Remembering Wayne Huizenga

March 23, 2018

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This story originally appeared in Automotive News courtesy of Amy Wilson

Wayne Huizenga, who transformed the auto-retailing landscape in the U.S. when he founded the company that became AutoNation Inc., died Thursday at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after a long battle with cancer. He was 80.

Huizenga wasn’t a car dealer but he saw an opportunity to consolidate the retail business when he launched AutoNation as a used-car superstore chain in 1996 to compete with CarMax. Today, AutoNation is the country’s largest new-car retailer and the biggest of the public dealership groups formed during that era.

“We would not be the company we are today without the spirit, drive, energy, and vision he gave us. Wayne is at the very core of our culture,” AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson said in a statement Friday. “To me personally, today, I lost both my mentor and my best friend.”

Wayne Huizenga (left) with current AutoNation President and CEO Mike Jackson (right)

An entrepreneur who started his career owning a single garbage truck in Chicago, Huizenga built his empire by consolidating multiple industries. Trash hauling and video rental came first with Waste Management Inc. and Blockbuster Video. In those industries, he acquired mom-and-pop operations until he became the dominant player. He became a billionaire, running the companies out of South Florida.

After resigning from Waste Management as CEO in 1984, he bought Blockbuster in 1986 with some partners for a $25,000 investment and expanded it from 19 video stores to 3,700 outlets with annual revenue of $4 billion, making it the leading movie-rental company in the U.S. Huizenga sold his stake in 1994 to Viacom Inc. for $8.4 billion, 16 years before Blockbuster went bankrupt in the dawn of the Netflix era.

A plain-spoken man with piercing eyes and a knack for quiet persuasion, Huizenga used proceeds from the Blockbuster sale to begin targeting the light-vehicle market.

“You just have to be in the right place at the right time. It can only happen in America.” -Wayne Huizenga

Huizenga using noted comedian and car buff Jay Leno as a tee

Harry Wayne Huizenga was born on Dec. 29, 1937, in Evergreen Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, to Gerrit and Jean Huizenga. His father made his fortune in the construction business and moved his family to Fort Lauderdale in 1954. Huizenga was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church and attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., but left in 1958 before graduating. He joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 1959.

In automotive retail, Huizenga initially focused on opening huge used-car megastores. AutoNation USA featured huge lots with hundreds of late-model used cars. The signs were painted green, designed to look like the signs on U.S. interstate highways. The last AutoNation USA used-car megastore closed in 1999.

An AutoNation megastore

Huizenga quickly realized that more money could be made buying new-car dealerships. He switched gears and began making deals to acquire family-owned dealership groups.

“I think all dealers have a secret desire of what they want to do in their market,” he once told Automotive News. “Our capital will give them the tools to make some of those things happen.”

Peter Welch, president and CEO of the National Automobile Dealers Association, called Huizenga a pioneer in the dealer business.

“He really forged forward with the public-ownership model with Republic Industries, and then, of course, created the AutoNation empire and funded it and really took the dealership model to a different level,” Welch said Friday. “He was the first really out of the gate, and of course, they have been joined by a number of others.”

In 2006, when Huizenga was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, Sheldon Sandler of Bel Air Partners, an auto retailing consulting firm in Hopewell, N.J., called him the “Babe Ruth of auto retailing.”

Wayne Huizenga was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2006

“He did it in an ingenious way by collecting a tremendous number of assets for no money, just for stock,” Sandler said. “That changed everyone’s notion of how car dealerships could be valued.”

Today, AutoNation has returned to the idea on which Huizenga founded the company: standalone used-car stores to compete with rival CarMax. Jackson announced in late 2016 that AutoNation would open a series of used-car stores, smaller than those original megastores, beginning in 2017.

Bloomberg contributed to this report.

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