissan dealership in 1993. He would eventually open Taylor Chevrolet in 1998 and Merollis in 2001. The Dearborn location was sold in 2000.
Perkins understands that businesses and industries evolve over time, and that it’s imperative for executives to keep abreast of those changes. “The one thing that stands out for me that has helped him go through this downturn is that Bill is a student of the business,â€ says Eric E. Peterson, U.S. vice president corporate-diversity for GM. “He wants to learn, he wants to grow, he wants to find out what’s new, what’s evolving, and how he can create a competitive advantage in his stores with his people.â€
The past three years have presented Bill Perkins Automotive Group with its greatest challenge. In 2009, in the midst of a global recession, GM announced that it would discontinue its Pontiac line. At the time, Perkins’s Pontiac dealership made up some 60% of the company’s revenues. “What they did to dealers left a bad taste in my mouth,â€ admits Perkins. “You spend your whole life doing something–then all of a sudden the manufacturer that you depend on for your livelihood, for your business, makes a decision that takes it away from you, and there is nothing you can really do about it.â€
Making matters worse, GM had announced plans to reduce the number of its dealerships by 2,600, and Perkins wasn’t sure if he’d be losing more than his Pontiac franchise. But rather than stew on it, he and his management team took action. On the plus side: He owned outright the properties on which the dealerships stand, and he carried very little debt. But still, they had to devise a way for the company to survive without those Pontiac revenues.
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