Don Hill is a man of common sense and uncommon faith. His name is synonymous with Kingsport, yet he has influenced the lives of people around the world. And as a businessman, as his son Rick says, "he has surrounded himself with good people and gone after the right things."
Don Hill didn't set out in life with ambitions of being one of the country's top automobile dealers, though that's exactly what he's done. Born to Tommy and Hazel Hill in Hayesville, North Carolina and raised in Maryville, Tennessee, Hill lived on his Uncle Frank's farm for a time as a youngster. He spent almost five years in the United States Navy, serving in the Pacific during the Korean War before returning home to take a job as an ironworker. In 1954, he married Jeana Davis — the love of his life — and soon thereafter started a family.
"I had a keen interest in cars," Hill says, "but as far as ever thinking about being in business, I didn't until I started selling cars in Alcoa, Tenn., in January 1955. It was just a job, but I developed a real feel for the business."
The key to that "feel for the business" was the understanding that everything he did was about building relationships. "My business life was influenced quite a bit by the first dealership for which I worked. The owners were Mr. Paul Costner and Mr. Darrell Eagleton. My first boss was sales manager Henry Roberts. All three of those men influenced my life quite a bit, especially my automotive career, because of their philosophy. It was just what we're talking about: relationships and putting that customer first."
"Those men had a profound influence on my dad," Rick says. "I know they did things the right way. They surrounded themselves with quality people. They operated a quality business, took care of their people and put customers first. He learned that from them."
It was during those early years selling in Alcoa, Tenn., that Hill developed the philosophy that one should always treat every customer as if he or she were a guest in one's own home and exceed his or her expectations. "I feel that people want to feel appreciated — whether they're buying a $500 car or a $50,000 car — and so we try to treat them all equally," says Hill.
In the early 1960s Hill caught his first wave of business success by focusing on the trucking business. "At the beginning of the 1960s, Ford decided to expand their presence in the truck business," Rick said. "With Interstate highway construction abounding, the demand for construction capable trucks grew. They recruited Dad to be a key player in one of their four key dealerships, and that truck dealership became the largest dump truck dealer in the entire world."
As is often the case with business success, Hill was in the right place at the right time, recognized it and made the most of it. "He traveled a lot and got to know a lot of people. He still has good friends today from that time," Rick says.
As a result of his work selling trucks, Hill's reputation began to grow. "The Mason-Dixon Lines was the biggest customer," Rick remembers. As they were a large, national fleet, Hill and fellow dealer, Sam Anderson, worked together on their business.
Later Anderson informed Hill that the Pontiac dealership was available for sale. Subsequently, Hill and Mr. Red Barnes agreed on the price for the dealership and the deal was finalized. Shortly thereafter, the Mercedes-Benz franchise was added.
In the next several years, the Hill family dealerships grew in number and profitability. In 1978, Hill acquired a Toyota franchise, then, in the early 80s, the Hill family of dealerships grew again with the acquisition of the former John Smith Porsche Audi. In 1992 the Lexus franchise was acquired. Throughout this period of time, the Hill family owned dealerships in Knoxville, Kingsport, and Morristown Tenn., and Norton, Abingdon, Big Stone Gap, and Bristol, Virginia. Currently Hill has eight franchises, all in Kingsport.
Earlier this year, Hill received the 30 year Toyota Anniversary Award. He previously received the 30 year Anniversary Award from Pontiac and Mercedes- Benz. In 2006 Hill was honored with the Toyota President's Award for the 16th year and the Elite of Lexus Award. His Toyota dealership has been designated a "Signature Toyota Dealership," one of only 218 of 1,200 nationwide to receive this honor. Hill was named a recipient of the 2002 Time Magazine Quality Dealer Award in January 2002.
Among his many automotive awards over the years, Hill received the Andrew Jackson Award in 2001 which recognizes Hill's community service and contribution to the automotive industry. Other awards he's received include the BMW Premier Award, Pontiac Masters Award and Porsche Premier Award, to name only a few achievements awarded him during his career.
Yet when asked, Hill responds that his greatest business accomplishment has been, "having a successful business that has provided the opportunity to share his faith with friends, associates and people around the world from many walks of life including children, the hospitalized and prisoners."
Hill's philosophy of treating people with courtesy and respect comes from his most closely held personal beliefs — his Christian values. "First, you know I have a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, and that's the most important thing in my life. That's what I would encourage others to have," Hill says when asked about his success. "If you have a relationship with Christ and follow His teachings, then you have a desire to do all these other things automatically."
That spiritual dedication has led Hill around the world. With Gideons International, he has visited 35 African countries, plus three Latin American countries, several Western and Eastern European countries. For 30 years he has traveled to 45 countries having completed more than 30 assignments. "In 1978, dad got a call," Rick remembers. "The Gideon's needed an area coordinator for most of Africa. He and mom prayed about it and he accepted that role." For the next several years he worked at his office but also worked at spreading the Word through the distribution of Bibles and establishing new Gideon camps by enlisting and training new members.
Hill's world travel didn't stop with the Gideons. He was one of the first two members awarded the Paul Harris Fellow award for his leadership and service in the Kingsport-Downtown Rotary Club. Hill helped the club win the World Community award for two consecutive years by trekking to Livingstone, Zambia to establish a program for an industrial workshop at David Livingstone College. He was also awarded the Rotary Benefactor William E. Skelton award for service.
Hill's benevolence has never been limited to those in faraway lands. This is evident by his involvement and contributions to many organizations such as CASA, Character Counts, Kingsport Fun Fest, Tennessee Baptist Children's Home, Second Harvest, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, American Heart Association, Doe River Gorge Christian Camp, Samaritan's Purse and Boy Scouts of America. Of all his civic activities, none is more rewarding to Hill than being involved with the Children's Advocacy Center. For the past 14 years Hill has sponsored the center's annual golf tournament. Hill has been given numerous awards including the 1994 Philanthropist of the Year Award from the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, the 2000 Business Journal Greater Tri-Cities Business of the Year Award, 2002 Leader in Christian Service Award from Milligan College and the 2004 Moral Kombat Hero Award. Hill has served as a board member of the East Tennessee Baptist Hospital, Tennessee Baptist Foundation and is currently on the Tennessee Baptist Adult Homes board. In the community Hill proudly served on the board of Citizen's Bank and the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.
This is not to say that there were never hard times in Hill's business career. But the faith that guided him always gave him the strength to carry on. "There were times when it would have been a lot easier to quit, but he kept going," Rick says.
Today, Don Hill has many friends. The relationships he has established range across the globe, but none have brought him as much joy as the relationships he shares with his family. Rick Hill and Donna Hill Roberts both work in the family business, as does Chris Hill, the "younger son" of the family. Hill also has another daughter, Deborah, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Hill's greatest relationship has been with his wife, Jeana, his partner for 53 years.
All his life Don Hill has been building relationships. And those of us who know him are the better for it.