2018 Nominee Eight: Waikem Auto Family

In 1930, somewhere around 4th St. and Mahoning Ave. in Canton, the 13-year old son of Lebanese immigrants bought a beat up old bicycle for 5¢. After fixing and shining it up, he sold it to another kid for 50¢. George Waikem Sr. had discovered his life’s calling.

George Waikem’s sons love to sit around and talk about their father whose DNA has driven the family business for over 75 years. They tell about him buying, selling and servicing cars while working as a Timken tool and die maker. They recall him selling Canton cars to people around his San Angelo, Texas Air Force base after discovering a war-time shortage. They talk about how George Sr. started leasing cars in 1954 and soon built the largest independent leasing operation in the country. George Waikem Sr. was always a step ahead.

After the war, George’s booming lease business caused supply problems for other area dealers, so Ford demanded he buy his own franchise. His Massillon Ford dealership supplied cars to lease and, back then, local Ford buyers bought local. Lots of pleasant golfing afternoons followed.

Today, George Sr.’s sons, Chip, Doug and David — collectively known as Generation 2 — manage Stark County’s largest auto group and a number of other auto-related businesses. It’s an empire they worked side-by-side with their father to build. Their attention to detail and customer care created a business big enough to support a second and third generation of Waikems while giving back to their community at the same time.

It’s in the Waikem DNA to stay a step ahead. They bought a Honda franchise no one else wanted a year before the 1974 oil embargo. Soon Honda sales exploded. When a local Chrysler/Plymouth dealer teetered on the edge of collapse, they stepped in just before Lee Iacocca took over Chrysler, introduced new K cars and sent sales sizzling. Over the years they also bought franchises for Volvo, Buick, GM Trucks, Jeep, Audi, Porsche, Nissan, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Kia, Daewoo and Hyundai. Some were sold to other local dealers as the Waikems refined their own unique sales and operating model. Others, like Hyundai, boomed as quality and marketing improved.

Chip, Doug and David all inherited their father’s hail-fellow-well-met personality and his eye for innovation. They accidentally discovered cars being sold on the internet when a disgruntled buyer asked them to match a price for an internet deal-gone-bad in California. Soon car dealers from across America were traveling to Canton to learn how to sell on the internet, leading to a prosperous training business later sold to Autobytel.com.

They started a towing business to service their customers more efficiently. They purchased a northern Ohio Mighty Auto Parts distributorship after realizing they could offer customers the same quality repair parts for a fraction the price.

Today, Waikem Generations 2 and 3 meet in a monthly board meeting to discuss the business. Generation 3 — Chip’s sons George and Chris; Doug’s daughter, Adrian; and David’s son, Craig — is moving into the business at a time when car manufacturers are throwing out old rule books. Franchises no longer automatically transfer from generation to generation so Generation 3 has to prove their mettle. As Generation 2 already proved, don’t ever bet against a family with the entrepreneurial DNA of George Waikem Sr. in their blood.