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MailTribune.com
  • The Drive To Succeed

  • There came a moment when Sid DeBoer took a long look in the mirror.
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  • There came a moment when Sid DeBoer took a long look in the mirror.
    He already was running a successful group of car dealerships, producing $100 million in sales and easily surpassing what anyone else in the Rogue Valley had ever done in the auto industry.
    But there he was in a San Francisco hotel, pondering the fate of Lithia Motors, which he had acquired from his mother for $60,000 decades earlier after his father died in an accident.
    It was December 1996. DeBoer and longtime partner Dick Heimann had spent the previous two weeks flying coach class to 22 cities, making 54 presentations to potential investors across the country.
    Accompanied by two representatives from Furman Selz, the New York investment bank, the pair was on the go from 5 a.m. to midnight during the whirlwind tour.
    Now, they were near the end of their journey, working money managers from Fidelity Investments.
    "We were trying to get $14 a share, and they said, 'We'll take 500,000 shares at 11 bucks and we won't pay any more,' " DeBoer says. "We were selling 2.5 million shares and didn't have enough orders at a higher price to complete the offering unless we came down to $11."
    It was essentially the difference between getting $35 million and $28 million, he says.
    "I asked if I could bargain, and they said no, it was take that or no deal."
    So DeBoer and Heimann did what anyone would do at the moment of decision. They stepped into the men's room.
    "We needed a minute to talk," DeBoer recalls. "I said, 'Dick, what should we do?' and he said, 'Don't ask me, this was all your idea.' "
    As DeBoer stared into the looking glass, he faced a crossroads for the company.
    "As I looked in the mirror, I realized I won't ever have another chance to do this," DeBoer says. "We really had no business doing this because our business was too small. It was only a dream.
    "We went back into the room and said, 'Let's get it done.' "
    The deal ignited something big — here in the Rogue Valley and across more than a dozen Western states — as Lithia began a 10-year growth spurt, becoming the nation's eighth-largest auto retailer for a while before retrenching during the Great Recession. It has since boosted its store total to 87 in 11 states.
    More than a decade before that day in San Francisco, DeBoer had been in Chicago at a J.D. Power and Associates conference when he heard consolidation was coming to the car-sales industry and public equity investment would be as big a part as private investment.
    "I came home and started laying plans so we would be ready when the market opened up," DeBoer says. "I saw it as a great way to grow the business without debt as a primary source of funds."
    In the summer of 1996, DeBoer got wind that an Amarillo, Texas, auto dealer about the size of Lithia was going public.
    The time had come to try something bold. But DeBoer's vision wasn't to simply see how big of an enterprise he could build. He wanted a company that would provide opportunities for its managers and their families.
    "Going forward in life, Sid needed a method to offer something to his children, my family and others to have more opportunity," Heimann says. "I had a lot of confidence in Sid's vision. He made the contact with fund managers and investment houses."
    By going public, Lithia had funds to trigger quick expansion.
    "In order to grow the business exponentially, we couldn't do it by going to the bank and borrowing money and signing our name," Heimann says. "You needed an outlet to get funds at competitive rates and not always on a short-term repayment schedule that could hurt you in a downturn. No matter how good things go, downturns are on the horizon for one reason or another ... and we didn't want to get caught in the swell."
    Last May, DeBoer turned over his day-to-day duties as Lithia's CEO to his son Bryan, but he remains chairman of the board for the firm with 5,000 employees, including 600 in the Rogue Valley.
    "In today's world, you couldn't do what we did with five dealerships at the time," Heimann says. "The window of opportunity was there with Furman Selz, and they believed in us."
    Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.
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