Sandy Sansing: An Exclusive Interview09/09/2020

Sandy Sansing: An Exclusive Interview

Anyone who has spent time in Pensacola has likely come across Sandy Sansing—they may have caught a commercial or seen a billboard for one of his 10 car dealerships, they may have come across him at a business or fundraising event, they may have met him at church or out on the golf course, they may have even bought a car or two from him. Wherever one may have met Mr. Sansing, there is no doubt he left an indelible impression in their mind.

It is Sandy Sansing’s profound belief in family, faith, hard work and community that sets him apart and makes him such a  ikeable person. There is no pretense with Mr. Sansing. He came from modest beginnings, he worked hard, he took a few  chances and he found incredible success—both in business and in life.

After earning the first golf scholarship to the University of West Florida, Sansing graduated with a degree in accounting. It was the dawn of the computer era, and Sansing saw an opportunity. He and his partner leveraged $2,500, a little knowhow and a lot of determination into an extremely successful company, Digital Systems, which they sold in 1980 for a “very, very nice sum.”

Not content to rest on his laurels, Sansing set out to define the next chapter of his professional life. He found it an unlikely place—the car business. Once again, Sansing leveraged a single Nissan dealership into a regional powerhouse of 10 dealerships, including the coveted and illusive BMW contract.

When not spending time at work or with family, Sansing is a dedicated member of his church and generous philanthropist both at home and abroad. COA had the pleasure of speaking with Sandy Sansing about his life, work, family and faith.

COA: Good morning, Mr. Sansing. Thanks for talking with me today. I'd like to go back a little bit and talk about your upbringing and your childhood. Were you born and raised in Pensacola?

SS: I was born in Birmingham, Ala. I moved here in 1950 when I was three years old. My daddy was working for the drug manufacturer Eli Lilly, and they moved him to Pensacola. We lived in the same house in East Hill my whole life. I went to Agnes MacReynolds and then A.V. Clubbs for junior high and then Pensacola High School. Our house was on the corner of 20th Avenue and Scott Street. It was nice. We had little Zamora Park a block and a half away that I'd ride my bicycle to every day in the summer. They'd have some organized games, and I played baseball. I was a big baseball player. There was a Bill Bond baseball league, and Bill Bond was my coach from 10 to 12. Next to my daddy, he was my best role model and a wonderful man.

COA: You mentioned riding your bike and playing baseball. What else did you do as a child?

SS: I love sports. I was a little skinny kid. When I started high school, I was 5'3 and weighed 99 pounds. I wanted to play football at Pensacola High School, but at five foot three and 99 pounds, obviously no coaches noticed me. In my 11th grade year, I grew to 5'11 and 115 pounds. So, I was skinny as skinny could be. My daddy was a golfer, and he got me into golf when I was about five years old. I have continued to play golf to this day. I had a scholarship at Pensacola Junior College. I paid $99 a semester, and that covered my tuition. Then the University of West Florida opened, and I was in the very first full class. I also had the first golf scholarship. So, I played golf. I was still way too skinny to play anything else.

COA: I read that you met your wife via a blind date that your father set you up on. Is that right?

SS: That is correct. My daddy worked for Eli Lilly, and they had won a sales contest. All the district had won a trip to the Grand Hotel in Fairhope, Ala. My daddy had been telling me about this pretty young pharmacist—she had her doctorate in pharmacy —that was working in Montgomery. She was coming anyway, as a winner. He wanted me to come over and play golf with the boss during the day and that night go to their banquet with Peggy, the young lady from Montgomery. I woke up that morning, and it was raining. That was back in the days before cell phones and everything. I did have a landline, and I kept expecting daddy to call me and say it's raining, we can't play golf, so don't worry about coming. But he never called. I drove over and I said, "Daddy, it's raining." And he said, "Yeah, but I want you to meet Peggy." So, we ended up getting to play golf, and I went to the banquet with her that night. In less than a year, we were married.

COA: How old were you then?

SS: I was 26. She had a real good job, and I was a sales manager with Burroughs Corporation, selling computers. I was a sales manager—the youngest sales manager in the southeast. But another guy and I were getting ready to start our own business. Peggy and I dated for less than a year and decided to get married. I had $2,500 saved when we started talking about getting married. I told her that I was getting ready to start a new business. "I've got $2,500. And that's it. I'm leaving a very good job to start a brand-new business and I want you to know that ahead of time before you embark on marrying me." She said, "I love you. We'll make it work." She had a good job, and we lived on her paycheck for the first year until we started getting a little paycheck from our company.

