Alvin “Big Al” Heggs is a former American professional basketball player. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, he attended Florida Community College and the University of Texas, before playing for the NBA Houston Rockets and two teams in the CBA. Heggs has distinguished himself, however, as one of the most successful entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and leaders in the U.S., and is the embodiment of the kind of intelligence, character, creativity, passion, and determination that lies within our urban landscapes. He is the owner of Superstition Springs Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram in Mesa, Arizona (one of only two Black principal owners of such a dealer ship west of Texas-the other being former NBA great, Karl Malone), is opening three new dealerships, and has christened his new holdings Heggs Auto Group.
He sat down with me to discuss his journey, what drives him, his commitment to giving back, and his mentoring of individuals who have similar backgrounds and goals.
You are one of two Black principal owners of Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram dealerships west of Texas. You are also a former professional athlete who has transitioned effectively from player to coach of your own corporate team; from employee to owner. What was your inspiration? How did you get from point “A” to “B?”
My inspiration, from basketball to getting into the automobile industry, was not to fail. Anything that inspires me has a level of “A” and “B,” A being the main course, and B, never having a plan B. There’s no escape route once I make a decision. Once I made a decision to get into this business, there was no escape route. I played professional basketball for 13 years. I retired. I got into the car business. I became a salesman for 18 months, then a manager, a sales manager, and a general manager. Then I got a chance to go through the minority ownership [development] program with Chrysler. This is important because there are only 98 African Americans, men and women, among Chrysler’s 2800 dealerships, who own 51% or better of their business. There are only 201 people of color, in general, who are Chrysler dealership owners. Out of all automobile brands nationwide, among 18,000 dealerships, there are only 900 owners of color. So, the numbers are extraordinarily low, less than 7%, for owners of color in Chrysler. Some manufacturers are at 5%. BMW and Mercedes-Benz, the brands most people want to drive, are less than 3% representation by African American owners.
This is good to know, particularly for people of color, especially Black people, who are shopping for an automobile.
This is absolutely important when you talk about what brands we [African Americans] want to put our money behind. When we have an opportunity to purchase a car from an African American, someone who looks likes us, we should do it, because I promise you that the person who occupies that ownership seat has sacrificed a great deal to get where he or she is. You have to sacrifice. You have to have capital and the only way you can acquire capital is to save, but most people don’t think like this. [Most] Athletes, guess what? We get a salary of a $1,000,000.00 we spend $1,000,000.01. You have to know what your goal is and be disciplined. You have to save and sacrifice. To be a dealer, you have to have a certain amount of capital. To start this dealership, I had to have $1,000,000.00, unencumbered, not borrowed from anybody, for a 20% share. I owned the whole place four years later.
Wow. That is remarkable. I was listening closely and I want to note to our readers that you started as a salesman on the floor. Many of us like the phrase “started from the bottom now we’re here,” but an equal number or more, want to begin on top.
Oh, yes. I was a salesman. I had the money, but I didn’t have the knowledge. Money without knowledge means you’ll be quickly separated from it. I had no knowledge of the industry to go buy a dealership. That’s where most athletes err and get caught up. They retire at 35 or whatever, go buy a dealership with cash and no knowledge or experience, and fail. I started on the ground, so I know how to treat each and every one of my employees, because I know their struggles. I know how it is to be out there in that 110 degree heat. I know how to go out with them on Tuesday and put $5 on a bucket of chicken for lunch that we all share, to build those relationships of affinity and support. I know dealerships, the business, and the people who make them successful, from front to back. I take nothing for granted.
Anyone who follows you knows that family is extremely important to you. In fact, your advertisements remind everyone that your dealerships are “Closed on Sunday, because Sunday is family time.” What role has your family played in shaping your values, supporting your business ventures, and fueling your success?
