John Prince is the moving force behind a successful Prince Automotive Group, which has nine franchises in four south Georgia cities, including Albany. (Outlook 2013)
TIFTON — John Prince promised his wife B.J. that he’d cut back on the time he spends at work this year. Cutting back for John Prince, though, is not the same as it is for most people.
“I told B.J. I’d only spend 40 hours a week at work this year rather than 50,” Prince, who will turn 71 in April but looks at least a decade younger, said. “I told her I’d go down to 30 the following year, but we’ll have to see. It’s hard for me not to be here; this is my home away from home.”
Prince’s “second home” is quite an extensive one. As mastermind of the highly successful Prince Automotive Group, which has nine franchises in Albany, Tifton, Valdosta and Douglas, the winner of the coveted Time Magazine Quality Dealer and the Georgia Family Business of the Year awards hasn’t even considered slowing down.
In fact, Prince had four extensive building projects going on as he sat down to talk with The Albany Herald shortly after the new year: a state-of-the-art new Toyota dealership in Tifton that opened in January, a new showroom for his Chevy/Buick/Cadillac/GMC superstore in Albany/Lee County that is in the early stages of construction, a new building for his second-oldest dealership in Valdosta, and a remodeling project on Prince’s corporate offices in Tifton.
Of course, B.J. Prince might point out, there’s also the time that her husband spends as president of the Tifton/Tift County Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Tift County Hospital Authority, the local United Way chapter, the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College Foundation Board, First Community Bank and the Community Foundation of South Georgia.
Prince also chairs the Georgia Automobile Dealers Self-Insured Workers Compensation Fund Board and the Georgia Automobile Dealers Insurance Co.
“I don’t like tooting my own horn; these are just things that are very important to me,” Prince said. “I take pride in everything I do, and no matter what I’m involved in I want it to be the best.”
Prince, who can still be seen walking the lots at his dealerships and even making a few sales on occasion, came by the work ethic that defines him honestly. His father, J.B. Prince Jr., was a man who’d “work the stew out of you.”
“I played all the sports in high school, and I’d go back to school in shape because I dumped 250-pound sheets of tobacco all day in the summer,” Prince said. “I’d get up at 4:30 in the morning and castrate and vaccinate 100 head of hogs before breakfast. My dad believed in working for what you get.
“My mother (Marie Gaskins Prince) mowed her own grass into her 90s. When she was 89, she called me and told me she was trading her lawn mower for a John Deere. She told me the Deere would last longer.”
J.B. Prince Jr. and his brother E.E. Prince opened car dealerships in Loris, S.C., where the Prince family lived, and seven miles away in Tabor City, N.C., in the late 1930s. When John III decided to study agronomy in college, his father told him he could attend in-state Clemson or the University of Georgia in Athens.
“He said the University of South Carolina was too big a party school,” Prince said.
The elder Prince died of complications from leukemia in 1963 at age 48, and his son decided to change his major to business. (“I was the only person at Georgia who graduated with vertebrate and invertebrate zoology and organic and inorganic chemistry as electives,” he jokes.)
Prince returned to Loris and realized he needed to get involved in the family business. So, at the ripe old age of 22, he applied the same work ethic to learning everything about the dealership that his father had taught him as a young man. He soon realized, though, that there was a not insignificant catch.
“My uncle owned 50 percent of the business, but he was by that time pretty much a philanthropist,” Prince said. “He even ran for the U.S. Senate against Strom Thurmond. But he spent less and less time at the car dealership.
“My mom owned 25 percent of the dealership, and the other 25 percent was split between myself and my two sisters. So I was the only one working, and I was getting only 8 percent of the dealership. My mom moved back to Berrien County (Georgia) after my dad died — she grew up there — and I convinced her to sell our part of the dealership.”
Prince came to Georgia with a mission.
“I was 23 years old, and all I had was a business card,” he said. “I went to all the car dealerships in the area, gave them one of my cards and told them to get in touch with me if they wanted to sell.”