COA: What a great story.

SS: It's a tremendous entrepreneurial story. I don't know if it could be done today. The night before I resigned from my job to start my own business, I went to see my Daddy. I said, "Daddy, I'm scared to death. I'm walking away from a good job with a good future to start a new business. I have a little over $2,000 saved and Peggy's got a job." Let me back up and be correct with this story. Peggy and I were not married at the time. We got married shortly thereafter. But I said, "I'm walking away from a good job and I'm scared to death." Daddy looked at me and I'll never forget it. I've told the story 1,000 times. He said, "Sandy, go for it. This is your dream to have your own business. I don't want to see you back out and then for the rest of your life, look over your shoulder thinking, ‘What if I had tried my own business?’ I don't want to see you live with regrets. Go for it." I was 27 years old at the time. The next day, I resigned. The company threatened to sue me, but it ended up phenomenal. We had the business for less than five years and then we sold it.

COA: What did the company sell?

SS: To start off, we would sell a computer to anybody who would buy one. That didn't work because we were having to hire programmers out of the University of West Florida and take them to a construction company, take them to a credit union, take them to a private school, whoever we sold to. Kids coming out of college may know a little bit about writing programs, but they don't know anything about accounts receivable, accounts payable, construction, bank rolls—all the things that they had to go do. So, at the end of the year, we had no happy customers. We were coming back from a convention in Atlanta for credit unions, and we were big time bankrupt. We had to decide what we were going to do. My partner and I both had degrees in accounting. We had sold a couple of CPA firms a computer with the monthly financial statements for their class. Let's say it was a doctor, the doctor would bring in his checkbook with his check stubs for where he had paid his utilities or where he paid his payroll and he had his revenue. Our computer system would load all of that in and then print out a profit and loss statement and a balance sheet. He would be prepared at the end of the year to go do his taxes with his CPA firm. We made a life changing decision then — instead of trying to be something for everyone, let's be the very, very best at one business. And we selected accounting firms. So, there I was, a 27-year-old talking to a 60-year-old CPA partner at a big firm trying to convince him to spend $30,000 with us on our system.

COA: How did you make it work?

SS: The fact that I had a degree in accounting, and I had worked a year in accounting was helpful. I understood the system and I gained the older CPAs' respect because I did know what I was talking about. I could relate to him in terms that he understood as to what his needs were. He saw that and he understood that. For the first 50 computers that we sold, I might be in the middle of a demonstration and the CPA would say, "Well, I have depreciation every month or I have rent every month. How do I handle that?" I would look him in the eye and I'd say, "Well, Mr. Smith, if I add that to the system to be automatic, will you buy the system?" I'd just sit back and shut up and wait for his response. And 90 percent of the time when I would do that, the CPA would say yes. It gave them a little authorship of the system, and they saw that I was flexible. We did that, and we became the biggest and the best company in the country selling computer systems to CPA firms and public accounting firms to do their monthly work for their clients. We started the company in 1975, and we sold it in 1980.

COA: When did you decide to get into cars?

SS: Well, we had a contract to stay for three years after we sold it. I stayed for a year and a half. My partner stayed longer. I should have been the happiest guy in the world. I had some money. I didn't have to work. But I wasn't happy because I didn't know what I was going to do next. I had two little kids. I had enough money to lightly retire. But I don't think that was God's plan for me —to hang it up at 33 years old. I didn’t want my little children going into school and people saying “What does your daddy do?” Well, he plays golf every day. I wanted to be a role model for my kids. I had a friend who worked for Chevrolet motor division, for the manufacturer. He kept telling me, "You need to get in the car business." I'm not a car nut. I'm not a car guru. Bob Salter owned Bob Salter Chevrolet back then. Bob and I were on the Baptist Hospital board together, and we were also both deacons at First Baptist Church. He was getting near retirement, and I began talking to Bob about buying his dealership. In the meantime, I spent a year traveling all over the South looking at other car dealerships. Mr. Salter and I ended up making a deal, and I bought the dealership in 1986. I was scared to death. I had invested about every penny I had to buy him out. I didn't know the business. It was very different from the computer business with college graduates in three-piece suits. The car business has come a long way today in being legitimized. It was rougher back then, and I had many, many, many sleepless nights. Two years later, I bought Cliff Fields, Nissan. I had hired a guy after my second year named Mike Addison. Mike played football at Alabama with Bear Bryant. He was a college graduate. He was working in a big used car operation in Birmingham, and a friend I had hired encouraged Mike to come down and talk to me. I hired Mike as an assistant used car manager. His wife and family were in Birmingham, and he told him to stay in Birmingham. "Let me go see if this works.This  guy's brand new in the business. Supposed to be a nice guy. Let me go see if this will work out." After about six months, Mike brought his family down. He helped me tremendously, and now Mike is a partner in nine of our 10 dealerships. Mike and I are still working closely together after 32 years.