People always say that beside a great man is always a strong woman. My wife has been right beside me the entire way. We’ve been together over 30 years. I met her when I was 18 at the University of Texas, when we lived in dorms and didn’t have any money. Now we can buy whatever we desire. My mother and extended family of brothers and cousins wear everyone one of my dealership shirts, as if we sell cars down in Jackson. They ride around in Superstition Springs, Heggs Auto Automotive Group t-shirts. When I go to a cookout, man that’s all you’ll see. I say to them “you know ya’ll have other clothes, right?” They respond with “yeah we do…we want to show you our support though.” I say “I know and I thank you.” My family is closely knit. We sit in the backyard and have crab bowls and eat fried fish like most other families that love and support one another. Never forget where you come from. Money is just a tool to use in helping someone else. If you help other people get what they want, you will always get what you want. This is one of the reasons we’re closed on Sundays. I want to give my employees an opportunity to give our Lord and Savior praise for all of the wonderful blessings he has given us, and because that’s what I do at 7:30am every Sunday. I want all of my employees to have the same opportunity to give thanks and spend time with their families. If they are believers, and choose to go, great. If they are not and choose to do something else, that’s fine too. They do not work for me on Sundays, however, because “Sunday is family time.”
I’ve come to associate you with Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram? I should know, because I’ve purchased three cars from you, without anyone from your team asking me too. Bringing my business to you has been strategic on my part. Number 1, I love the product. Number 2, once I found out that you, a young Black male, owned the dealership, the only Black-owned dealership in the state of Arizona, I wasn’t going to buy a car anywhere else. You’re not just an owner, you’re a part of my community, and you seem genuinely passionate about your product, and it’s infectious. Why Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram?
First, I thank you for your support. A lot people from our Black community have said that they would support me by patronizing my business, but most never follow upon. You’ve walked the walk, talked the talk, and done what you’ve said you’d do, and I really appreciate it. Some folks say the right things, but their actions don’t uphold their rhetoric. I’ve heard all kinds of excuses too. “I’d buy a car from you, but I don’t want to drive way out there.” Folks drive all over the place, but they won’t drive here.
“Way out there?” The Greater Phoenix Area, the 6th largest in the nation, is not a pedestrian or public transit city. Most people are compelled to drive somewhere, and often long distances. Besides, most people will buy a car at some point. I figure that a brother like you is worth the trip and the investment, because I’m investing in myself and our community by investing in you. You’re redistributing the profits we bring to you back to our community. No other owner in this City is giving what you give in philanthropic gifts to the Black community.
No, there’s not. Lou Grubb isn’t showing up and giving away thousands in scholarships at the Phoenix Martin Luther King, Jr. Candlelight Service, or sponsoring the East Valley Martin Luther, King, Jr. Breakfast Celebration. He and his peers aren’t sponsoring Just Community Arizona. How many of them are supporting Jerry Colangelo’s Sports Legends Golf Classic, which is “improving the lives of men and their families through early detection of prostate cancer,” which disproportionately affects African American and Latino men? How many of them are hiring people from the Black community? I pay someone just to greet people when they come in the door and to make them feel at home. He is African American and this is deliberate. I want everyone to be treated well and respectfully in my establishment, but I want people of color, in particular, who are often ignored, treated with trepidation, and exploited, to feel as if they have an automotive home that understands their struggles and wants to help them.
You have one of the most diverse employee pools that I have ever seen. Is this deliberate, organic, or both?
It is deliberate. I’ve built a culture of inclusion here. We have to reflect the community we serve and I believe in giving everyone an equal opportunity to earn a living, support their family, and give back. Everyone who shops here will see themselves and their community, whether it be in the form of employee diversity, ADA compliant and accessible facilities, vehicles that cater to all tastes, or financing that accommodates the working poor and people who need a car to keep a job to pay rent and put food on the table, we reflect and serve the whole community. In fact, the music we play on our show room floor, is as diverse as our workforce and clientele. One day it’s country, one day it oldies, one day its jazz, and one day its R&B. There’s something beautiful in every culture and we bring that beauty to bare in our products, service, and atmosphere. My team is a family and our family is a part of a larger community, and it’s my job as a leader to set the tone and keep everyone sailing in the same diverse, inclusive, and excellent direction.
Every time I leave your facility, I come away thinking your employees seem relaxed, legitimately happy in their work, and loyal to you as their leader. How do you foster this? Is it your personality? Is it strategy? Is it a mixture of both?
