In December of 1953, Vernon Jenkins and his partner, Briz Wynne, opened for business in Clarksville as a Lincoln-Mercury dealer. At that time it was located on Madison Street. It was an inauspicious beginning, with less than $100,000 in inventory and eight employees.
But the business quickly established a reputation for fair dealing, honesty, and good service- attributes not always associated with car dealerships. And by the end of the first year, sales totaled around $1 million.
Vernon Jenkins and Briz Wynne purchased the Ford dealership in April of 1959 and in fall of 1959 they moved the dealerships to the present location on College Street. Jenkins & Wynne Lincoln-Mercury became Jenkins & Wynne Ford Lincoln-Mercury.
The 60’s were turbulent times, not just for society but for the dealership as well. When the 101st Airborne Division was sent to Vietnam, Jenkins & Wynne lost a major chuck of its customer base. Then in 1967, a fire destroyed the building.
The soldiers eventually returned, however, and the partners rebuilt and expanded. In the mid-70’s, when America was reeling from the aftershocks of the Arab oil embargo, Jenkins & Wynne recognized the potential of the small-car market. In 1976, they took on a Honda franchise. With that acquisition, the dealership’s sign was changed again, to Jenkins & Wynne Ford Lincoln-Mercury Honda.
Don Jenkins, only son of Vernon and Evelyn Jenkins, was just three years old when his dad founded the Clarksville dealership. He was surrounded by cars and car talk his entire life. He had washed the vehicles on his dad’s lot throughout high school, and as he prepared to enter Rhodes College in Memphis, he decided he wanted a career that had nothing to do with cars. He certainly didn’t want to be a car salesman. “Car salesman wore silk suits and orthopedic shoes,” Jenkins says. “I didn't have a lot in common with them.” His career choice was made. He was going to become a banker.
But something happened that would change that decision. In 1971, just as young Jenkins was about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business and go to work for a bank, he received a letter from his dad. “Give me one year in the car business,” it said, “just one year.”
A year was all it took! “I came to the dealership, and loved it,” Jenkins says. Thirty plus years later, he still thrives on the interaction with people, love for vehicles, and the challenge of running a dealership that became dear to him that infamous first year.
Vernon Jenkins continued to work at the dealership until he retired in 1985 at the age 75. His work ethic was contagious. “Dad believed you learn by doing,” Jenkins says, “and he was wise enough to let me make my own mistakes. As long as they weren't severe ones,” he adds with a smile.
When he died in 2002, Vernon Jenkins left big shoes behind. He had been president of the Tennessee Automotive Association. He won the Time Magazine Dealer of the Year award for the state of Tennessee. The criteria for that award were highly ethical business practices and strong community involvement.
The junior Jenkins follow suit, assembling a sales and service team that won Honda’s President Award, Ford’s President’s award, and at least 11 distinguished achievement awards from Ford. More significant to Jenkins was the dealership’s winning the “Best Place to Buy a Car” in the Best of Clarksville competition— ELEVEN time winner!
There was a reason. While Don Jenkins may have wanted to change his salesmen’s suits and shoes, he wasn't about to change the company’s operating principles of fairness, honesty, and knock-your-socks-off-service. “Anybody can sell you a car one time,” Jenkins says. “But it is service after the sale that brings you back.”
“The goal is not to sell a car but to build a relationship,” he says. And that requires employees with longevity. “When people come in to buy a vehicle, they want to see the same person time after time. They want a relationship.”
At Jenkins & Wynne, they are likely to find one. “Very few people leave our dealership once they start working here” Jenkins says. “That’s a significant achievement when you consider that the dealership has nearly 200 employees. The average manager has been here 19 years.” The General Manager, Murray Keeter, has been a vital part of Jenkins & Wynne’s success as he has been the faithful backbone for 45 strong years.
Though the dealership’s operating principles haven't changed, its footprint certainly has. Five mammoth showrooms, enough asphalt to hold over 1000 vehicles, and three service centers, have replaced the original one-story building. “People come here in part because of our selection,” Jenkins says. “If you treat customers well and have the vehicle they want in stock, chances are you'll make a sale.”
It’s clearly a winning formula. Jenkins & Wynne is the largest Ford Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Tennessee. The Ford franchise alone sold more vehicles in North America than any othe rmanufacturer. Jenkins adds that as nice as awards and rankings are, the most meaningful “recognition” is the kind that happens between a customer and a member of the dealership’s staff. It’s about stability, longevity, and managed growth, he says. “I want to be here for customers when they buy not only this car but the next one. And the next one. We have numerous customers who have bought more than 25 vehicles from us.”
“Right now, 48 percent of our customers are repeat customers, he adds. “The national average is 15 percent. I found that when our employees are happy, they will make our customers happy.”
He does have two goals, however. “My dream is that my children, Casey and Blake, become third generation Ford Lincoln-Mercury Honda dealers- if they love this business as much as I do.” Currently, both Casey (Internet Manager) and Blake (Sales Manager) work at the dealership and see their future as “promising with endless opportunities” as they continue the family-owned and operated tradition.
Jenkins’ second goal? To embody the expression “Like father, like son.”
“If I can be 50 percent of the man my dad was, I'll feel like I've succeeded in life.”
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