Dawson Grimsley’s goal is to – in a little more than two years – “fly off into the sunset” from the car business.
The frontman and president of the city’s largest car dealer, Davis-Moore Auto Group, said he has planned his exit to coincide with his 60th birthday, which will be in September 2016.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” Grimsley said. “Most guys in my position work until they die. I just enjoy traveling with my wife, playing golf. And I’m going to do it.”
To prepare for retirement, Grimsley has been grooming his stepson Sean Tarbell, 43, to take over most of his duties in the day-to-day operations of a Wichita enterprise that includes six new car dealerships – Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, Chevrolet, Fiat of Wichita, Lincoln, Mazda and Nissan – six used-car lots and nearly 300 employees. Davis-Moore also handles the operations of Clint Bowyer Toyota in Emporia for the NASCAR driver.
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Stuart Ray will remain an owner and chief financial officer of Davis-Moore Auto Group after Grimsley’s retirement.
Tarbell said he and Ray will “run things together.”
The Davis-Moore succession plan wasn’t solely Grimsley’s doing.
That decision, Grimsley and Tarbell said, was really made years ago by the dealership’s founder and late owner, Grant Davis.
Tarbell said he hoped to one day be set up to run a new car dealership for Davis-Moore outside of Kansas, which was a common practice by Davis and past generations of car dealers, who would identify a potential dealer from among their employees, buy a dealership somewhere outside the city and state and let that person run it. At the same time, that employee would be allowed to buy into the dealership over time, eventually taking full ownership.
So one day in the mid-1990s when Tarbell was called into Davis’ office, he thought that’s what was about to happen. Instead, Davis told Tarbell that he would be made an owner in Davis-Moore’s Wichita dealerships, along with Grimsley and Ray.
“I was elated and knew this one moment would change the rest of my life,” Tarbell said. And “I got to stay in Wichita. That was a much better deal.”
But Tarbell had to put in his time at the dealership long before the deal came to fruition. Tarbell said he was probably about 13 when he first started working at Davis-Moore.
On Saturdays, Tarbell would ask Grimsley if he could go to work with him.
“He’d tell me, ‘I’ll bring you up there, but you’re going to have to work,’ ” Tarbell said.
“And I didn’t pay him,” Grimsley said.
Learning by working
Tarbell started out washing cars and cleaning their interiors. In high school, he was made a “lot boy,” which included cleaning cars and other duties. By the time he enrolled at Wichita State University, he had begun selling cars part time. In the summer of 1989, after his freshman year at WSU, he started selling used cars full time.
It was then, Tarbell said, that he decided he wanted a career in auto sales and quit college.
That was a decision that did not sit well with Tarbell’s mom and Grimsley’s wife, Patty.
“She wasn’t real thrilled with that,” Tarbell said.
One day soon after Tarbell made his decision, Davis asked Tarbell for a ride to the Infiniti store, which at the time was owned by Davis-Moore.
During that short ride, Davis talked with Tarbell about his college decision.
“I hear you’re not going back to school,” Tarbell said Davis told him. “That’s all right. You’ll get all the education you need working at Davis-Moore.”
Tarbell soon moved to the dealership’s finance unit and later was used-car manager at Davis-Moore Mazda and then Davis-Moore Lincoln.
In 1996, Tarbell was promoted to his first new-car job, that of the new-car manager of Davis-Moore Nissan. He said that in his first month in that job, the Nissan store went from selling 30 to 40 cars a month to 120.
Since then, Tarbell’s duties have expanded to encompass more of Grimsley’s duties, which include oversight of all of Davis-Moore’s new and used dealerships as well as parts and service.
“My knowledge is experience-driven,” Tarbell said, adding that he has received a lot of formal training over the years from the automakers whose brands Davis-Moore sells.
Grimsley said he knows Tarbell is capable of running the company when he leaves.
“Because he’s done everything I’ve done,” he said.
Grimsley added that he has conditioned Tarbell to understand that the more things he does correctly, “the less I yell at him.”
Scott Davies, a 31-year auto dealer who left the business temporarily when General Motors scuttled the Saturn brand in 2008, said Tarbell will have a big reputation to maintain for Davis-Moore when Grimsley retires.
“Dawson’s done a great job in this town,” said Davies, who returned to the car business last year as president of Volvo of Wichita. “He’s got a great name, and he takes care of his customers.”
That’s a lesson Tarbell seems to have taken to heart.
“I think what’s most important is if you say you are going to do something, you do it,” Tarbell said. “You take care of employees, and you take care of customers. It’s really that simple.”