Revisiting Profile Series on the Late Don Meadows

CARY, N.C.  - 

In memory of Auto Auction Sevices Corp. president and chief executive officer Don Meadows, who passed away on Monday, Auto Remarketing is sharing a Profile Series feature on Meadows that was included in the May 1–14, 2006 print edition of our publication.

The interview between Auto Remarketing and Meadows for this 2006 story is below:

AR: Tell us where home was for you originally.

Meadows: I grew up an inner-city kid in Indianapolis ... so, I’m a Hoosier,  which means that you were born with a college basketball genes in your veins. With no pro teams in Indiana when I was young,  Hoosiers tend to be died-in-the-wool Indiana University fans. My wife went to Kentucky, so our kids are naturally predisposed to track bouncing balls across TV screens.

AR: Was that area where your parents grew up as well?

Meadows: Yes. My mom now lives in California and my father in D.C. Historically, both sides of my family came down the Ohio River to settle in Kentucky and southern Indiana.  My mom was from a farming family, one of 11 kids.

It is a very beautiful area, and in fact, every summer and during spring breaks until I was about nine years old, I would stay with my mother’s parents on their farm, 40 miles south of Indy. 

Everyone in the family called them mom and dad.  At their 50th anniversary, they had 56 grandchildren and 78 great-grandchildren in attendance; times have definitely changed. 

Since all of my “country cousins” had their own farm chores to do, my grandparents took an interest in me because I enjoyed helping out and learning about the farm animals and planting crops, etc.

I learned a lot about the benefits of hard work. It was a positive time to grow up and have a country perspective for me to blend with city life.

AR: But, you were primarily a city-kid?

Meadows: Yes, once summer was over, I was back in town, but I couldn’t forget my time on the farm. It usually took a couple weeks to stop speaking southern Indiana hillbilly once I got back to Indy. 

In fact, I used to coin the phrase, “city hicker!”  (laughter)  I was a city kid, but I liked to have those country roots.  

AR: What type of work did your parents do?

Meadows: My mother did a lot of different things, mostly office work; her best job was working for RCA. My father left when I was six months old, so I really don’t know him; we finally met when I was 23. 

That is why I spent so much time with my mother’s dad.  He was the biggest male influence in my life in the early years.  As a middle child, I felt like I was invisible. That’s one reason I enjoyed spending time on the farm.  

When I was nine, my mom couldn’t hold it together, so the state said she couldn’t “play family” anymore. After a stint in a guardian’s home, I went to live with my city grandparents (father’s parents) for a couple years and then I was the only one of six kids who was allowed to move back in with my mom. I really never knew my siblings after that.

AR: It is obvious that you didn’t have the “Father Knows Best” type of childhood.  How do you think it impacted you?

Meadows:  Certainly, I didn’t have all the things kids have today, but I was a happy kid. The neighborhood had city parks to hang out in, we would play softball, and kickball, we were outside more than kids today. 

We didn’t have a car ... didn’t have a TV ... but I was a happy kid.  My childhood helped to make me pretty independent. 

When I went to live with my city grandparents, I was exposed to a totally different culture. Grandma was an organist in the church, a piano teacher, and an English teacher. 

So I went from an invisible street urchin into a structured upbringing ... which included practicing the piano for an hour a day, straight A’s and actually doing homework. Later on in life, when I began playing other instruments, I came to realize how valuable Grandma’s teachings were. She and my grandfather showed me my potential.

AR: What about your paternal grandfather?

Meadows: He was born in 1900, and learned to fly in the early '20s. You can imagine what the planes were like then.  He actually loved to fly and owned airplanes for most of his life.  He also was a car mechanic and sold used cars from his garage.  He preached mechanics as an honorable profession. 

But all of the work in his garage was to provide income so that he could pay for flying.

In the late '30s he ran a wrecker service for airplanes. It would work this way: if a plane had trouble and was forced to land somewhere in the central USA, he would fly to the troubled plane, fix it, and fly back to Indy. 

Sometimes it required two trips to get additional parts. When he was working for an early aviator named Roscoe Turner, whose hanger was at Weir Cook airport in Indy, he met Charles Lindbergh on a stopover.  He retired as a chief mechanic with Allison’s experimental aircraft division with a couple patents on helicopters.
AR: What were your career goals when you were young?

