Dwayne Hawkins well remembers what he was doing in 1969.
While his peers were celebrating others’ achievements, including the Beatles’ last concert and the Apollo 11 moon landing, he was working toward creating his own success. Today Hawkins, chairman and CEO of Crown Automotive Group, headquartered in St. Petersburg, Fla., operates 22 dealerships in three states that employ more than 1,100 people and sell more than 22,000 new cars and trucks annually.
Yet for all his dealer group’s success, he seems proudest of its role in the community.
“It all started with Doug Willey,” says Hawkins of the Birmingham, Ala., dealer who gave him his first real start in the auto business. “He was always giving back to the church. He said, ‘Dwayne, whatever charity it is, you have got to get involved. You can’t just come into a community and start stripping money out without putting anything back. You have to invest in the community that’s making it work for you as a dealer. You have to get involved in ventures and organizations that are looking for money and need help.’”
Supporting the Community
Hawkins took the advice to heart. Today he is one of the area’s most well-known philanthropists and benefactors. Moffitt Cancer Foundation, Pinellas County Education Foundation, and Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County are just some of the organizations that he and his auto group family continually support. He is a member of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital Board.
And his efforts inspire others to pitch in. One of their many projects included opening his showrooms for his employees and customers to package more than 1 million meals for Feeding Children Everywhere.
“That’s all part of just what you have to do,” he says. “Just helping people, helping organizations do good work. And some of these guys are in charitable organizations that are doing good work. And we share what we know with other charitable organizations and help them improve too.”
Hawkins’ philanthropic philosophy mirrors the one he used to build his company — show them the ropes, encourage innovation, and then step back.
That’s something he learned early, when he was a newly minted college graduate and went to work for Goodyear Tire & Rubber. That not only taught him plenty about tires and vehicles but gave him an inside glimpse at what worked and what didn’t in the automotive business.
He thrived at Goodyear, becoming a tire dealer, but left when his National Guard unit was called to serve in Germany during the Berlin Crisis of 1961. By the time he returned, he was ready to make a change. The decision to join the auto retail industry culminated in a position at Doug Willey Pontiac in Birmingham.
“Being associated with Goodyear gave me a lot of the insight that I needed to have in management and training and things we were going through in auto business. It was basic stuff, if you will,” he says. “That did help me out, no question about it. It was good for me. I sold my business to a good group of guys who had wanted to buy me out.”
Once he went to work for Doug Willey, he worked his way up from sales to management. He was so successful that Willey mentored him and assisted him in starting his own dealership.
‘His Insight Was Incredible’
Terry Hawkins is the former longtime general manager of the Nissan store who currently serves as a director in Crown’s management company.
He says that, from a young age, his older brother had all the elements that ensured success.
“He didn’t even start selling cars until he was 28 years old. By age 33, he became a dealer.”
“First of all, Dwayne was very personable,” Terry Hawkins says. “He didn’t even start selling cars until he was 28 years old. He was very good at it, very ambitious, willing to put the work in and the time in. And he stuck with it no matter what. By age 33, he became a dealer. His success early on he was because he was very hands-on on with everything in his early years.
“He knew he had to manage to speak to every employee, making sure everything was going well,” he adds. “He was always trying to figure out how to make them better, make them want to stay there. His insight was incredible. As time went along, he got to know new manufacturers and let them know he wanted to expand.”
Train Employees to Grow and Prosper
Randy Crisorio, president and CEO of United Development Systems, agreed that his longtime friend and client had an almost immediate grasp on how to train and retain staff. He continued that focus even as his group grew.
“He was into training and retention before it was fashionable, absolutely,” says Crisorio. “That really has been a key component of the growth of the company, in terms of longevity. I’ve often told Dwayne, ‘You have good people.’ He picks them right and they come onboard and grow and prosper. And Dwayne prospers. And that’s not always the case in this industry.”
After establishing the Pontiac store, Hawkins soon bought the neighboring Nissan store that stood in a converted mule barn. His timing was seemingly perfect because the 1970s brought with it a recession, skyrocketing gas prices, and growing demand for small cars.
Through the years, Hawkins acquired a wide variety of other manufacturers’ dealerships. That diversity, he says, is one of the reasons the auto group has continually grown.
Everything doesn’t work out perfectly. But I never had anything I couldn’t sell out of and keep going.
Still, Hawkins is quick to note that all his ventures weren’t wildly successful.
“We had lots of good things, some bad,” he says. “Everything doesn’t work out perfectly. But I never had anything I couldn’t sell out of and keep going. ... One by one, I bought stores, got a few open points awarded to me by the manufacturers. With that, we’ve built 22 stores, and we’ve got another one to build shortly.”
Although Hawkins built the dealership group from the ground up, he is not a micromanager.
“He lets his managers manage,” says Jim Myers, Crown’s president and COO. “But he has high expectations. He’s very involved in both the directional aspects and the details. He reads sales reports, PVRs, every day. He’s an overall wonderful person. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that he built everything from the ground up. His early life had very humble roots. He’s worked for everything he’s got.”
‘He Never Forgets His Roots’
Kevin Hawkins, Dwayne’s son, is the founder and CEO of Mid-Atlantic Finance Co. He says he is blessed to come from a family of entrepreneurs that continually gives back to the community.
He lived the American dream. But he never forgot his roots.
“To watch him and see how he was dedicated and driven, how he interacted with employees, his social network, his family — something you may not be able to teach in school,” says the younger Hawkins. “He went from rags to riches, growing up poor in rural Alabama, then having the opportunity to move to Florida and open his dealerships. He lived the American dream. But he never forgot his roots.”
That’s one of the many reasons Dwayne Hawkins will be honored this November with the Ed Bobit Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Bobit Business Media at Industry Summit in November.
If you join him in New Orleans, keep an eye out for him in the airport.
“Dwayne is humble, down to earth, a real gentleman,” says Myers. “Six years ago, I finally said ‘Dwayne, a lot of dealers have private jets. You won’t even fly first class.”
Something tells us that won’t change anytime soon.
Nancy Dunham is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist. Contact her at [email protected]