It’s strategy. Attitudes reflect leadership. Most business leaders make their patrons and clients their number one priority. This is a mistake. I make my employees my number one priority, and they, in turn, make our patrons their number one priority. When owners show confidence in our employees and treat them well by way of excellent compensation and inter-personal communication, they work harder, more creatively, and longer. I know each of my more than 140 employees by name, what they like and don’t like, and I know something about their families, because they are a part of my family. I give regular performance bonuses and random gifts to affirm how much I need and value them too. Treat your employees well and they will treat you and your customers well.
You are committed to your church home (which is also my church home) Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, civically engaged, and very philanthropic (fielding every charitable request personally). In fact, your generosity has become legend. Why are faith, social justice, and giving important to you.
My Lord and Savior is my Alpha and Omega, my beginning and my end. Everything that I am I owe to him and I am committed to living my faith in any way that I can. My grandmother, using Luke 11:1-13, taught me that “a man with clinched fists cannot give or receive.” My hands are open and I lead with a missionary spirit. This enables me to receive God’s messages and blessings, and in return, I recognize the need to give and have been empowered to do so. I attend church regularly, I urge everyone to become active and involved civically, especially voting, and I advise everyone to live a life of purpose, discipline, compassion, and giving.
What’s next for you in the world of business?
I’m proud to announce that we have re-branded and are opening three new dealerships. Superstition Springs Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram is now Heggs Auto Group. Our re-branding and expansion includes the first standalone Jeep dealership in the United States. It will be located right here in Mesa, across the street from this, our flagship dealership. We will also open a new GMC/Buick dealership here in Mesa, and a Chrysler dealership in Apache Junction this year.
Wow. I saw a new major auto mall going up right off of the 202 in Scottsdale. You’re keeping pace and giving them a run for their money.
I told them over there that they can have that area and everything west of it, I just want Mesa and the far east Valley. That’s enough for me.
I’m sure. Many people don’t realize that Mesa is the second largest city in Arizona, with a population of almost 1 million. This is to say nothing of the growth in Apache Junction, Gilbert, and Queen Creek. These are loyal populations too, and they don’t want to leave the far east valley for their big ticket purchases.
Exactly! Mesa and east Valley folk are good, family folks, who want quality items, sold with a positive attitude, smile and gratitude. I don’t need to service everyone. These are my neighbors and I am my brother’s and sister’s keeper. The other dealers can service their neighbors, and if they don’t, their neighbors can come on out to our east Valley family and we’ll show them the love too.
What advice do you have to current professional athletes as they contemplate life after retirement?
Plan, save, be disciplined, remember that God and your loved ones brought you this far, and it is your responsibility as a leader to give back and help create the opportunities you’ve had for others. It’s not just about you and our culture of “me.” It’s about blessing others as you were blessed en route to success. And the more successful you become, the more generous you should become.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially people of color and women, who often lack financial literacy and executive mentoring?
Set a goal and never give up in pursuit of that goal. Things will get extremely tough at times, but that’s when faith and discipline come in. Faith and discipline will see you through the storms, and there will be many. Seek out and find mentors who can guide and advocate for you. Also, “to whom much is given, much will be required.” True leaders lift as they climb, ensure that there are others, from where you come from, have similar opportunities and experiences, and knowledgeable, self-less people to help them navigate.
Thank you very much for sharing your time, story, and wisdom with us. It has been a real honor. Please consider MCUVO!CE your go-to digital source to keep people informed of the wonderful things Heggs Auto Group is doing for potential buyers and the community.
My pleasure my, brother. Will do. Bright things are on the horizon.
Dr. Matthew C. Whitaker is the Editor-in-Chief of MCUVO!CE – MyClickUrban. He is also the Founder and CEO of the Diamond Strategies, LLC (DSC) and the 2016 Arizona Diversity Leadership Alliance (DLA) Diversity and Inclusion Leader Award winner. A decorated educator, author, activist, motivational speaker, and founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and winner of the 2014 DLA Inclusive Workplace Award, at Arizona State University. He can be followed here and on Twitter at @MCUVOICE, @Dr_Whitaker and DSC can be followed on Twitter at @dstategiesllc.