COA: That's wonderful. I understand getting the BMW dealership was quite a challenge. Tell me about that.

SS: The BMW story is an interesting one. They were not in Pensacola, and I got the name of the guy in Atlanta who was over market development, which means looking at new stores, taking on new owners, closing stores. I wrote him letter after letter. I called him. I went to see him. My wife and I would go to the national car conventions. We would hang out at the BMW booth trying to meet some other influential people. We would go as far as finding out what hotel they were staying at and going and hanging out in the lobby and looking for BMW people coming in. I did that for three solid years. In February of 1993, I was sitting in my office. I heard a knock on the door, and a guy walked in. He said, "I'm Larry Carlson with BMW. We've decided to come to Pensacola, and we want to offer the dealership to you." It blew me away. The most awesome thing that has probably ever happened.

COA: I know that faith is a big part of your life. I wanted to ask how you became involved in the church, what denomination you are and why that is such a deep part of your life.

SS: Well, faith is a very big part of my life. I grew up as a kid in Gadsden St. Methodist Church, and then I accepted Christ as my Savior as a junior in high school. When my wife and I got married, she had grown up Baptist, so we began going to First Baptist Church in downtown Pensacola. We're still very active. I'm a deacon and a Sunday school director. I do quite a few mission trips. I've been to Uganda, Africa multiple times. In Gulu, Uganda, there's a rebel army that kidnaps 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls. The girls were forced to become sex slaves. The boys are forced to become killers and soldiers. When I was there, they showed me this little bitty house where they were taking the kids who escaped and trying to train them on a trade. They told me what they want to do, which was to build a much bigger one and train them in welding, cosmetology and sewing for six months and then give them all the equipment they would need. They told me what it would cost, and I said, "I'll do it." I went back a year later for the very first graduation. One hundred and fifty kids who had escaped had finished the six months training and we're given complete sewing, welding or cosmetology equipment. The joy and excitement on their faces was amazing. The young girls —a lot of them had two or three kids because they had been raped by the soldiers and the boys —they were all smiling and laughing and happy. Sitting next to them were the kids who had just escaped, who were getting ready to go to the next class. They still had the shock, the fear, the shame in their eyes because they had just recently escaped. What a difference that six months made. We have been doing that now for almost 10 years. We've been to Guatemala multiple times on a similar type trip. I've been to Cuba and quite a few other places on mission trips like that.

COA: I know you do a lot of philanthropic work locally as well. Tell me about that.

SS: In our home city, we do scholarships for both the University of West Florida and Pensacola State College for kids who are from this area. About 15 years ago, I was driving to work, and I saw a kid about three blocks from Pensacola Junior College. He was limping, carrying a stack of books and I figured he was walking to junior college. I had gone to junior college because my parents told me, they said, "You've got two younger sisters. We don't have the money for all of you to go off, so we want you to go local for two years and then we'll see what we'll do.” So, my heart went out to this young man, and I began giving money to Pensacola Junior College, now Pensacola State College, for scholarships. I said I'd like to give it to local people who want to continue their education. I've been doing that for 15 years, and over I think 1,200 kids have received some form of a scholarship. About eight or nine years ago, I began doing the same thing at the University of West Florida. We support the Gulf Coast Kids’ House for abused children. Sue Straughn from Channel 3 began the communities caring at Christmas program 40 years ago, and I've been Sue's partner in that for 33 years helping kids have a Christmas. I could go on and on with different charities that I support. I believe that God has blessed me unbelievably. I believe that I'm to be a steward of what he has entrusted to me. It all belongs to him, not to me. He has blessed me with it. There's a verse in the Bible, Luke 12:48 that says “To those who much is given, much is required.” I have been given everything from a wonderful family to health to financial success to business success. I think it's an obligation and a desire of mine to give back to help others because I have been so unbelievably blessed. I'm still very active in my church. There's an organization, Fellowship of Christian Athletes — it's a worldwide organization. I have served as a local chairman for 25 years and as the vice chairman of the International organization. There are others, but those are just the highlights just to show that my faith and my commitment is very, very number one in my life. I am blessed to be where I am.

