Carrie Rengers

January 23, 2011

A conversation with Dawson Grimsley

Dawson Grimsley may be the most recognizable car dealer in the state, but it was a love of racing motorcycles that brought him to Wichita.

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Dawson Grimsley may be the most recognizable car dealer in the state, but it was a love of racing motorcycles that brought him to Wichita.

He was 17 when he decided to move here from Manhattan Beach, Calif., to live with his father and race motorcycles.

His father's plan was for Grimsley to then go to Wichita State University.

"He was so excited that I was going to go to college," Grimsley said.

He lasted a day, and that was just orientation.

His father didn't approve.

"He said, 'You're out of here. You're out of the house by Friday.' "

The elder Grimsley, like his father before him, was a car dealer and had hoped for another career for his son.

Instead, Grimsley eventually became owner of Davis-Moore Auto Group.

Have you ever considered moving back to California?

"Oh, no. Absolutely not. I have relatives who live there in Studio City. I go to visit them every couple of years, and I can't wait to get out of there and get home.... Way too hectic and way too crazy for me.... People are all in a hurry. They're rude. I have no use for them."

So what was your first job after your father kicked you out on your own?

"I was pinstriping cars and putting side moldings on them.... I loved it. Well, I was kind of my own man, you know. I had long hair and wore shorts and flip-flops and T-shirts and made good money for a kid just fresh out of high school."

Then, while you were putting side moldings on a Trans Am at Dahlinger Pontiac-Cadillac, the owner made you an offer?

"He said... 'Hey, I want to see you here Monday morning... with a fresh shirt and tie... and haircut.'

"I said, 'What for?' And he said, 'I'm going to teach you how to sell cars.' "

What did your father say?

"Oh, no, no, no, Dawson. You can't sell cars."

But you did, and then you went on to Davis-Moore. What was it like working for Grant Davis?

"The first day I worked there, Grant called me, and he said, 'I want to make something perfectly clear to you: If it's not right, don't do it.... If your word's no good, you're no good.'

"I can still remember hanging on the phone, shaking, thinking, what is he telling me this for? He told everybody that."

How did you respond?

"Yes, sir!"

How did you advance in the dealership?

"It was a long time of promotions."

Davis "would give you another job. A bigger job. More responsibility.

"I would say probably the last five or six years he was alive, I basically ran the dealerships."

And it was through a scribbled message that Davis asked you about possibly taking over the dealership?

"He was in Via Christi Hospital, dying. He could not talk. He had throat cancer.

"I can still see him sitting up in bed, writing on that pad, and it said, 'Can you run the company?' "

To which you said ...

"Well, hell, yeah. What do you mean can I run the company? I've been doing it for five or six years."

What did Davis say?

"'If you can't, I'll find someone who can.'

"It sent shivers down my spine. Even today when I think about it, because he died three days after that."

How did you feel about him?

"I always say I learned from the best. No question about it. He was fair but stern."

Is a salesperson born or made?

"That's a good question. It's a combination of natural ability and the ability to listen and learn.

"There are natural-born salespeople, and you've met them.... They're annoying. You know what I'm saying.

"But when you take that and bottle it and use it and not sell somebody something....

"I would more say coach them and walk them through.

" (It's) how to assist a customer in purchasing a car."

What's your personal key to sales success?

"I've always been straight with people. Straight up. No bull. I still sell a lot of cars today. I just tell people, 'Hey, here's how it is.' "

In 1998, after having only written used-car ads, you took over Davis-Moore's advertising. How did customer Mickey DeHook convince you to run public service announcements instead of traditional car advertising?

"He said,'... Dawson, you're different than a lot of people I know.... You need to start talking about PSAs.' "

And you said?

"What the hell's a PSA?"

Why did you stick with them?

"It just clicked with me.

"We did a child safety seat spot, or PSA.... We checked 29 cars, and 29 of the seats were incorrectly installed."

Including one that was particularly bad?

"If the lady would have slammed on her brakes, it would have killed the baby.

"After that day, I thought, whoa. This is unbelievable. Unbelievable."

How do those spots help you sell cars?

"People like them. They come in and buy cars because of our safety messages. I think it differentiates us between the other car dealers in town.

"And if you notice, there's a lot more dealers today that are charitable and help different causes than 10 years ago or 12 years ago when we started doing this, which is really cool."

Any regrets about not going to college? Or anything else?

"No.... I told somebody once that if I checked out today, I have had an awesome life. I have no regrets."

You're so happy-go-lucky. Do you get along with everyone?

"I try to. There's some people I can't get along with, and they buy cars at Rusty Eck Ford."


"No. That's not true."

Does it get old sometimes being such a public figure?

"Oh, yeah. There's a downside to it. You have your naysayers.

"When I get away and people don't know who I am, it's kind of nice sometimes."

What's one thing no one knows about you?

"It's not as bad as it used to be, but it still is, but when I go do a speech or whatever... it makes me nervous. It shouldn't. I mean, it really shouldn't."

Anything keep you up at night?

"Barrett-Jackson auction on TV. That's it. I go to sleep like a puppy every night at 9 o'clock because I get up at 4:30 in the morning to go work out."

And your wife doesn't like the car auctions, does she?

"She says, 'Don't you see enough cars at work?'

"Not like these, honey."

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