Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Power list interview: How Don Flow’s unconventional education path helped him build an auto empire

Flow Automotive CEO Don Flow joined High Point University President Nido Qubein in the
Power List interview, a partnership for discussions with influential leaders. BNC’s annual Power List publication spotlights the state’s powerbrokers.

Don Flow is CEO of Flow Automotive, a dealership business formed by his father in 1957 and now operating more than 50 automobile dealerships in North Carolina and Virginia. He’s active in many economic development efforts in Winston-Salem and statewide, including board leadership roles at the Piedmont Triad Partnership, Wake Forest University, Atrium Health and the Golden LEAF Foundation. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, a diploma from Regents College and an MBA from Wake Forest. He and his wife, Robbin, have three adult children.

This story includes excerpts from Flow’s interview and was edited for clarity.


Why did you attend a theological-oriented college in Canada as an undergraduate?

Before I went into the business, I wanted to have my faith grounded in more biblical theology to be able to reflect upon the impact of business on society. How do I want to go about doing business and what role I might play in that? What is going to frame my character personally and how do I think about the nature of business in society? 

Regents College was started with the idea that most people know more about their discipline than their faith, and their faith has little impact on their life. I particularly wanted to think about the role of business in society and what role might I play in that.

After that, I was thinking about going to law school. Dad said, “Would you like to come back and join me?” I said yes with a couple of conditions. He said you aren’t in a position to give me conditions.

I said I wanted to work all of the jobs in the dealership. I wanted to feel the dynamics of business itself. Then I’d go back to graduate business school and come back and become a partner in the business. Of course, that meant I borrowed money and worked really hard to pay it off.

He loved that model: A crazy son who went to work all of the time.

What have been the keys to Flow Automotive’s growth?

It began with a clear vision of the kind of business we want to have. It was grounded in how we are going to treat our customers. We call that our covenant with customers, which involves trust. That means starting with every single process and how we sold cars, serviced cars, everything along the way.

Second, we called it a community with one another, organized for a purpose. So we really invested in our people. The last, we called it being committed to the common good of the communities where we do business.

Those would be the three platforms on which we did everything.

I’m not a public company, so I can choose to invest in the way I want to invest. So we paid for college education for each of our employees’ children. We pay $3,000 a year, which primarily covers all of their community college expenses. That was our goal to get all of the children to go to community college, and we augment it some if they go to a four-year college.

We have nurses and family counselors on staff because many people in the blue-collar world do not have access to medical care.

We believe businesses exist within an ecosystem of a community. We think in terms of capitalism as sitting inside of social capital, intellectual capital, aesthetic capital and economic capital. The intersection of all those is how we created our culture.

Why have you been such an advocate for Winston-Salem?

Winston’s history is really remarkable. It’s a history of entrepreneurs, just like High Point. People who started things. Like many cities, at one point we went from a growth mindset to a preservation mindset, where it was about preserving instead of imagining something new.

We need to activate our imaginations. That’s what you did at High Point University, Nido. You helped people imagine something they could not imagine. You can’t do something you can’t imagine.

So in this city, we started a fund to give grants to minority businesses, and then we started a fund for friends and family in the community, people who had never invested before. This founders fund has about four meetings a year, and we have 75 investors who are thinking about investing in startup companies. It’s a great thing for a midsized community.

Why did you buy the former GMAC building to foster entrepreneurship?

It’s 18 stories with 340,000 square feet. I thought we could bring together startups, the universities, private-equity businesses and other parts of the ecosystem. We also have a shared workspace called Flywheel that brings energy in a combined space.

We rebuilt the lobby so we could host events there, along with the top floor for other events. And we’re opening the sixth floor as a place for board meetings and dinners in an inclusive space.

It’s pretty remarkable. We redid the building so that it has a more contemporary look. My daughter who is in the art world helped bring some of the leading contemporary artists from around the world here. Winston has been called the city of arts and innovation, and the question is could we actually do that here. We didn’t just want it to be a marketing slogan but rather the real deal.

