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Executive Profile

The Road to Success
Harold 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 squelched.”

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 percent.

“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 wrong.”

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.

“Fortunately enough, 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 gone.”

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 $25,000.”

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 half years.”

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 it.”

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.

“He's very 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.

“Delays and 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 understand entrepreneurship.

“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 time.”

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 it.”

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the November 2000 issue of the North Carolina magazine

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