By Becky Gillette
Michael Joe Cannon started working at the age of eight bagging up peanuts and selling them on Saturdays. Then he ran a snowball stand and later a pool hall. At the age of 14, he started helping his father at a Calhoun City used car lot housed in a 12’ x 12’ office with an average of ten cars out front. Fast forward to 2017 and Cannon has been referred to as Mississippi’s Car Czar in the press by virtue of now owning 15 dealerships, 13 in Mississippi and two in Arkansas.
“My dad taught me how to work hard and to always be nice to people,” Cannon said. “I never really set out with the vision we would be this big. But, I enjoyed the car business, the business grew a little, we had some great folks working for us, and moved onto the next store and then the next one. Opportunities presented themselves.”
Cannon Motors of Mississippi now has more than 450 employees, and represents 13 different automobile brands. But don’t look for Cannon to be resting on his laurels. This businessman who says he doesn’t have a favorite car spends a lot of time on the road keeping up with the different dealerships. He is an admitted workaholic.
“I don’t have many hobbies except working out a little.” He said. I hunt from time to time. But mostly it is work, working out and family.”
Cannon didn’t start out planning to build a major auto empire. As a kid, his dream was to be a college football coach. After high school, he played football at Northwest Community College in Senatobia before attending Memphis State. After graduating, he coached at Northwest Community College until his father passed away in 1986. He went back home to help his mother by tying up the loose ends of his father’s car business.
After a while, he came to realize he wasn’t going to get back into coaching. “I transformed into the car business without even meaning to,” he said.
He found that not only did he enjoy selling cars, he enjoyed coaching people.
“That is what I do every day – I coach a large team to be able to carry out the mission that we are all on, taking care of our customers and providing excellent service,” Cannon said.
Traditionally, car dealerships aren’t up for sale that often. Families tend to hold onto franchises for generations. But, Cannon has managed to be there when people were ready to sell, most recently in the case of the acquisition of Kossman’s in Cleveland.
“Ed Kossman was going to be the third generation to be chairman of Mississippi Automobile Dealers Association (MADA)—both his father and grandfather were chairmen–before Michael Joe made him an offer he couldn’t’t refuse,” said Tony Petro, owner of Petro Nissan in Hattiesburg and immediate past chairman of the Mississippi Automobile Dealers Association (MADA). “Michael Joe is one of those guys, it didn’t matter what he decided to do, he would be good at it. He works hard as hard as anyone I’ve even known and takes care of his customers just as well as he does his employees. It is a big operation, but it is still a family business.”
In addition to hard work, Cannon attributes the company’s success to great employees who care about the importance of being fair and taking care of customers.
“And, obviously, we have a great customer base that has been very loyal to us,” Cannon said. Once people saw we were in the acquisition mode, if they didn’t have a child who wanted to be in the automobile business, they reached out to us. We reached out to them, as well. Historically, car dealerships do stay in the family for a long time. But there are a lot of mergers going on right now just because of the margins. It helps spread out expenses more.”
Cannon’s first acquisition after Calhoun City was a used car lot in Grenada purchased in 1989. They bought their first new car dealerships, Chevrolet, Cadillac, and Nissan in Greenwood in 2001–just before 9-11 crashed the economy.
I had put everything we had saved on the new dealership,” Cannon said. “Then 9-11 came and I thought, ‘Oh my, what have I done?’ We had a rough couple of months. Shortly after that, GM came out with zero percent financing. That really gave the automobile industry a shot in the arm. We were able to rebound and ended up moving out to Highway 82 in Greenwood with the two new franchises in 2005. In 2005, we also purchased the Ford Lincoln dealership in Cleveland.”
Another challenging time for an acquisition was in the 2009 recession when they purchased Deuce McCallister Nissan in Jackson.
“I wouldn’t be telling all the truth if I said I wasn’t a little concerned,” Cannon said. “But that was a great franchise in a great location. We just felt like it fit us and we needed to move forward. And it has been really good for us.”
In the world of auto sales today, customers have a lot more information. With a bit of Internet research, they can get a good idea about what they should have to pay for a new or used vehicle. Cannon thinks that is a good thing.
“Most people know the answer to questions before they ask it,” he said. “The advice I give to sales people is to take care of customers by being transparent, listen to the customer, and be in constant communication. Always follow back up with your customers and be sure you take care of their needs. We call it ‘run the play.’ Don’t try to do anything outside of what you have been instructed to do. People know you have to make a profit to stay in business. Just treat them fair and honest, and don’t try to BS them. Always have a positive attitude. You’re the one who controls that. If you do all those things, and communicate with them, people like that. They want to do business with people they know and can trust.”
Online shopping is having a huge effect on the auto business. Cannon even foresees the day when parts and service will be in the front of the store, and sales will be in the back.
“We are working towards being able to do the whole transaction online by the end of the year because that is what people want, the younger crowd in particular,” Cannon said. “Some people still like the personal touch, but online shopping is gathering steam as we speak. It is the future of the automobile business. Buyers today are so educated about what is going on. You can’t afford to be not be transparent with them. Our ultimate goal is to give our customers the experience they deserve with the second largest purchase they will ever make in their lifetimes.”
The technology involved in cars today is something that still amazes Cannon. In some cars the seat will vibrate if you go over the center line, or stop the car if you are about to back into something. With that kind of technology, service has become very specialized and necessary.
Cannon met his wife, Cheryl, at Memphis State where she was a cheerleader. She went on to become a nurse and also coached the dance team and cheerleaders at Northwest. She has been a strong supporter of Cannon Motors all along, and still helps out at the business, in addition to working as a personal trainer.
The couple has three children. Tyler is general manager of Cannon Ford dealership in Cleveland, and most recent acquisition, Cannon Chevrolet, Buick GMC in Cleveland. Their daughter, Morgan, lives in Dallas where she works in the wholesale clothing industry. Their third child, Luke, just his finished freshman year at Ole Miss, majoring in accounting, and is planning on getting into the car business.
Cannon’s dealerships include, Cannon Ford Lincoln, 607 North Davis, Cleveland; Cannon Chevrolet Buick Cadillac GMC, 114 North Davis Ave., Cleveland; Cannon Nissan, 905 1-20 South Frontage Road, Jackson; Cannon Nissan and Cannon Ford, Blytheville, Ark., 305 N. Service Road; Cannon Honda, 2057 North Service Road, Vicksburg; Cannon Toyota, 4105 Clay St., Vicksburg.; Cannon Chevrolet Buick Cadillac, 100 North Thacker Loop, Oxford; Cannon Nissan, 479 Highway 6, Oxford; Cannon Chevrolet Cadillac and Cannon Nissan, 69900 Highway 82 West, Greenwood; and Cannon Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, 69860 US-82, Greenwood.
Cannon also has pre-owned dealership at 5402 1-55 North, Jackson, 200 east Veterans Ave., Calhoun City and 235 Dr. MLK Jr. Blvd., Grenada.
While it is good to have children interested in the business, Cannon is still in expansion mode and doesn’t have his sights set on retiring.
“My plans are to never retire,” he said. “This is all I do. I love the car business. Remember, when the smoke clears, nobody beats a Cannon deal. Nobody!”