Meadows: When I was very young, I would compete with my older sister to see who could draw the best. At some point, I surpassed my sister and I looked as art as away to design or think out ideas.  My grandfather helped me begin visualizing the mechanics of objects by asking me why a bookshelf needed to be so tall, how deep it should be, etc.

So I would first draw it and write down the measurements before cutting the first piece of wood. I thought that architecture would be my profession.  

When I was about 14, my art sensibility started to make money for me as I got jobs painting signs, doors, and windows of businesses. I discovered that the southern sides of painted signs would be faded from the sun while the northern side looked brand new.

I would ask the business if they wanted to prolong the life of the sign by me repainting the southern side and I would get hired. I looked at it as easy money since I didn’t have to do any design or layout work.  

AR: That is quite industrious.  Did you do that for long?

Meadows: I did it for a couple of years. Painting windows was repeat business since it often had a seasonal theme. At 15 I illustrated a real estate manual with different style homes used for licensing realtors.  I later got a job with a publications firm, doing technical drawings. 

That gave me the ability to see things in 3-D.  I learned to be able to look at something and draw the schematics of it. Even though I was good at art, it didn’t pay the bills.  

So, I started pumping gas and working around garages at a very young age to make money. I used to say when I was 15, I was 40, and when I was 40 I was 15.  (Laughter) I guess I mean that at 40 I could finally loosen-up and enjoy not struggling as hard.

AR: Was that your first experience with cars?  

Meadows: Indy is synonymous with cars because of the 500.  I started selling papers at the track when I was 12.  It was a great way to get in cheap and make some food money. 

The '60s were an incredible time of change at Indy with European drivers introducing rear engine cars and the top American drivers holding out to see if the trend would last. Talk about technology turning the world upside down; I remember the turbine car with the sidecar on the inside so the driver’s weight was a counter balance to the left hand turn. 

It led the entire race but broke down with four laps to go and the next year, USAC changed the specs so that turbines were no longer eligible.  Had turbines been continued we would probably all be driving different vehicles today.

By 18 years old, I was a full time mechanic. I apprenticed under a number of experienced engine and transmission mechanics.  A couple of my buddies who were working at Indy 500 garages and they purchased old sprint cars. 

So, I spent a couple years crewing on sprints and touring the Midwest outlaw circuit; those were crazy times.

I landed a job in an exotic car shop with a guy from New York who was starting a new shop.  I was his first employee.  So, I learned to work on high-end cars like Lamborghinis, Porsches, Ferraris, and the real Cobras with the aluminum frames.

Then, later I went to work for a German fella who did nothing but work on BMWs, VWs, and Mercedes. I really got a sense of the different styles and technologies used by different countries.

AR: You really began working almost full time as a young teenager?  

Meadows: No question about it.  

AR: How did you maintain your grades in school while working all the time?

Meadows: Actually, I dropped out of school when I was 15 (later going back).  Although my grades were good the basics were just not there for me. 

My problems with school had a lot to do with social issues; one needs a family structure to succeed, much less the clothes and shoes etc. So, out of necessity, I went to work.  

AR: Were you still living with your mother?

Meadows: No, I began living on my own when I was 15. I was very independent. I worked in a gas station overnight because they thought I was 18 even though I was only 15; it was a steady income. 

I would work on police cars that came by and hung out at night; the officers just knew me as me, they never questioned my age.  

But, I began taking evening classes at a local art school, as I wanted to get more education in the area I enjoyed.   Then IU (Indiana University) bought the school and a teacher encouraged me to get a GED (General Education Diploma) and I could get credit for the classes. 

So, I did and started college at 19. I couldn’t make it work with juggling a full-time job and  college at the same time, so I left and began working on machinery full time and using my wrenching skills to make money.

AR: It sounds like you really began to hone those skills.

Meadows: I did. I moved into different aspects, including working on heavy machinery, welding on monster off road equipment and later I began fabricating and building things for myself. 

