Find a Member:

2005 Horatio Alger Award Winner

David W. Wilson

Chairman and CEO
Wilson Automotive Group

"Managers manage. Leaders lead."

David Wilson was born in 1947 and grew up in Traer, a small town in Iowa with a population of 1,000. As a baby, Wilson lived with his parents in an apartment above a John Deere tractor dealership. His father was a former rodeo cowboy, and when Wilson was three the family moved to the outskirts of town so that there would be space to raise horses. For a time, Wilson's father sold life insurance, and then went to work for a tractor manufacturer. He also spent a great deal of time caring for horses-his own as well as those he boarded. Wilson's mother was a party plan demonstrator for Stanley Home Products. She often had three parties in one day, which required her to travel throughout northeastern Iowa. When his parents were gone, which was often, Wilson was responsible for his four younger siblings.

Wilson's first free enterprise lesson came from his mother when he was in the fourth grade. He wanted a new baseball glove, but she explained that they couldn't afford to buy one for him. She suggested that he should work to earn the money he needed by mowing their neighbors' lawns. "We didn't have a power mower," he says, "but my grandparents did. I made a deal with them that if I mowed their lawn for free, they would let me use the mower to do other lawns. It felt good when I got my new glove, knowing that I'd earned it on my own."

Wilson's mother was a good saleswoman. Her positive attitude and motivation to be successful won her a number of sales contests. "I think I got my interest and ability in sales from my mother," says Wilson. "I started my sales career early. I had two paper routes and I ran them like a business. I made cold calls asking people if they wanted to subscribe to my papers, and I had to learn how to deal with one rejection after another. I had a number of jobs where you had to ask for the order-raking leaves, mowing lawns, shoveling snow. Once I got the job, I had to perform. Later, I had to collect. Sometimes that was the hardest part of the job. But these were good lessons to learn early in life about business and dealing with the public." While working as a bagger in a store during his high school years, Wilson was influenced by one of the grocery checkers. He watched her visit with her customers as they went through her line and learned from her how to please people and keep their business.

"Growing up in a small Midwestern town was a great experience," he says. "I'm glad I'm from Iowa. I had a wholesome upbringing that gave me a moral foundation that has served me well throughout my life." Wilson became deeply involved with the family's church and as a youth minister gave the Thanksgiving Day sermons.

From an early age, Wilson wanted to improve his station in life. "I was hard working and wanted to get ahead," he says. "One good thing about being a paper boy is that I could read the news every day. I also did the puzzles and read the classified ads because I liked to see what people were buying and selling. Through that, I learned what things are worth. Reading the paper made me enthralled with the outside world and even though I was happy at home, I knew I wouldn't stay in our small town."

Wilson's mother wanted him to be exposed to college. She used her earnings to pay for his first year, but it was up to him to finance the rest. Wilson attended the University of Northern Iowa. His jobs in college included pumping gas and selling shoes at Montgomery Ward. He also worked a second shift in a foundry, taking molten steel out of a furnace and then turning it into molds. For a short time, he even sold pots and pans on the party plan. Finally, he went to work in the service department of a car dealership. He worked nights and weekends changing oil and tires. "One day, I left the oil filter off a telephone company van, which ruined the engine," he recalls. "I had to pay for the damages and I didn't have the money. I asked the dealer if I could become a salesman so that I could earn enough to pay them back."

As Wilson began selling cars, he came under the mentorship of his employer, Dick Gray, who exposed him to Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking. "The theme of that book, whatever your mind can conceive you can achieve, got me goal oriented and nurtured what my mother had already instilled in me," says Wilson. "Dick Gray helped me to figure out my life plan. I was lucky to have such a great mentor at a pivotal time in my life."

Wilson graduated with a degree in religion and philosophy in 1970. At one time, he considered becoming a minister, but he never felt a true calling. Next, he considered teaching, but the money he earned as a part-time car salesman convinced him that he should go in that direction. He became the sales manager as soon as he finished school and continued with that dealership in Iowa for two years. When a friend approached him with an idea to start their own dealership, they both quit their jobs and sold their houses.

Unfortunately, their plan fell through, and on a whim, Wilson packed his family into their car and moved them to Arizona. As he entered Phoenix, Wilson noticed his car was making a strange sound. He took it to the Lincoln/Mercury dealership and was told that the U-Haul trailer he towed with his car was too heavy for it. The repair bill was high and Wilson asked the service manager if employees got a service discount. "The guy asked me, 'Why, do you work here?' and my answer was, 'Not yet.' I walked into the sales office and got a job. Four years later I was a partner in that dealership."

Now located in Orange County, California, Wilson owns 12 dealerships. The Wilson Automotive Group includes six Toyota dealerships, two Lexus dealerships, two Honda dealerships, an Acura dealership, and a Ford dealership. It supports more than 1,500 employees and produces more than $1.4 billion in retail sales annually, making the Wilson Automotive Group the sixth largest privately held auto group in the nation.

Wilson advises youth to be prepared for long-term success through perseverance and hard work. "The things you appreciate most are those things that take the longest to achieve," he says. "There is no better satisfaction than knowing that you earned something."

Wilson says he is enthused about the Horatio Alger Association's mission statement. "Not only am I excited about the scholarships that help young people in need," he says, "but the Association also works to educate youth about the limitless opportunities available through the free enterprise system. I've always been a staunch supporter of that."