Road to Success
Wells always knew he wanted to sell cars,
a desire that has driven him to the top of his industry
By Kevin Brafford
Drivers from the Triangle to the
Triad to Charlotte sit in gridlock day after day and
scowl, some angry enough to spit. Put Harold Wells in
that traffic, and watch a faint smile come to his face.
Wells can manage a grin for two reasons. First, he calls
Whiteville home, and generally the only time traffic
stops in the little southeastern North Carolina town is
for a school bus or a funeral procession.
Second, and most
importantly, Wells is chairman of the National Automobile
Dealers Association. Where others see traffic congestion,
he sees cars, and where he sees cars, he sees dollar
signs. And where he sees dollar signs, he sees an economy
that continues to thrive.
America has expanded
greater than any other country in the world because of
the individual mobility we have, says Wells, who
turned 69 on Oct. 30. The necessity that the
vehicle provides for the average individual today is
unreal. The dependency on that transportation today is
the greatest that it's ever been in this country.
Wells is an ideal
ambassador for the automobile industry, as perfect as a
red tie is to a navy blazer. He's been a franchised
dealer in Whiteville for nearly 45 years. People talk
about seeing the first cars with air conditioners; he
talks about selling the first cars with air conditioners.
All of his peers
look up to him, says Bob Glaser, executive vice
president of the North Carolina Automobile Dealers
Association. He's done it for so long and so well.
From an industry perspective, Harold is as highly
regarded as they come.
How good is Wells at
selling his industry? As chairman of NADA, a one-year
position he was elected to in January, he travels the
country extensively speaking, lobbying, shaking
hands and swapping smiles.
Most of Wells' trips are
to Washington, D.C., home to the NADA and its 450 staff
members. The organization dates to 1917, when a group of
new-car dealers gathered in Chicago to form opposition to
an excise tax that was about to be put into place.
It would have been a
catastrophe, although I don't remember the exact
numbers, says Wells, who wasn't in attendance.
They got together in Chicago, got on the same page
and then went on to Washington and got that
Wells has served on the
organization's board of directors for nine years. About
19,500 of the 22,500 new-car dealers in the United States
are members of NADA a penetration of roughly 87
Our main objective
is to protect the franchise dealer, says Wells.
The dot-com companies are the biggest threat in
trying to market the vehicle directly from the
manufacturer to the consumer. That isn't good for the
franchise dealer, and ultimately, it isn't good for the
consumer, who has no protection if something goes
Wells has made a career of
ensuring customers that things probably won't go wrong,
and if they do, he'll make them right. He was raised on a
farm in Rose Hill in Duplin County, where turkeys pranced
about and blueberries had to be picked.
Upon reaching his teens,
he and his brother, W.S. Wells Jr. who's 15 months
his senior decided to go into business for
themselves on the side. A bicycle repair shop was born of
the merger, as were a couple of newspaper routes.
Eventually, he took
the papers and I took the shop, Wells says.
You did a lot of things back then for 25 cents, but
it was spending money.
He shut down the business
once he left for college, but by then his interest in the
transportation industry had been piqued. He
rang in the 1950s at Atlantic Christian College (now
Barton College) in Wilson, then spent two years at the
General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich. Next came a
two-year stint in the Army.
I was assigned to a wheel vehicle school in Fort Jackson
(S.C.) for my whole stint, Wells said. I was
an instructor there I guess my aptitude test
demonstrated that that was one of my strengths. I guess
I've gravitated toward automobiles everywhere I've
Once his service was
completed, Wells was bound for Whiteville, where a sister
lived and where he had gotten wind of an Oldsmobile GMC
dealership that was for sale. Problem was, Wells wasn't
long on cash.
We put together the
purchase of Baxton Motor Sales for $10,000, he
says. We were able to capitalize the business for
Most people would have
shied away from such risks. Not Wells. I've always
had a passion for this business, he says. I
didn't have a Plan B to fall back on. Plan A was to be an
automobile dealer, and I knew I was going to do it one
way or the other.
That was 1956. Seven years
later, with business on a steady rise, Wells fulfilled
another goal to marry the woman of his dreams.
Thirty-seven years later, the engines are still running
smoothly for Betty and Harold Wells.
I was a legal
secretary and he was a client of the firm I was working
for, she says. We dated for about three and a
Wells' commitment to
business was quickly evident, she says. He would
take me on dates with him to deliver cars. We liked going
out of town, and sometimes we'd end up checking out the
inventory in Wilmington or Lumberton. I never minded it,
and I still don't.