That is where the drawing and 3-D stuff really worked to my benefit. I eventually landed a job managing a warehouse and trucking side of a building supply business where I focused on keeping vehicles running and coordinating dock, and warehouse workers to help a growing business keep up with orders. 

I felt like a short-order cook, I was really focused on making things work more efficiently.  

AR: Working all the time, going to school when you can, still pursuing art … did you have time for anything else?

Meadows: I guess that I have always worked hard and played hard.  When I was 18, a friend of mine took me spelunking or caving.  Southern Indiana and Kentucky are full of caves, and I got addicted.  

I made a point of spending my spare weekends in southern Indiana caving with groups and I eventually lead many trips. I have been in about 100 wild caves. We learned rope climbing and repelling, which I’ve used rock climbing in Colorado and I climbed Kilimanjaro in 1996.  

Another hobby that I picked up was music. Thanks to Grandma, it was easy to read music and I started playing finger style guitar. 

Also, in my late 20s a friend got me into endurance cycling where we would ride 50 to 100 miles at a time. I got into it enough to build my own bicycle frame by silver soldering together a tubing set. 

There was a velodrome, or bike track, near where I worked at Donlen. I road with a group of early morning riders for 10 years. 

I did a few races, but mainly just loved to get out and ride. I used to log my miles, but after about 60,000, I stopped keeping track. I still do spin classes and get in weekend rides. Biking is a great sport as you get older.
AR: Those are interesting hobbies. You did those and worked as well?

Meadows: I decided that I wanted to move to southern Indiana so I relocated to Bloomington and worked for a foreign car shop there.  But, there was good news and bad news. 

The shop operator was losing money and couldn’t afford to pay me, so the owner of the building came by one day to kick the shop owner out and offered me the lease since I was the only one who seemed to be working.  I started into business on a shoestring and worked hard to make it successful. 

I worked up to six employees and sold the shop after five years when I was 33.

AR: You still were very young and had worked practically your entire life.  Did you ever feel that you totally missed the experiences a normal teenager had?

Meadows: I did not experience the typical teenage years, that is for sure.  My wife will talk about listening to the music of a certain period, and even though I was and still am into music, I never just sat around and listened to various groups. 

But, on the other hand, I knew a lot more (about life) when I was 20 than most people, and I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything.

I had so many different life experiences, but whatever my experience it seemed to benefit me later in life. For example, when it came time for me to run my own business I had skills in many different areas.  Those included preparing estimates, working with customers, handling the money. It was a great education, but not your typical one.

AR: You had a strong work ethic.

Meadows: I knew the inequities of my life compared to others. But again, Indianapolis was a great place to be poor.  A lot of times poor people are looked at as lazy or trying to steal everything that is not tied down. 

However, I believe that most people would just like to have an equal opportunity.  I worked to be ready when the right opportunity came along.  As a manager, I look for a strong work ethic and can spot it a mile away. 

We all know plenty of people, not all poor, who try to take the easy way out of work; what I call the Robin Hood work ethic. I would say that there are as many poor people without opportunities as there are well-off people who decide not to take life up on the opportunities that are presented.

AR: It gave you a lot of self confidence.  

Meadows:  Even thought I had I lot of different jobs early, I look at it as 15 years of working on vehicles, 14-plus working at Donlen and now I’m in my ninth year with AASC. So I have been working around the same industry for a long time.

AR: When you left Indiana, you went to Chicago. What was your plan?

Meadows: I planned to take my nest egg to live on and finish college, but I would still need financial aid with school. I applied at a number of schools but was rudely awakened that financial aid wasn’t available if you had some money and the schools I wanted required stronger transcripts from 15 years earlier.  

College was a personal goal but not a requirement.  I realized that I had to rely on my skills, not my college degree.  That is a scenario that had happened throughout my life.  

AR: At Donlen did you start out in remarketing?

Meadows: I started in their maintenance department, which later turned into fleet services.  I worked for wonderful guy, Paul Hilder, who was himself another ex-mechanic who had entered corporate life.  I was like Click N’ Clack the car guys, where I diagnosed cars on the phone and assisted drivers and shops as well.  

