2015 Laureate: Mitch Walters
There haven’t been too many Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame laureates who’ve had their own catch phrases. But if you show Mitch Walters picture to anyone in the Tri-Cities with a television, they’ll probably say, “Oh yeah, It’s the ‘We’re dealin’ man!”
Mitch Walters’ is more than just a face on TV, though. His Friendship family of dealerships today has more than 300 employees, and Friendship has earned the honor of being recognized as “The Best Dealership to Work For in America.”
From all outward appearances, you might believe Mitch Walters, was, in fact, destined to be dealin’. And you’d be right.
His grandfather, grandmother and father were car dealers.
When he went to college, he found a university with a bachelor’s degree program in car dealing.
So the fact that Mitch Walters became a car dealer is the opposite of a surprise.
Walters was born at Sampson Air Force Base where his father Bob was stationed. When Bob left the service, he moved his wife Sue and Mitch back to his hometown of Hebron, Ohio.
Bob’s father, an automobile dealer, passed away, leaving Bob’s mother, Pearl to run the dealership for around four years. After returning to Hebron, Bob, along with his brother Jim, took over the day-to-day duties of running the dealership.
Walters became a good student and an above average athlete. While still in elementary school, he met the girl who would later become his wife, though romance didn’t begin to blossom until after their junior prom.
In remembering those school days, Walters says, “I wanted to be a car dealer just like my dad.” In fact, Walters still has the “career book” he wrote as a fifth grader. It’s entitled, “I want to be an automobile dealer.” He got an A on that assignment, by the way.
Young Mitch found he possessed at least four traits that make a good car salesman. The first was that he could sell just about anything. “I was enterprising. I was one of those kids who was always looking to make a dollar,” he says. “I sold candy bars. I sold Grit magazines. And I always tried to win the top-seller awards.”
He also set up a Kool-Aid stand next to the highway in front of his house. That was his introduction to the retail concept of traffic counts.
“I had a great business plan, but a lousy location,” Mitch says. “Maybe three cars came by all day: my dad, my uncle and our one neighbor. You don’t sell much Kool-Aid on a country road. So it wouldn’t have been too profitable anyway, but then my little brothers came along and drank up all the profits.”
The second trait was that he knew how to be organized and efficient with both his time and money. “I mowed lawns, scheduled it very tightly, so that I worked Thursday and Friday afternoons, and would be done by noon on Saturday so I could enjoy Saturday afternoons and Sundays. I could do it efficiently, making anywhere from $2.50 to $5.00 to mow a yard. I enjoyed the independence that gave me.”
The third trait Walters found was that he was a natural-born promoter.
“I had several carnivals every summer,” he remembers. “I would get all this old junk I had for prizes. I’d blow up balloons and they’d throw darts at them. They’d throw a football through a tire. I took the blade off the lawnmower and let them ride. I called it a go-kart. I charged them for that, and then I got wise and put the blade back on and charged them to mow my yard.”
And fourth, young Mitch knew the value of a dollar, collecting things of value. “I collected baseball cards, coins, stamps and arrowheads,” he remembers.
Walters’ first job at an auto dealership was restocking the Coca-Cola vending machine at his father’s dealership. “I got paid a Coke,” he remembers. “I washed windows, picked up shop rags, whatever.”
Walters says he was blessed to have a mother who made motherhood her mission in life. He and his brothers always had fresh breakfasts in the mornings and home-cooked meals. “She was a very cool mother,” Walters remembers. “She was always a very giving kind of person.”
Walters credits his father for teaching him how to be organized and to work hard while his mother taught him how to give and to love.
He credits his grandmother Pearl, however, for teaching him many of life’s most important lessons.
“She had gone to work at the age of 14, keeping books for a stockyard. In today’s world, she would be a CEO,” Walters says. Pearl opened the world for young Mitch with lessons like, “Underpromise and overdeliver,” “Always do what you say you’ll do,” and “Be adventuresome.”
Pearl had seen all 50 states before she passed away, and Walters still credits her with instilling much of his desire to get out and do as much as possible in life. “Life is the game, not practice,” Mitch says. “She had a lot to do with teaching me that. She gave me direction.”
Walters’ parents divorced when he was 13, which he credits with forcing him to mature early. “I became kind of the man of the house,” he says. “I had to step up to the plate, which with my personality was not that hard.”
