By Julie Lyons
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]nother local car dealer had gone belly-up in 1991, and a broker was selling off the pieces. But the Isuzu franchise, with rights to sell the popular Rodeo and Trooper SUVs, had already been promised to another dealer, so the broker offered Huffines the Hyundai franchise instead. Ray Huffines was not impressed. It wasn’t too long ago that the South Korean automaker was the target of jokes on Letterman because of its notoriously unreliable Excels.
“I wasn’t too excited,” Huffines recalls, “but we took it. Hyundai wasn’t that successful then—it had a rough start in the United States. But it got better and better and better.”
If you know anything about cars, you know what came next. Hyundai endured a few tough years, but its sales eventually rocketed—it is now one of the most admired companies in the world–and today, Huffines sells more Hyundais than any other brand.
As for Isuzu, it stopped selling vehicles altogether in the United States in 2008.
Ray Huffines is honest—and humble—enough to admit that his acquisition of the Hyundai franchise wasn’t a result of his smarts or ability to see into the future. He puts it all on God, expressing bafflement and gratitude for how much he has been blessed.
“The older I get and the more I learn about God’s way, the more I become convinced—I’m not in control of much of anything,” Huffines says. “I can’t help but recognize how blessed I am.”
Huffines, 60, sat down at his Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram dealership in Plano and talked to MannaEXPRESS about his Christian faith as well as a business success story that started in 1924, when Huffines’ grandfather, J.L. Huffines, Sr., opened a car dealership in Denton, Texas.
When U.S. car sales hit the skids during the Great Depression, starting in 1929, old advertisements show that Huffines accepted livestock and feed as trade for vehicles. Huffines weathered the worldwide crisis, though, and was succeeded in the auto business by his son, who branched out into banking and cattle ranching.
The Huffines brand started to take off in 1984, when Ray opened his first dealership—Ray Huffines Chevrolet in Plano. But Ray has had to endure his own trials. In fall 2008, car sales plummeted all over the United States amidst the lending crisis. Huffines calls it the “crash of ’08.” Numerous area dealers went under or had their franchises canceled by struggling American automakers GM and Chrysler, but Huffines survived. In recent years, his eight dealerships have been selling new and used cars nearly 2,000 from the previous years.
Huffines says he has operated on a bedrock principle: Treat the customer as you would want to be treated. Scripture echoes that standard—which Ray Huffines describes simply as “good business”—and MannaEXPRESS discovered that the dealer consciously applies Christian principles to his business as well as his life.
Tell me about your story with the Huffines dealerships. Did your father and grandfather start you out early in the business?
Yes, they did. My grandfather had the Chevrolet dealership in Lewisville, and my dad had the Chevrolet-Pontiac-Buick dealership in Commerce [Texas]. As soon as I got my driver’s license at 15, I drove to Commerce [15 miles from Greenville, Texas, where his family lived] every day during the summer to work in the dealership. I started off in the service area as a mechanic’s helper.
Wow—you really started from the ground up. They didn’t just put you in the boardroom.
Oh, no. I earned minimum wage, $1.60 an hour, and then I worked a summer in the parts department. I was stocking parts or pulling parts for technicians or driving the parts pickup. And there were other jobs even before that.
Was it always your father’s design to involve you in the dealership business?
I don’t ever remember him putting any pressure or expectations on us to follow him in the car business, but I enjoyed the car business. I was drawn to it, but my three brothers weren’t, and they all went in different directions.
Tell me about your Christian faith. When did you become a believer?
I grew up in the church, but I didn’t really have a personal relationship with Christ until I was 31 years old. I was out of college, working in my dad’s dealership in Lewisville. I was attending church [in Dallas], and I really noticed a difference about these people. They seemed much more sincere, more interested in others.
But if we’re really gonna get specific about all this, it was a young lady from a different church who took an interest in me, and we dated, and she gave me a gentle confrontation: ‘When did you become a Christian?’ ‘Well, I don’t know. I’ve just always been one.’ And I knew that wasn’t really the answer she was looking for, but I didn’t have a better answer.
So I started asking myself some questions. I really couldn’t rest well—it was on my mind for days. I finally decided that God’s plan for life had to be better than my plan, because He’s God, and I’m not. It was scary. But I decided that I would trust God, and since I wasn’t sleeping well, I got out of bed and got on my knees and prayed out loud and just asked God to come in and take over my life. And pretty soon, I started noticing some changes. Like, I had power to resist temptation that I hadn’t had before. I had a desire to read the Bible. These changes started getting more and more evident, and then things started making sense—this whole business about Christ dying on the cross for my sins.
Are you satisfied with your life today?
Yeah! I am very blessed in my life in so many ways, but I still want to grow in my faith. I don’t want to become complacent about my walk with the Lord. But I can’t help but recognize how blessed I am.
Why do you think God has blessed you so much?
[Laughs.] You know, that’s an interesting question. I don’t presume to know why and how God chooses, how He works in people’s lives. I know Christians that have heartaches and sufferings and difficult issues, so I can’t in any way say that it’s their fault. So I don’t know exactly why God has chosen to bless me. I certainly want to honor Him and follow His principles that are laid out in the Scriptures. And I think that Proverbs, for example, if people follow Proverbs, their lives will work a lot better whether they’re a believer or not.
What are some of your favorite verses in Proverbs—the ones that have impacted your life?
Oooh, man. Obviously 3:5, 6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” It’s just practical living. So many aspects of life—parenting, finances. There’s a whole lot in the Bible about finances, though it’s a stumbling block for a lot of people.
How have you incorporated your faith into this business?
I certainly want to honor God. I believe that everything belongs to God—I don’t own anything. And I want to be a good steward of what He has put into my area of influence. It’s not mine, so that’s the first thing—that I have a mindset and a belief that it all belongs to God. And I want to treat people in a way that honors God and would draw people closer to Him.
Also, we want to operate with the highest integrity—that’s very important. I tell people as I interview managers, we’re in business, and business has to make money. And we do evaluate our progress based on financial results. However, when it comes down to it, our reputation is worth more to us than money. “A good name is more desirable than great riches…” [Proverbs 22:1.] I feel like I have been handed an excellent reputation by my grandfather and father, and I want to do everything I can to protect it and even enhance that reputation. I want our team members to know that money and profits are not the most important thing to us in this company.
What do you think the Huffines brand stands for in this region?
That is a good question. We do want to stand for honesty, integrity, stability. Another thing I say to our people is that we could do things that could make us more money in the short term but could harm us in the long term, so we want to make our decisions on what is best for the long term. That’s one reason we’ve been around for nearly 89 years. Being a locally owned family business does separate us from some of the competition that are publicly owned, and there are more dealerships now that are publicly owned. For those companies that are publicly owned, if there is an issue that arises, you really can’t talk to the owner. But I am available to people who have an issue, and we’re very interested in resolving any issues.
You can’t run and hide. You live here.
That’s right. I’m visible, and my reputation is worth a lot. We don’t have to answer to stockholders for quarterly earnings, so we do and can focus on our reputation more so than public companies can.
How did you survive the economic crash of 2008? You told Dealer magazine that you were fortunate not to have an Oldsmobile or Pontiac dealership, but even without those brands, there were some tough moments for GM and Chrysler dealers [which both went into bankruptcy as part of a U.S. government bailout].
There were some stressful times—I call it the crash of ’08. We felt the effects of that immediately—our sales dropped off. They did at all dealers. So yeah, that definitely made us have to focus, and what are we gonna do? So obviously prayer—intensive prayer.