Iowa dealer Jason Willis on his group’s recent acquisition, electric cars, and protecting franchise rights

Willis Automotive has been operating out of Iowa for 75 years, and this year, they expanded by acquiring the only Nissan dealership in the Des Moines area. Today on Inside Automotive, we’re joined by Jason Willis, CEO of Willis Automotive and Chairman of the MINI National Dealer Council, to tell us more about his operation in Iowa and the strategies working for his group today.

As of filming this interview, Willis Automotive has around 500 employees and represents nine new car franchises, including brands like Cadillac, Infiniti, Jaguar, Land Rover, MINI, Lexus, Volvo, Chevrolet, and Nissan. The group also owns two pre-owned outlets and three large tire stores.

Willis AutomotiveIn May of this year, Willis Automotive completed its acquisition of Hummel’s Nissan, and Willis says he is excited to add the brand to his group’s portfolio. As the group grows, it is vital to find dealerships with similar or matching company cultures. Willis considered several different stores owned by the Hummel family, but the Nissan dealership stuck out. He says the Hummel organization is full of great people and very involved in the Des Moines community.

Willis Automotive is still battling the same challenges facing many other car dealers, however. Typically, over the last few months, four out of nine brands at Willis have started the month with zero new cars on the ground. In his opinion, the ideal supply would be between 30 and 45 days. But Willis adds that the dealer-customer experience is better than ever. Guests now view Willis Automotive as a partner and the car buying process has become much cleaner due to less price haggling.

Regarding the growing EV market, Willis says his group is in a unique situation in Des Moines, a community of 800,000 people. Between the capital and the next major city is about a two and a half to three-hour drive. So, range anxiety is a very real problem in the region. While there has been an adaptation to electrification in the Des Moines metro area, Willis believes that plug-in hybrid vehicles provide better mobility to midwest consumers in the short term. However, Willis is excited for the future ahead. His dealer group is equipped with the necessary infrastructure and his employees are completing the training required to service and sell EVs.

The major threat to franchise car dealers, from Willis’ perspective, is OEM lead direct-to-consumer sales or ‘agency models.’ It is one of the core reasons why Willis is so active with the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association.

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“We want to be at the forefront of protecting dealers’ rights,” says Willis. “We also feel that the consumer really enjoys that touchpoint of the dealer…We believe we are the long-term solution for buying cars even into the future.”

Consumers do want the option to purchase a vehicle at home, and Willis Automotive certainly provides that opportunity. But for the majority of his guests, the importance of the dealer is significant.

To hear more from Jason Willis, watch our entire interview above.

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