The marriage produced two
children. A daughter, Anna Moore, is 36, married, and a
pharmacist with GlaxoWellcome in Research Triangle Park.
A son, Toby, is 34 and runs his own Buick Pontiac GMC
dealership in the Sandhills.
Betty Wells always has
understood the passion her husband carries for his
industry. When the opportunity came for Wells to run the
show for NADA, he asked his wife's blessing.
It was never a
question, she says. This is a good time in
our life. We really don't have any responsibilities,
except for two dealerships to run. It's a chance to see
new things and meet new people.
Indeed, she accompanies
him about 75 percent of the time. Many older couples
travel extensively, but not many travel as extensively
or on business. She's been a super-trooper
through everything, Wells says. She knew it
was going to be real demanding, but she's embraced
Despite his commitment to
NADA, Wells keeps his eye on Whiteville. It's a focus
that's been keen for decades, says Jim High, the
publisher of Whiteville's newspaper, The News Reporter.
business-like, High says. He's always telling
me, `Man, I've got a whale of a deal for you.' And
generally he does. Just about any project that's come up
in the town or the county, he's in the middle of it. If
we're raising funds for the airport, he's involved. If
we're raising funds for the library, he's involved. He's
a promoter for his business, but he's also a promoter for
his town. Every town needs a Harold Wells.
Maybe that's why Wells
doesn't have a true hobby. I guess if I had to have
one it would be walking, he says. I enjoy
that, but generally I'm walking to get to someplace, so
I'm not sure that really counts. My schedule dictates
that I'm pretty much always on the move.
Getting stuck in traffic?
Hey, it's no problem. Getting stuck at an airport, well,
that's another story.
cancellations of flights really bother me, he says.
You break your neck to get there on time, only to
find that your flight's been delayed or cancelled. Now
that means you're going to miss your next flight.
I recently sat on a
runway in Salt Lake City for four hours waiting for the
rainstorms to pass. Some delays, like that one, I guess
you can't help. But it is so frustrating. It absolutely
drives me nuts.
Still, don't fell sorry
for Wells. Rather, know that he is one of the envied,
someone who at an age when most folks have taken
their rightful place among the retired absolutely
loves going to work each day. You can hear it in his
voice, read it in his words, see it in his walk.
The business process
is fascinating, he says, but very few people
understand it. One step beyond that, even fewer people
If you go back to
when this country was founded, it was the entrepreneur in
the free enterprise system who had the imagination, who
had the tenacity to go out and establish a business. The
work of the entrepreneur is the driving force that makes
the economic engine of America run.
Nowhere is that more
evident, Wells says, than on a new-car lot near you.
An automobile dealership is the perfect example of
an entrepreneur, he says. He puts it all on
the line every day. The dealer has got to serve the
customer in a satisfactory manner or the customer won't
come back. And if the customer doesn't come back,
eventually you're out of business.
People ride by a car
dealership, they see all those shiny cars and they think
the process is easy. But competition has gotten so keen
that the average bottom-line profit on a vehicle is about
1 1/2 percent. If a dealer doesn't pay attention to his
customer's needs, he won't make it.
Wells' work ethic and
commitment ensured that his dealerships would thrive, a
fact that's not lost on his colleagues, Glaser says.
Of everyone I know in this industry, this guy
probably has the most integrity of anybody, he
says. If Harold says something is going to be done,
you can book it.
Wells has witnessed
plenty. In my lifetime, I've seen us move from an
agricultural economy to an industrial economy to an
information economy, he says. Everything
that's happened, it blows your mind.
Technology has its price,
even in the automobile industry. Wells says the trading
cycle of car owners today is about eight years
twice what it was in the early 1990s.
The quality of the
vehicle is better today than it's ever been, he
says. Today, there's an average of seven or eight
computers on every vehicle that can do everything. I
drove a car this morning that had 162,000 miles on it and
really was just as solid as it could be.
Man, I can remember
when the first air conditioners were being put on cars.
You won't believe how big a deal that was at the
Wells gets a twinkle in
his eye when he speaks of the past and the future, and of
a belief that his 69 years merely constitutes a short
lifetime. The car business really hasn't been a
revolution; rather, it's been an evolution, he
says. I'm just glad I've been around to be a part
of it, and at least in some small way contribute to
COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared
in the November 2000 issue of the North Carolina magazine
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