I wasn’t there for a long time before the head of remarketing announced he wanted to retire ... Don Rappaport, the owner of Donlen asked me to give it a go so I did.  This was in 1986.  I wasn’t too thrilled about the thought of used cars, but I thought that if I didn’t take it, I probably would not get another chance at this company, so I did.   

AR: Did you feel that others in the company were beginning to respect you and your talents?

Meadows:  I guess some people did appreciate what I was doing.  The owner of Donlen had worked hard to build a tight organization. In those early years he would occasionally assign me to another department to “fix a problem.”  I had to go, whether I wanted to or not, but it did upset others until they saw that I was ultimately making their jobs easier.

But it’s true it is not a way to make everyone your friend.  I think that overcoming hardships has helped me to not over react when little things go wrong; I’m not easily disappointed because I know that if you hang tough things will get better.

When I entered remarketing, the industry was being turned up-side down. The odometer laws were being written and the government was making sweeps around the country to shut down clockers, or sellers who roll-back odometers.  I had inherited a couple wholesalers to work with who were either sent up the river, or in one case, they committed suicide to stay out of jail. 

I joined a group called NOTFEA, the National Odometer and Title Fraud association, and was enlightened to the epidemic of the situation and the fraud perpetrated on car buyers by dealers. 

At first, NOTFEA considered lease companies as a part of the problem, but I worked with them so we could better understand each other and work together to make used-car values real; perhaps for the first time in history. 

In the used-vehicle world, trust isn’t an option.  People don’t trust you from the beginning, and the only way to earn their trust is to gain it.  

AR: Where did you get such an honest streak?

Meadows: I guess from my grandparents.  

Obviously my parents were flakes, but a lot of grandparents are raising their grandchildren and they get the second opportunity to get it right.  I was lucky to have them around.  

AR: You stayed at Donlen for about 15 years.  How was it?

Meadows: It was an outstanding company to work for.  One of the key components was developing our own internal inventory management system for remarketing.  Even though the users helped me to design the new approach I had trouble getting them to relinquish their old way of doing things. 

Honestly, it took a couple of years to get them to change.  I not only got an education in researching, designing and building an inventory management system, but also making sure the thing worked and getting people to accept it.  

I have seen the resistance to change, even by those who designed it.  In a lot of ways, it helped prepare me for what I am doing now.

AR:  Had you gotten married during this time?

Meadows: Yes, soon after I moved to Chicago and got settled in at Donlen, I bought a three-story apartment building with a coach house above a three-car garage. 

I lived in it while I rebuilt and rehabbed it in my spare time; it took six years. I rented the coach house to a woman who later became my wife. She had just finished her Masters degree in painting from the Art Institute of Chicago so we shared a common interest in art.   

We got married when I was in my 30s and we had our first child when I was 38 and our second one when I was 39.  

Once children entered the equation, I wanted to be a good role model and knock out that elusive degree. My thought was that I had lived my life (thus far) without that preverbal piece of paper that everyone else had (college degree), while all I had was experience. 

Someday it was going to catch up with me … someday I was going to be competing with people who had both experience and a degree. It was then that I decided to go back to school and get my education.  

So I enrolled at DePaul University in a great program called the School for New Learning, where you designed your own curricula and apply it immediately to your job. The average age was 30 and the teachers were required to be professionals as well as teachers.  

You could learn as much from the other students as from the teacher. Every student was there to learn. It was a great environment. It took me seven years, but I got a degree in business, with a focus on organizational development and change.  

AR: Wasn’t that about the same time you began talking with Auto Auction Services Corp.?

Meadows: It was about a year before.  Graduating later in life meant that my education was more current then if I had gone to school at 20, so college certainly increased my confidence to consider new things, but I had also focused a lot on business dynamics in all sorts of businesses.  

I had been involved with the auctions through my Donlen duties, learning how things operated, who’s who, etc.  For me, it (pursuing the job) was a natural thing to do. 

When the job came up, I was attending a conference in Vegas and there’s (Darryll) Ceccoli (former president of Manheim) giving a presentation about the concept of AASC.  I’m thinking this is great; this is what I have been talking about for years.  

Anyway, Darryll gets through talking about the ideas and says if anyone wants to run this, talk with Larry Brasher.  

