AUTO MARKETING: CHALLENGES NOTHING NEW FOR CROSS-CONTINENT : 1ST PUBLICLY HELD DEALER LOOKS TO BOOST USED CARS

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Texas car dealer Bill Gilliland fits right in on Wall Street, despite the nice manners and the 10-gallon-hat accent.

He pulled off something that a lot of bigger, better-financed companies wanted to do for years. In September 1996, Mr. Gilliland was the first to take a group of new-car dealerships public.

Having managed dealerships since 1966, Mr. Gilliland, who says his background is in accounting, acquired his first dealership, Quality Nissan became fascinated with the idea of public ownership.

"I would go to all these meetings, and people would say, `Public ownership is gonna work, gonna work, gonna work,' and then nobody would do anything about it," says Mr. Gilliland, who adds he's been studying the idea of an initial public offering for 10 years.

The result is Cross-Continent Auto Retailers, traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Mr. Gilliland is chairman-CEO. Including pending acquisitions, Cross-Continent owns nine dealerships in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Nevada.

Home base is Amarillo, where Mr. Gilliland is the only dealer of Chevrolets and Nissans. Mr. Gilliland says he's the only Chevrolet dealer in a market his size with permission from General Motors Corp. to own more than one dealership in the same market.

USED-CAR IMPORTANCE

Sales of used cars and trucks are an increasingly important part of the company's overall profitability. Retail sales of used cars and trucks grew from 2,029 units in 1991, to 6,170 units in 1995.

That's partly because the group was acquiring new dealerships, but the company says the trend also reflects nationwide trends: the growing popularity of used vehicles.

Factory approval was key to pulling off the IPO. Chevrolet and Nissan were the first to go along with Mr. Gilliland's plan, but they won't let Mr. Gilliland sell more than 20% of the common stock without their approval. Nissan Motor Corp. USA says further that Mr. Gilliland must own at least 20% of the company, and the carmaker tied its dealer agreements to achieving market share goals.

Considering that the 3.7 million shares in the initial offering represented only about 27% of the ownership of the company-Mr. Gilliland owns virtually all the rest-a would-be takeover artist would have to buy nearly all the shares available on the market to reach the threshold.

SLOWER GROWTH

Like other publicly traded chains, Mr. Gilliland plans to grow by acquisition, but at a slower pace than the bigger players. Mr. Gilliland says he wants to expand primarily in the West and South-regions where there are fewer dealerships relative to the population.

It took some guts to lead the first IPO, but Mr. Gilliland says he's always enjoyed a good relationship with the factories.

"It's a pretty simple relationship. They make 'em, and we sell 'em. I don't lay down in front of them, either, but I've always gotten along with these [factory] guys," he says.

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