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January 2011
Quiet Benevolence
By Heather Head

     Alongside lawyers and politicians, car dealers feature as the villain in many a bad joke. But Dick Keffer has always had a knack for seeing potential where others haven’t. And to him, being a car dealer means an opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.

     From promoting women and minorities into leadership positions, to taking underprivileged children to the beach, his successful automotive career has been accompanied at every step by quiet acts of benevolence.


Cranking the Engine

     Like many young men, Dick Keffer always loved cars. Growing up in Pennsylvania in the 1930s and 40s, his first car represented freedom and still holds a fond place in his heart.

     It was September of 1961, in the midst of a promising career in insurance, that he announced that he was leaving his to pursue a job in car sales. His father was not a happy man. Keffer Jr. chuckles at the memory and adding, “He came around later though, when I started sending him a new car every six months.”

     Whatever his father’s reservations may have been, Keffer knew from his first day at Ammon R. Smith Auto Company that he wanted to spend his life in a car dealership. He excelled there and moved up quickly through the ranks.

     Ambitious and determined, he set about setting specific goals for himself and then striving to achieve them. He set a date by which he wanted to be managing a dealership, and a second date by which he wanted to own one.

     He met his first goal on time when Ammon Smith offered him a management position.

As manager, Keffer immediately began looking for potential where others didn’t see it. He looked for talent and intelligence in people regardless of gender or position in life. One of his most important choices for management was a woman.

     “You have to understand,” Keffer explains, “times were different. That was the early l970s. Lots of people thought women couldn’t handle management.”

     Keffer was the exception: “I don’t care if you’re black, white, purple, male, or female,” he says. “All I care about is whether you can perform.”

     And the person Keffer had in mind for the job had already proven she could. Her name was Bonnie Hunter. Keffer had hired her as a clerk after her father asked him, as a favor, to give her a job.

     “She came in and started doing in half a day as much work as any two other clerks could complete in a full day,” he remembers. He knew she was capable of more, but at the time there was nothing more he could do about it.

     He also knew it was time to start looking for his own dealership.


Navigating the Potholes

     Keffer loved the Carolinas coast, and was pleased to find a buy-in opportunity at a dealership in Wilmington, N.C. Tom Reich Chevrolet had been struggling for years, but Keffer felt he could turn it around, so he approached Tom Reich with a proposal: Keffer would come to work there and each year he would purchase stock. Reich was glad for the management help, and thrilled to have a partner.

     So Keffer packed up and moved to Wilmington with his wife and five children.

In the new dealership, Keffer immediately began making changes. He called the office manager into his office and asked him for sales numbers. The manager informed him that they would be ready by the middle of the month, but Keffer wanted to see the numbers by the third of each month. The manager told him that if he wanted his numbers that fast, he would have to find a new office manager.

     So Keffer did. He approached Hunter with the opportunity. She accepted and packed up and her husband and moved south to accept the new position.

     Thanks to Keffer and Hunter’s management, the Wilmington dealership quickly started turning a profit. But despite and because of their success there, Wilmington was not to be a final destination for Keffer or Hunter.

     As profits continued to increase, Reich, still the dealership’s majority owner, became increasingly aware of the potential of the operation. One day he called Keffer into his office.

     He looked uncomfortable as he broke the news: Now that the dealership was turning a profit, he no longer wanted to sell more stock. He expressed regret and said he hoped Keffer wouldn’t hate him for the decision.

     Keffer pauses in his retelling of the story, recalling the bitter disappointment. He hitches his hands into his belt loops, and gazes into the distance.

     “Well,” he said to Reich, “I certainly am disappointed. But I don’t hate anyone and I guess you have your reasons. I hope you’ll understand that I’m going to have to look for another dealership opportunity.”

     So in 1974, Keffer set his sites on Charlotte, a growing city that he was sure would offer an opportunity, and packed his family off again.

     Hunter shared his confidence. Keffer told her that as soon as he had his dealership, she would be hearing from him. And it was just three months later that she did, packing up her family and following him to Charlotte.


Getting a Lift; Giving a Lift

     The city lived up to its promise. In Charlotte, Keffer met Charles Johnson who became his business mentor and taught him the value of remaining behind the scenes and working quietly for the good of the company, employees and community.

     Johnson also funded Keffer’s purchase of a dealership, allowing Keffer to pay him back gradually out of the profits of the business.

     Keffer immediately welcomed Hunter into the dealership and within a few years, she had earned her way to the presidency, where she has continued leading the company ever since.