Six months after his move to South Georgia, Jack Burkhalter contacted Prince. Burkhalter told the young businessman that, based on his mother’s reputation, he would sell him his Chevrolet dealership in Tifton. Part of the deal was that Prince would own 75 percent of the dealership, Burkhalter 25 percent.
“Mr. Burkhalter passed away two years later in an auto accident,” Prince said. “One of the things I’m proudest of is that I paid his wife more for the 25 percent of the dealership two years later than I’d paid him for the 75 percent originally.”
Prince’s emphasis on hard work and customer service made him an instant hit in Tifton, and he soon settled into a comfortable life. He watched his kids — Heather, Heidi and John IV (“Jay”), all of whom now work at Prince Automotive — play sports at Tiftarea Academy in Chula and worked on his golf game.
But as the turn of the century approached, Prince decided the time had come to expand his business interests. He made a move into Valdosta, installing Jay Prince, who was at the time a CPA in Atlanta, as general manager. Not long after, he moved into Douglas and later Albany. He now has Toyota, Honda, Chevrolet and Volvo heavy truck dealerships in Tifton; Chevrolet, Toyota, Honda and Volvo dealerships in Valdosta and Douglas; and the Chevy, Buick, Cadillac and GMC store in Albany.
“Except for the Cadillac dealership in Albany, I don’t really carry luxury lines,” Prince said. “I’ve always believed that the markets I want to be in are the ones where working people shop. There’s little volume in luxury cars in South Georgia.
“For me, it’s always been about market share. I want to be the market leader in whatever community I’m in. If you get 25 or 33 percent of the market, that means one of every four or one of every three cars in that market is yours. I tell my mechanics: ‘Who do you want to work for, someone else or the dealership that’s going to put one of every three or four cars on the road?’”
Prince Automotive currently has 190 employees and has had as many as 222. Prince said he’s looking for a specific kind of person when he brings on new hires.
“I want people who are honest, people who have integrity, people who have a burning desire to succeed,” he said. “I believe you hire people, train, train like hell and get them in a position they need to be in.
“We had a kid that came over here from Albany Tech who has the kind of desire I’m talking about. He was hired as part of our maintenance team, washing cars mostly, but he was always looking to make improvements. He’d come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Prince, I noticed you have bugs on your car, so if you’ll give me the keys I’ll clean them off.’ He’s since moved onto our sales team.”
The Prince family certainly earned the state Family Business of the Year award it collected in 2004. B.J. Prince heads up Prince Automotive’s rental and leasing systems; Heather Stripling is the Tifton Honda dealership general manager and secretary of the corporation (“She signs every check that goes out of here,” her father says.), and her husband, John, is a sales manager.
Heidi Massey is in charge of the company’s PR and marketing, and Jay Prince is Prince Valdosta’s GM. His wife, Suzan, is customer relations manager at the Valdosta dealership.
In addition to its numerous other awards, Prince Automotive has for the past two years been among the top 100 fastest-growing companies owned by UGA alumni. The automotive giant came in at No. 44 in 2012 and at No. 51 last year. Even those impressive numbers bring out the competitiveness in Prince.
“The top 10 businesses on the list grew by 110 percent,” he said. “But the criteria is that these are alumni businesses that have $100,000 a year in gross receipts. It’s a little easier to grow when you’re making $100,000 than when you have receipts of $100 million.”
Yes, John Prince is — at his wife’s strong suggestion — allegedly going to slow down and spend more time taking life easy starting this year. Those who know him best, though, will believe it when they see it.
It’s like the bank official who, back in 1968 when Prince was still getting his Tifton dealership established, came to the businessman and told him he wanted Prince on his board of directors. Informed that requirements were that he own 100 shares of stock in the bank, Prince admitted that he didn’t have the $5,000 needed to purchase the $50 stock.
That bank president decided to loan Prince the money on a “feeling.” A few years later, Prince was the bank’s largest shareholder.