The Making of a Corvette King: Look long and hard before you leap
William "Bill" Adkins has been a car guy most of his professional life. Yet he isn't the type to sit in an office isolated from the public. In fact, his entrepreneurial ventures are designed around his interpersonal skills. He owns and operates his own dealer franchise, Palanker Chevrolet, in West Babylon, N.Y., which gives him every opportunity to work directly with the public.
Owning a dealership is not the easiest form of entrepreneurship. But for those who weather the storms, owning a dealer franchise is rewarding in many ways. "It is a tough business," says Adkins, who has built Palanker Chevrolet into the tristate New York area's largest Corvette dealership and one of the region's top 100 businesses in retail sales. "You have got to have the wherewithal to deal with a lot of issues. It's a real challenge. But the most rewarding thing of my business career is being blessed to still be doing this after all of the challenges."
The last couple of years have been particularly challenging to the auto industry and auto-related services and operations. Auto dealers, especially those in New York, have had a tough time in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. "Since 9/11, New York has lost a lot of revenue. Taxes are going up and education costs are going up," Adkins says. "People are just trying to survive."
Still, Adkins would not discourage anyone from trying business ownership. He does caution, however, that you need to have some idea of what you are getting into before you start. "You should look at the worst thing that can happen by going into the business, then determine if you are willing to take the risk or chance," Adkins says.
It is important, he adds, that new entrepreneurs prepare for tough economic times by making sure they have money saved and that they are doing the best business at all times. "I operate my business as though it is tough all the time, so when it gets tough, I don't have to make [drastic] changes," Adkins says.
Growing up in Chicago, Adkins never dreamed that he would one day be in the car business, but he always had an interest in autos. As teenagers, he and his buddies played a game of counting the makes of cars that went by. The first to count up to 21 makes was the winner. From playing this game, Adkins realized at an early age that Cadillac was the preferred vehicle for those in the Black community who could afford it and Buick was the second-best if you couldn't. He dreamed of one day owning a nice car.
Adkins went on to Bryn and Straten Business College in Chicago and later to the University of Maryland, where he studied accounting. His first job was with First National Bank in Chicago. "It was a great opportunity to work in the banking industry," Adkins says. "But the remuneration for the work was very small. The retirement plan was great. I was too young to think about retiring and wanted to earn some money now."
He signed on for a stint in advertising and, while doing that, met a man who worked for General Motors Acceptance Corp., the finance division of General Motors Corp. Shortly after, the division hired him to collect on delinquent accounts in inner city Chicago. "If one member of the family lost a job, they sometimes couldn't keep up with the bills. I approached this job as a humanitarian and as a member of the community. I wanted to help people keep their car. It was not in GM's interest to take the car back," he explains.
Adkins was personally familiar with many of the delinquent accounts and he soon realized that GMAC was simply using him to locate the people. "I didn't like that position," he says. Even so, he learned a lot from being in that position, he says. "It taught me that you need to have good communication skills. A car is like a family member to some people and they believe they own the car even if they are still paying on it," he says. And he learned how to keep his cool in the face of danger. "I had people pull guns out and weapons when I tried to collect on a payment," he recalls.
A little more than a year later, Adkins decided it was time to move on. He was promoted to the Pontiac Motors division, where he worked as a service, parts and sales manager, which allowed him to deal directly with franchise owners. He relocated to California, all the while learning the dealer side of the auto business. It was no surprise, then, that he sought out a dealership when he decided to become an entrepreneur. "Get all the knowledge you can about the business you want to be in," he says. "Learn about interacting with employees, develop good communication skills and listening skills. And don't let pride get in the way of making the right decisions."
By 1985, Adkins was ready to step out on his own. "My father worked 40-something years on a job while waiting for retirement," he says. "I believed I could make more money working for myself." Whatever you do, however, it is important to have a passion for it, he adds. "I have a passion for cars and, more important, I have a passion for people."
With that advice in mind, Adkins purchased his first dealership that very year�a Chevrolet, Buick and Oldsmobile dealership in Fostoria, Ohio. Buying a dealership is not cheap and, for those with limited access to capital, it can be frustrating. Adkins enrolled in a program called the GM Dealer Development Academy, which helped aspiring dealers like himself to purchase a dealership. With 15 percent down, he was able to buy the dealership with GM funding the remaining 85 percent. He had to repay GM with interest, of course. Typically, the debt is repaid over time and the dealer owns the franchise.
The challenges began almost immediately for the new GM dealer. His dealership was located in a rural farming area and had been there for a long time. There was a limited number of minorities in the community and Adkins didn't recall seeing any other minority business owners. "Those were trying times," he recalls.
True, he was able to make money with the dealership. But he knew he would relocate at some point. He set his sights on Atlanta, where he was trying to open a new Oldsmobile and Toyota dealership. He was unsuccessful in parlaying the deal with GM and Toyota. Shortly after his failed attempt, however, a non-African American succeeded in opening the dealership. Adkins filed a suit against the two auto manufacturers. The suit made it to court but was settled.
Adkins operated the dealership in Ohio until 1989, when he sold it to a Ford dealer just before he left for Atlanta. When the Atlanta deal fell through with GM and Toyota, he launched Adkins and Associates, a consulting firm. The primary function of this business was to advise the owners of automobile dealerships on how to improve their businesses by generating more profit and better customer satisfaction. This involved training personnel within the dealership who had customer contact and supervision responsibility.
Adkins' success in the industry led to several other dealership opportunities, and some major consulting contracts with Ford, GM, Volkswagen and the National Automobile Dealer Association. In 1994, executives at General Motors asked him to purchase the assets of Palanker Chevrolet, and that marked the return of Adkins as a dealer principal. His return has not been without trials and tribulations. "We have had to deal with some embezzlement and theft," he says. "We are working with the manufacture to get some resolve. It's been very stressful." There is even a suit pending in U.S. Federal Court. "I decided to stay and fight," he says.
All that aside, Adkins enjoys being in the business and remains successful in it. None of the challenges he faced, and continues to face, have stopped him from giving back to others. He serves on several community and professional boards, and has won numerous awards and citations for his community and professional work. "I've been blessed," he says. "I have a wonderful life and a wonderful career. If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have done more in the area of theology before getting involved in business. The blessings of God keep me going."
By Jacqueline Mitchell