When crunch time hit the domestic auto industry in 2008 and 2009, dealer Mark Wilde and his partners at Wilde Automotive Group relied on the basic principles that founder Harold Wilde had instilled in them.

In 2009, as much of the domestic industry crashed, the group constructed an all-new facility for its Chrysler-brand franchises in its base city of Waukesha, WI, in the Milwaukee market.

“We were positioned to deal with challenging times and could grow, rather than doing damage control in hard times,” says Pat Donahue, Wilde’s managing partner in Wisconsin.

CEO Mark Wilde, son of Harold Wilde, points to several factors that kept the family legacy and philosophy alive in its Florida and Wisconsin operations. A key was to extend his father’s single-dealership boilerplate to group operations.

Each franchise has its own autonomy and corporate structure within the group. Store managers report to company executives.

“We are blessed to have a wonderful team,” says Mark Wilde, adding that employee satisfaction leads to customer satisfaction.

“The way we conduct our daily business has been the same since the very beginning,” he says, citing customer satisfaction, community involvement, strong values and a commitment to excellence.

“Hard work, perseverance and doing the right thing were major elements in my father’s life and continue to influence our dealerships today.”

Wilde Automotive consists of 12 franchises in Florida and Wisconsin. The group is No.47 on this year’s Ward’s Megadealer 100, with retail sales of 8,930 new and 15,268 used vehicles. Total revenues were $519.6 million last year.

The group operates Wilde Toyota Scion in West Allis, WI, (No.44 on the Ward’s Dealer 500 listing of individual top stores); Wilde Honda (No.109 on the Ward’s 500); Wilde Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler, Ram; and Wilde Subaru, all in Waukesha.

Wilde also has Honda, Lexus and Jaguar dealerships in Sarasota, FL. A new Honda franchise will open in Madison, WI, in 2012.

Mark Wilde oversees the operation with managing partners Dean Palmer, Sharon Bloom and Donahue.

Early in 2000, Wilde Automotive Group set its current business plan and has adhered to it, Donahue says. “We are accused of having a crystal ball. We vowed long ago to focus on the best brands that rounded us out as a dealer group and make them the best they could be.”

He says the company follows a continuing policy of not just adding franchises for the sake of expanding. The goal is to build franchises with the biggest potential into marketplace standouts.

Even after a rocky period for domestics facing economic meltdowns, import brands affected by Japan’s disastrous earthquake and product recalls that plagued Toyota last year, the Wilde group steadily managed its way around adversity.

In 2008 and 2009, at the height of Chrysler’s downhill slide, the group still showed profits.

Revenues were up 5% in the onerous auto-industry year of 2009, and the group saw similar increases in 2010, says Bloom, vice president and chief financial officer. Even in 2008, another horrible economic year, the group saw a 1% increase.

The group is proud that a lot boy can move up in the ranks to sales manager, or that a showroom salesman and a clerk can become partners in the organization. Bloom and Donahue are examples of that.

Bloom started as a part-time accounting clerk and receptionist in 1977. That same year, Donahue joined the group in sales. Bloom, after earning a degree, moved up through the accounting group to her current position. Donahue now is vice president-sales.

Both partners say they learned the art of managing and delegating from the master, Harold Wilde, himself.

Harold Wilde began Wilde Automotive as a used-car dealer in Muskegon, MI, in 1944, after serving as a World War II pilot.

In 1966, General Motors, after taking notice of his sales performance, tapped him to start a Pontiac new-car franchise in the Milwaukee market. He relocated there with his family.

Wilde’s motto was, “As used cars go, so go new cars.” The partners believe that practice applies more than four decades later.

“If you can take a trade-in you should be able to earn that customer's new-car business,” Donahue says. “We’re the largest certified Honda and Toyota dealers in the Midwest and in the top 10 ranking in the nation.”

He describes the business as “a new-car operation that has the benefit of used-car performance” as one of its pillars.

In 1971, Harold Wilde acquired a Honda franchise in Waukesha, WI. He earned a second Honda franchise in 1974 in Sarasota, FL.

Those two acquisitions positioned Wilde’s dealer group on the track to success. In 1977, Wilde was awarded a Toyota franchise in a Milwaukee suburb.

Today, Wilde Honda in Waukesha is the largest-volume Honda dealer in Wisconsin, and Wilde Toyota-Scion is Wisconsin’s largest-volume Toyota dealer, testifying to the group’s import expertise.

In 1984, Wilde purchased the Dodge franchise in Waukesha, WI, which put Wilde Automotive into the fullsize truck game so important to the Midwest market, managers say. Other Chrysler brands came later.

In 1992, Wilde Lexus of Sarasota opened, followed by a Jaguar point in 1994. Harold Wilde died in 1998, but his legacy and philosophies are alive today in all Wilde dealerships.

This year, Wilde Automotive, with managing partner Jorge Hildalgo, was awarded an all-new Honda point in Madison. The group expects to open the new facility in 2012. Hildalgo formerly was production chief for the Harley-Davidson plant in York, PA.

During the major credit crunch of 2008-2009 in financing, Wilde did not see its credit dry up like many other dealers and customers did. Donahue points to group benefiting from established relationships with lending firms.

“For that reason, we kept ahead of it and were acting, not reacting,” he says. He adds, “When hard decisions are called for, we don’t focus only on the short term. We always try to plan for the potential long-term effects of anything we do.”

The partners see good days ahead.

“From a planning standpoint, we try to adapt to a changing environment quickly, being ahead of the curve, or at least on top of it,” Mark Wilde says.

Timeline: Significant Events at Wilde Automotive

  • 1944: Harold Wilde opens used-car dealership in Muskegon, MI.
  • 1966: GM’s Pontiac division offers Harold Wilde a new-car point in Waukesha, WI, which he accepts.
  • 2009: Wilde acquires Subaru operation in Waukesha.
  • 2010: New Honda point awarded in Madison. The store is slated to open next year.
  • 1971: Honda franchise opens in Waukesha.
  • 1974: Honda franchise is awarded in Sarasota, FL.
  • 1977: Toyota franchise added to Wisconsin operations.
  • 1984: Dodge franchise opens in Wisconsin.
  • 1992: Lexus brand awarded to Sarasota operations.
  • 1994: Jaguar franchise awarded in Sarasota.
  • 2003: Chrysler brand added in Waukesha.
  • 2007: Jeep franchise opens in Waukesha.