What are your leadership traits?

I believe you do things with people and that things get accomplished with others. Institutions matter, and helping them advance their missions is how the world gets better.

Someone in generations before me invested in these institutions, and I have a responsibility to invest myself. I believe it’s important to love your neighbor, love your community, love your state — but what does that actually mean in practice?

It means that if you have certain privileges, it also confers certain responsibilities. How do you use your resources, capacities to improve things, and move the ball down the field in life.

If most of us just move the ball down the field a little bit, we can say we did something with our lives.

My wife says I have a fair amount of energy. I get energized by working with people like you, Nido. During Covid, my wife said, “You need the following: Purpose, people, projects and progress.” I want to do it with people and we have to make progress.

Do the rapid changes facing the automotive industry worry you?

People ask when will you be concerned about the future of the auto business. I say, when I look out my window and see someone flying through the sky without anything on their backs.

That means nothing to sell, nothing to trade, nothing to service, nothing to finance. Everybody is self-propelled. It will be over. It’s time to say goodbye.

But when you are at the center of what gives people mobility, there’s a value creating aspect to that. It’s going to change, it’s going to morph with what happens to internal combustion engines, batteries, ownership. Things will look different along the way.

We can see early what’s happening with the economy because we represent almost every brand of cars. We represent different kinds of markets, in bigger and smaller cities. We track what we are selling. Without question, when you are sitting with interest rates at the level we have now, it has affected payments. So I think the Fed is getting what it wanted.

If we are able to bring interest rates down to the 3% range and sustain it, then rates can come down to their basic relation with inflation, which is a couple hundred basis points above that. The economy can handle that, but it can’t handle 8% and 9% interest rates for the long term.

What else makes you optimistic?

Because we had such supply chain problems in the car business, we had pent up demand in our system. Historically the car business sells 16 million cars a year. We’ve had four years of about 13 million in sales. There is an aging inventory of cars.

Everyone is living longer and they are still buying cars. They aren’t like, “I’m 70 and I’m going away.” They are still active and engaged. Then we’ve got the next generation coming in. For a while, people thought they weren’t going to buy cars. Well, as soon as COVID was over, they started buying cars because they wanted to start going places again.

What will electric vehicles mean for your business?

It’s hard to see what the rate of adoption of electric cars is going to be. At the present we have intense but shallow demand. Now we’re at the pragmatist level. People are asking will it do this or do that and until it does, I don’t want to buy it.

My take is that technology will go slower in its adoption and then it will go fast. At the beginning, everybody will be over-predicting when it will happen and then later, people will think it’s not going to happen and it will happen. It will have some implications. Maintenance repairs will go down in our business, but major battery repairs are big repairs. There’s a lot more electronics and computer software, so the jobs will move from mechanical to computers and software.

Are you pleased with the Triad’s ability to attract new business?

The commitment we’ve made to advanced manufacturing in transportation mobility, including planes and cars, is going to offer dramatic rewards because it creates strong middle class jobs. What’s important for North Carolina is we have to have a full state. Just being the banking center isn’t enough. This creates a whole layer of good jobs which is going to be terrific. Getting that right was very important to me.

What is also important to me is could the Triad be the best place in North Carolina to start and grow a company? Charlotte is going to be an expensive place to start a company. Could that be something we are great at? And what does our workforce need to look like?

I’m a strong believer that a two-year tech degree is a requirement to thrive in our culture of the future. I wish in our counties, if you are a graduate of our public high schools, you could come here and get a technical degree for free.

In the late 1930s, public education in North Carolina ended in the 11th grade. The business leaders got together and said that’s insufficient education for the economy of that time and they required another year of education for people to be ready. So 90 years have passed, and we haven’t felt the world has changed. But people need more education to actually contribute. Imagine if every kid had a chance for a technical degree and a skill that can’t be outsourced anywhere on planet Earth. Plumber, electrician, technician ­— all guarantee a middle class income and they can also go into advanced manufacturing because they will have the skills. Doing something distinctive about our community colleges is just critical for us.

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