Many people know they’ve found their calling when they experience success.
Not Joel Williams.
Instead, Joel knew the automotive industry was right for him when he failed.
“The first automotive exam I took in college, I failed,” Joel laughed. “But after that, I was hooked. I’ve always been pretty good at things in general, so I didn’t have to try super hard to be talented athletically or get good grades. I think failing that exam…that meant I had to try. It was a competition, and I am a very competitive guy. There was a drive I needed to get the job done.”
Since that test, Joel’s competitive nature has helped him steer his course all the way to a coveted seat at Garber. He is now the General Manager of Garber Chevrolet Webster in New York.
It’s been a journey of hard work, dedication, twists and turns to get Joel to where he is today…and he didn’t do it alone.
From Server to Intern
Joel didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up.
But the Detroit, Michigan native DID know where he wanted to go to school.
“I didn’t always see myself in the automotive industry, and I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew one thing: I wanted to attend Northwood University in Midland, Michigan,” he said. “I had a bunch of buddies who always talked about the high job placement rate. It was a shot in the dark, but it worked out.”
Joel majored in Automotive Aftermarket at Northwood. His studies focused on every part of the process that happens to a vehicle after the sale.
While going to school, Joel worked at Buffalo Wild Wings. That’s where he got a tip that changed the course of his career.
“It was 2009, and Brian Strong, fleet manager at Garber Chevrolet Midland, came into the restaurant,” Joel explained. “He sought me out and said, ‘Hey, last week you waited on my son and he didn’t tip you. I know because he came back with the exact change, so I apologize and here’s the tip.’”
But the conversation didn’t stop there.
“Brian asked me what I was doing and told him I was going to school for Automotive Aftermarket,” Joel said. “Brian said, ‘I work at Garber Chevrolet in Midland. Why don’t you come see me?’ I popped in a couple weeks later and intended on seeing Brian. But when I walked in, unbeknownst to me, the GM Kevin Parker stopped me and he said, ‘Why don’t you come chat with me?’”
Kevin and Joel spent the next hour talking and swapping stories. Joel impressed Kevin…so much so, Kevin offered Joel an internship position on the spot with Garber.
The opportunity landed in Joel’s lap so easily, it was almost as if it was destiny.
Maybe it was.
“To this day, Kevin always says, ‘I don’t know why I got up out of my seat when you walked in, but there was something about you that told me that you were a bright young man,’” Joel said.
Joel accepted. He was now a full-time student, Buffalo Wild Wings server, and Garber intern.
From Learner to Do-er
As an intern, Joel was able to apply what he learned in textbooks to real life scenarios at Garber.
He wasn’t just in the corner sitting back and watching. He was doing it.
“My specific role at that time was to be an aftermarket manager: talking to the customer after the sale and how to personalize their vehicle with floor mats, undercoating, and interacting with the customer,” Joel explained. “One of the great things about Garber’s internships is that it was real life. I got an opportunity to interact with the customers and sales manager and detail; I wasn’t stuck in a corner doing work on a computer. I was part of the team.”
Joel was able to learn from experience, but also grow from mentorship.
“Every single person at the dealership was so nice and friendly, and they genuinely wanted to help,” he said. “Craig Lang was the sales manager at the time and he took me out to lunch once a week, asking about school and the job and the future. At that time, I called him ‘Dad’ because I looked up to him so much. He is an amazing leader and great human being. I just had a ton of support from everyone. It was such a good place to be.”
Joel said the internship at Garber was a game-changer for his career.
“I loved the education at Northwood, but it is an education from the books,” he said. “That internship with Garber Chevrolet and the real experience taught me so much. Had I not done that internship, I don’t know where I’d be. That experience really helped me see the potential of what I could be for myself and for the organization.”
From Michigan to New York
After Joel graduated in 2011, he moved back to the Grand Blanc area to be near family. He cut his teeth working for a different dealership group.
Life was good. Out of 45 sales people, Joel was in the top five.
Then he got a call from Kevin Parker.
“I was there six months and Kevin called me and said, ‘Hey, keep your options open. Dick [Dick Garber] and I have a good opportunity out of the state,’” Joel said. “I said, ‘Great, let me know, but I’m doing well here.’ He called me every three to four months just touching base.”
In 2012, Kevin called Joel to tell him Garber was acquiring the Porsche Audi Mazda dealership in New York.
