MILWAUKEE, WI - The late Harold L. Wilde used his hands to demonstrate why he became such an innovator at his store, the biggest Toyota dealership in Wisconsin.
"If you're here," he'd tell his staff, cutting his right hand through the air in a sidewise motion, "someone else is rising.
"You have to keep moving up yourself, doing new things constantly to stay ahead, or they'll catch up and go ahead of you."
Mr. Wilde applied his creative skills constantly at his flagship Wilde Toyota store in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, WI, leaving no good idea unexplored despite offering a product whose quality reputation by itself created high repeat business.
"It's our challenge at Wilde Toyota and the 10 other Wilde dealerships in the Milwaukee market and on Florida's Gulf coast to keep practicing what Harold preached," says the vice president of Wilde Automotive Management of Wisconsin, Patrick Donahue. "He has left a tremendous legacy."
Mr. Wilde, active in the dealerships till the end, died of Lou Gehrig's disease at age 77 on Dec. 15. His widow, Maryann, and son Mark, 31, oversee the dealerships with Mr. Donahue.
Among the firsts in evidence at the Wilde Toyota dealership are the following:
The glass-encased building faces Highway 100 at a 45-degree angle, so that customers need not park on the sides and "get lost" finding the entrances. This architectural style, conceived by Mr. Wilde, is being used at the new Wilde Honda dealership structure opened in mid-August nearby. The buildings are elevated to afford a better view of inventoried vehicles.
The F&I department has been relocated into an office pod in the corner of the L-shaped showroom. It shares space with the F&I managers and the cashiers, visible to salespersons and Mr. Donahue and not "tucked away out of sight."
Age is no barrier to advancement or hiring. Paul Sauer, at 71 a senior salesman who has worked at his trade for 40 years at 20 Milwaukee dealerships, "excels in selling Toyotas to the older crowd," says general manager Joseph Zanella, 34. Bank relations for F&I are handled by Ben Safranski, 24, who keeps in touch with "between 10 to 15" F&I providers on a daily basis.
The dealership has one of the first dedicated used-vehicle sales and service departments, with a "budget center" for bargain and nonprime purchasers.
Service management offices flank one of the first enclosed drive-in entrances built by any dealership. The cashier sits next to the write-up staff. The service manager is next to the parts counter.
"All the features are designed to expedite customer satisfaction by reducing delays for parts and resolving invoice questions," says Mr. Donahue, 45, a Marquette University graduate who has been with the Wilde organization since 1979.
He adds, "I majored in philosophy and history, subjects which give one insight into how to run a dealership in a way that keeps us from getting complacent but at the same time invites employee loyalty.
"There's nothing conventional at Wilde Toyota, unlike a number of Toyota stores which rely on the great product to do the selling."
The Wilde stores have helped raise penetration of foreign-headquartered makes to record levels in a city which is closely linked to the domestic Big Three.
Mr. Wilde started out as a Pontiac dealer in the 1960s. His purchase of the Hyman Israel Toyota-BMC store in 1977 in Waukesha, WI, set the stage for his move to Highway 100 in the 1980s.
But used cars were never far from the founder's basic tenets of doing business.
"As used cars go," he always said, "so go new cars. That'll never change."