     From the arteries of Independence Boulevard and Tyvola Road, Dick Keffer Pontiac and Dick Keffer Automotive are now Charlotte icons. Keffer chairs Keffer Management Co., LLC, with involvement in 12 automobile dealerships, an aviation company, plus a Charlotte Douglas Airport operation.

     All are known for quality and outstanding service, as one might expect from a company run by a man like Keffer, who has spent his entire career looking for opportunities to boost other people.

     Keffer’s philosophy, and philanthropy, is unique—he seeks out promising individuals to train within his organization, and then helps them get set up in their own businesses. The process begins with identifying high-performing individuals within the company and gradually promoting them through the ranks. When he sees that they are ready, he helps them locate potential ownership opportunities.

     Then, he purchases the dealership and puts them in charge, with the option to buy him out of the business gradually from profits.

     Hunter says Keffer Management is unique in not being a consolidator but a finder of stores for managers who share equity as principals.

     “We have had as many as 25 dealerships in the portfolio, but sheer growth is not our basic goal as much as profitable management. We do get a lot of phone calls, that’s for sure,” she says.

     Over the years, Keffer has set up 10 individuals in this manner, with 10 others currently in process. In the same way, he started two of his own sons, who now own and operate dealerships in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

     “They are doing so well; I am really proud of them,” Keffer exclaims.

Keffer says that some dealers see this activity as a form of abetting the competition. Rather than train new owners, they might purchase multiple dealerships and hang on them. Keffer says that’s a fine way of doing business, but for him it’s more important to help others reach their potential.

     Unfortunately, for all the success Keffer has seen in this community, he has seen his share of sorrows too. He doesn’t worry too much about the economy—he has seen it go up and down enough times to know how to get through it. But the collapse of General Motors was a blow.

     “It crushed me,” he says, shaking his head. “I thought they had more money than God. I thought that could never happen.”

     One of his dealerships, where he was training a manager to take over, was pulled by GM. Keffer knew the dealership was underperforming, but he wanted to give the manager more time and opportunity to prove himself—time that GM didn’t have to offer.


Giving Wings—and Wheels—to Dreams

     Despite the sorrows and challenges, Keffer has never stopped reaching out into the community and looking for opportunities to help people. One of his best-known successes is the annual Beach Blast for underprivileged middle school children, organized through the Charlotte South Rotary Club and funded by Keffer.

     Inspiration for the program came to him more than a decade ago while on a family vacation. He and his wife and children had watched a rickety school bus pull up, and a group of children descend upon the beach. It quickly became clear that these children, who lived 50 miles away, had never seen the ocean.

     “Their eyes were as big as saucers,” he remembers. “I thought, ’Holy cow! There must be a hundred thousand children in Charlotte who have never seen the beach!’”

     For two years, he organized and coordinated and overcame obstacles and with the help of the Charlotte South Rotary Club and several individuals, creating a program that takes more than 500 underprivileged children to the beach every summer. The total number of children served by the program now exceeds 12,000 over the last 20 years.

     Keffer says he has watched every single one of those children get off the bus at the beach for the first time. “Their eyes just pop out of their heads,” he says. “The want to know everything: ‘How big is this pond? Why can’t we see England or the coast of Africa?’”

     “Monday morning, they inundate their teachers with questions,” says Keffer, understated joy emphasizing his words. “‘Show us where we were on the map! Show us the cities we went through! Tell us more about jellyfish!’ Some of these kids were bumps on a log in class, and now they are asking questions.”

     Although Beach Blast is one of Keffer’s favorite accomplishments, it is only one of the remarkable thing he has done. He originated Give Kids the World, a program that takes terminally ill children to Orlando for a week. He funds scholarships for children in the Beach Blast program who complete high school. He has received the Silver Beaver Award from the Boy Scouts of America as well as a Lifetime Service Award from NCADA, and donates the use of his personal aircraft to fly terminally ill children to a Wings of Hope hospital.

     When asked what he will be doing next, Keffer pauses for a moment. “Well, I’m 78 years old,” he says. “Some people would say that if I had any sense, I would retire and stay at my home in Florida. But I enjoy what I’m doing. If I didn’t have this, what would I do with myself?”

     Keffer’s main dealership on Independence is currently upgrading from an older showroom to a brand new 36,000-square-foot facility, and he expects corresponding sales growth in the next few years. Beyond that, whatever Keffer does next, it’s almost certain to benefit a lot of people.

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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