Growing up at an early age, Walters never lost his dreams and vision. He never pictured himself working for anyone else. He always knew he wanted to run a company, and by fifth grade he had known he wanted to be an automobile dealer.
That focus turned out to be a blessing as Walters was intent on learning everything there was to learn about selling cars. After two years at Ohio State University, he and wife Danea moved to Midland, Michigan to finish his degree at Northwood University.
Why, you might ask, would someone leave a school like Ohio State to attend little-known Northwood? “They had a program where you could take things like automotive marketing and automotive accounting.” By the time he graduated with a 3.76 GPA at the age of 22, Walters was as well positioned to be a rookie automobile dealer as any one man could be.
He interviewed for one job, then another, then another, without taking any of them. He noticed no one was turning him down. Everywhere he interviewed, he got offers.
“I didn’t realize it when I started interviewing,” he says, “but why wouldn’t you hire me? I had grown up in the business. I had a degree in the business. I had a wife and a kid, so I was going to be stable. Why wouldn’t you want to hire someone like that?”
Walters began looking for an ideal spot in which to live and start a career. He limited his choices to within a day’s drive of the family home in Hebron, and eventually settled on a town on the Tennessee-Virginia line called Bristol. Walters has never left Bristol despite many opportunities to do so.
Over the years, however, Walters has grown the Friendship family from one dealership to 15 locations in six cities and three states. And the dealership family hasn’t just grown in size. The Friendship family has earned the distinction of the best dealership to work for in America. “That is the best business honor I have ever experienced,” Walters says. “Three years in a row and always in the top 50. We ranked number one in America year before last. I am so proud of our team.”
He takes little credit for the growth of the company, though, preferring to spread it around. “I got where I am today because in addition to having a clear goal, a great plan and lots of hard work, I was able to surround myself with absolutely GREAT people. I have been blessed to have the best team in our region. From the leadership to the newest team member, I am able to work with the best. The Friendship team makes me look so good.”
The only praise Walters readily accepts is, “I just know how to pick people. I don’t know a whole lot more than that. I don’t deserve much credit other than recognizing talent.”
“I like Winston Churchill’s simple quote,” he says. ”’Never, never, never give up.’ If someone lives by this, lots of great things will get done.”
Another quote Walters is fond of repeating is: “There are three kinds of people: Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what just happened.”
“I like this quote because I always try hard to make things happen,” Walters says. “Sometimes I make some not so good things happen, but at least we are not standing still.”
Through his support of not-for-profit organizations and his own good works, Walters has made many good things happen in the communities in which Friendship dealerships operate. “We try to never say no to a worthy cause,” Walters says.
“Our Bikes for Kids program is a real winner. Hundreds of bikes are given away, one to any child who needs one. Once again, my great team takes care of most of this. My heavy lifting is more just signing the checks. I am blessed to have a great team who cares about giving. We plan to have a ‘Friendship Day of Giving’ in 2015 where the Friendship Foundation supports numerous worthy organizations.”
“I am really in the people business. My family has been extremely supportive over the years, and I thank my wife and boys for all they sacrificed. Danea and I have been blessed with the two most amazing children…Brandon and Dustin. They are my best buddies and I am so proud that they are great fathers, husbands and businessmen in addition to being great sons. I have two wonderful daughters-in-law and six amazing grandchildren ages 5 to 11. We have a houseful and I am so lucky with such a great family.”
Often when someone hears that kind of talk, it’s in the context of a statement such as, “I’m retiring to spend more time with my family.” In Walters’ case, that’s not in the cards anytime soon. “Are you kidding?” he asks. “What makes me tick is to stay busy. I love to multi-task. The busier I am, the better.”
If anything, Walters is looking for more to do. Whether it be attending a leadership seminar with some of America’s top business leaders or talking with his newest employee about what it means to do things the Friendship way, Walters is always finding ways to improve the business.
And while he’s honored by the recognition Friendship has earned, Walters says he feels a great deal of work remains before Friendship reaches his goal of being not just the best dealerships in America to work for, but the best dealerships in America, period.
And that’s good, because the man at the top is as driven as he’s ever been. “I’ve always looked at life as a gift,” he says. “I think my grandmother was right. Life is the game, not just practice – it’s the play, not a rehearsal.”
“Work hard and play hard,” he concludes, “and make as many memories as possible.”
That’s how Mitch Walters is ‘dealin’!