AR: Did you run over and talk with him?

Meadows: Actually, I was waiting for a taxi when Larry came up and stood right beside me. I told him I was interested in the job, and he said for me to send him a resume. And I did.

AR: You later came to Baltimore for the interview.  Tell us about that.

Meadows: I always want to be over-prepared. I came with a brochure and had dummied up some Web pages; outlining the what-ifs, who would contact to whom and things like that. 

My art background helped with that. I must have impressed them because they hired me on the spot. I was fortunate enough to have guidance from a who’s-who in the industry to set the direction of AASC and focus on our neutrality and potential. 

We met weekly for the first year an then monthly until we had a sense of how AASC would evolve and it took on a life of it’s own.

AR: Speaking of art, do you still pursue that as a hobby?

Meadows: It is still very much an interest of mine.  Ever since I began welding in my early 20s I have made sculptures and funky lamps, etc.   

About five years ago, I wanted to add glass to my lamps, and in the process I got very interested in making glass objects.  Now, I have a glass studio in my garage—well, actually it is not a garage anymore. (Laughter)  And my new addiction is glass.  You get one shot to making something in an 1,800-degree flame, but I find it very therapeutic.

I take a few weekend courses a year from visiting glass artists and keep honing my skills.  I am currently obsessed with making goblets and other hollow forms.  

AR: What other hobbies do you enjoy?

Meadows: Well, between biking, music, and glass I’m covered. These hobbies provide me with short-term accomplishments that directly offset the tensions from AASC where the rewards are more long-term.  

So much of what I do is in the abstract, and doing things with my hands helps keep things in balance. I am a big proponent of lifelong learning in that when employees expand themselves outside of work with various hobbies that they are more well-rounded and they bring better ideas back to the company.    

AR: Having grown up with such a limited family life, is that very important to you?

Meadows: Absolutely. As I said, my wife is an artist and our son is an incredible jazz piano player. My daughter shares my love for sports and competitive nature, so we have a good time playing tennis together.

I often think that I have broken some bad family cycle by making our lives work in a way that eluded me early on; I also get to enjoy a missed childhood through my kids.

The neat thing is that my story is not that unique; the auto industry and particularly the auctions are full of talented people who have struggled to make a better life. 

I have heard many inspiring stories from people within the auction family ... You can take all of the college courses offered but you won’t find one that presents the auction side of the used-vehicle industry. 

Auctions are service monsters by providing their clients with tons of services and they work very hard to make it look easy.  I am happy to be able to help them reduce their efforts and be able to handle new volumes. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of egos in the remarketing world to donate to science; it’s a very colorful side of the automotive business and it’s full of amazing people.

AR: When you look at your job here, what is it that you find the most intriguing?  

Meadows: In a strange way, I see a direct correlation between my art and my job.  When I came to work here, there was no exact path to follow.  It was only a vision, an idea of how things could and should work. 

It is exciting to be creative and help to develop that abstract into something that benefits so many people.  Now we are really beginning to take off.

AR: What does your crystal ball tell you?

Meadows: AASC has so many opportunities. You have to be ready, that is to be flexible enough to change quickly and understand that no one can foresee everything that is going to impact your business. 

Systems should never be expected to be implemented and then left alone; they need to constantly evolve to keep up with change. I worked on some strategies earlier this year and there are a ton of third parties who are knocking on the door. 

It is time to build those connections between the various parties so that it will benefit everyone.  We have all the parts built to plug in, and that is proving to be a large area of focus for this year.  

We are data rich and in our main focus is how to analyze, or benchmark, data to drive process improvement.  We are also adding customer service staff to be able to offer more on-site auction training.

AR: So you still see lots of growth opportunities?

Meadows: Absolutely. There are so many things to be done, new products and services.  I am very excited about the future.  

AR: It is still fun?

Meadows: I have a great time.  I enjoy my job, the creative people that I work with, and hobbies that enrich my life.  I look at my job as helping people make their life better, and that is always fun.  As I look back it was impossible to see how all of the steps in life lead me to where I am today, yet this company and this job pulls all of my past experiences together.  


Today's top headlines