“He asked if I was interested in joining him out there,” Joel explained. “I missed the Garber culture and wanted to be a part of it. I visited New York and I loved it.”
Joel officially moved to New York to join the Garber team on February 1, 2012. His thirst for knowledge placed him in different roles, soaking each one up like a sponge.
“When I moved in 2012, Kevin did not know where I fit into the puzzle, he just knew I fit in somewhere. One day I’d be a new car manager and then he’d say, ‘OK, be a finance manager.’ He bounced me around for 4 or 5 months.”
For a year and a half, Joel served as the Used Car Manager for Audi. Then he handled Used and New for Porsche and Audi for five years.
He also defined his ultimate career goal.
“When I first made the leap of faith and moved, I was 22; I didn’t know a soul, I only knew Kevin,” Joel said. “He is also like a father figure to me and taught me a lot. When I moved away from my family and everything I knew, that was the time where I said to myself, ‘When I’m 30, I want my own store.’ I vocalized that to Kevin. He knew that all along. He did things behind the scenes to help me.”
Joel was learning and growing…and leadership noticed. He was quickly steering his course towards an exciting opportunity.
From Employee to General Manager
The year was 2017. Joel had worked in New York for five years. That’s when his career course changed again.
“Kevin moved me to Acura for a change of scenery,” Joel explained. “Moving to Acura was a test to be on the right path to get my own store. I was a sales manager there and then became the general sales manager in 2018. 2020 is when we bought the Volvo store.”
That’s when Kevin called Joel into his office.
“Kevin called me and said, ‘Can you come to my office at 10:15?’ I walk in. I sit down and the guy starts making small talk with me. I had no idea. So a few minutes later, the phone rings. He puts it on speaker. Mr. Garber is on the line and says, ‘Joel, we’d really like to do this in person but unfortunately it couldn’t happen. But we are buying the Volvo store and we’d like to make you GM.’”
Joel was shocked.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” Joel said. “I have a hard time expressing real emotion right when I feel it, but Kevin knew how excited I was for this opportunity. This is what I was trained to do. He has helped me for the past 10 years get in a position to be able to do this. After the phone call, I was so grateful. Kevin said, ‘I’m proud of you.’ That sticks with me. That was a great day.”
A great day, indeed.
From Growing to Leading
Though he is a General Manager now, Joel’s journey is not a solo effort.
He gets support from many people, including his wife Nicole and their two sons.
“You need someone in your corner that supports the greater good of what’s going on,” Joel said. “You’re going to have a bad week. You’re going to have some adverse times. No one is an island; you can’t do it yourself. I’m so fortunate to have a supportive wife who knows the big picture and my hopes and dreams of becoming a GM. Now that we are here, with all the additional things we have to do, it makes those tough times significantly easier to be able to talk about it.”
He said being a General Manager does not mean you get to coast or let your foot off the pedal like some might believe.
“I do believe that once you are a GM, people perceive that you work less for some reason,” he said. “But the truth is, you work more. Your phone never stops ringing: employees, vendors, suppliers. There’s always something you have to do. You run multiple departments.”
Sure, the work never stops, but Garber has helped Joel grow as a person, he said. His role offers him perspective that a vehicle is so much more than a vehicle. It’s a lifeline.
“Thanks to Garber, I think of other people first rather than myself,” he said. “There’s something greater here. We aren’t just selling or servicing cars. We are making a huge impact on our employees, our customers and the communities we serve. We get the privilege of dealing with people from all walks of life where their transportation is a necessity.”
Joel appreciates many things about the Garber organization, especially the relationships Joel has made and the resources available.
“What keeps me with Garber is the people, the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the sisterhood,” he said. “Our stores that are already established, it’s great to be able to pick up the phone and be able to get help from those stores in different states. You have deep relationships with people you talk to once a week, once a month, you ask about your kids, your family. It’s real here.”
So now that he’s a GM, what advice would Joel give to someone who wants to be in his seat one day?
“Stay the course,” he said. “It’s not as easy as people may think it is. It takes a lot of hard work and time and dedication. You may not see immediate results; it’s like working out. You can go to the gym one day but that’s not going to change your body. It’s the time and regiment. When you’re going towards a career and want to get to the next level, you need to be focused and dedicated because that’s how you get better each day.
First concert? Boys II Men at DTE
First car? ‘03 Malibu
Favorite meal? Pizza. All day.
Three words to describe your personality? Charismatic, outgoing, regimented
Bucket list item? I want to go to Australia.