COA: You support so many charities and so many organizations in this town, but you do tend to focus a lot on children. What is it that that drives you toward that, and what do you see as some of the most pressing issues for kids in our community?

SS: Well, I love children. I've got six grandkids and two kids. I love children. A little child in need cannot help themselves, so unless somebody steps in and offers help in some way or the other, that little child has no chance in life. I am not necessarily gifted as a teacher or in other ways to help children, but where God has blessed me is on the business side. I can give financially to help support Gulf Coast Kids’ House and different schools, and then the teachers, the coaches, the counselors can help as well. There's no one person who can do everything, but if each of us can do something, together we can accomplish a whole lot. We're partners in education with six schools and support 50 Little League baseball and soccer teams. I do believe in children. Almost all the money that we give is tied to helping children or the Christian faith. We have pressing needs in our community. We have needs in education. We have needs in feeding the children. We have needs in role models for the children. Programs like Take Stock in Children, which my daughter Stephanie got me involved with are wonderful. We give a sizable amount of money, and the organization selects a child. If that child maintains the grades and the integrity and stays out of problems, then they have a free college education. We've been doing that for many, many years. Through the different scholarships, feeding and counseling programs, we can help a lot of kids. I was fortunate to have wonderful, loving parents. They weren't wealthy. I didn't go to some prestigious university. I went to the two local colleges. If I can give money or my time to help other children have a chance at life, I think that’s what God's calling for my life is today.

COA: I wanted to back up a little bit and ask about your partnership with Bubba Watson. How did that come about?

SS: When Bubba moved back to Pensacola, I was at the Pensacola Country Club one day playing golf, and he and his business partner Randall Wells were there playing. Bubba and Randy came over and said, "What are you doing on Friday?” I said, "Why?" They said, "We want you to play golf with us." I said, "Well, whatever I'm doing just got cancelled, if I can go play golf with Bubba Watson.” So, I played with them, and we just hit it off and started talking. Bubba and his wife Angie are very close in age to both my son and my daughter and my daughter's husband. After playing golf with him several times, I invited him to a barbeque at my son’s house. Bubba and my son became best friends. Angie, Bubba's wife, and my daughter have become best friends. He kept saying that he wanted to get in the car business. At that time, I had been negotiating with a guy named Lou Sobh who owned the Chevrolet dealership in Milton. I talked it over with my family because we didn’t have any outside partners except Mike, who is my working partner in every store. I told Bubba I was negotiating on a dealership in his hometown. Bubba grew up in Baghdad right outside of Milton and went to Milton High School. I said, "If I buy it, I'm going to let you come in and buy a piece of it." He was so excited. He's been a wonderful partner. He wants to help. He wants to learn. He keeps joking with me about buying into all the dealerships. But he's in that Chevrolet dealership, and he loves the car business. We've become dear friends.

COA: Your son-in-law ran for public office and you supported him in that endeavor. Has the current state of politics made you step away from or lean into statewide politics?

SS: I'm a passionate American. I have my feelings, but in the retail business, half the people may feel like me and half may feel otherwise. So, I am very, very selective in terms of which local politicians I support because then everybody who is for the other candidate may say, "Well, I'm not going to buy a car from him. I'm not going to support his business." When my son-in-law ran, yes, I came out big in support of him. I've supported Malcolm Thomas and Sheriff David Morgan — certain people who I have known and have been involved deeply with. Mostly, I am very quiet and behind the scenes because my business has to survive on selling cars and service to everybody, not just people who may have my same political feeling.

COA: Speaking of business, how is business? How has the pandemic affected car sales for you?

SS: Well, business has been good. The pandemic began in March. I was out of town, and I flew back. I explained to my managers that our business was going to tank and that we needed to tighten our expenses immediately. I said, "You've all got some marginal employees that we can carry during good times, but we're going into some desperate times, and the key factor is that the business has to survive or none of us will have a job. So, we have some tough, tough decisions." We cut advertising tremendously. We let quite a few people go and business went off about half. Then the federal stimulus program kicked in, and business picked back up. Business was very good for April, May and June. Now, the federal stimulus is off, and business is starting to slow down. We've just got to kind of manage our business as best we can.

COA: Do you have any plans to retire?

SS: I really don't. I love what I do. I may take off in the afternoon to go hit golf balls or I may take off in the afternoon to go play with grandkids or take grandkids to hit golf balls, but I still have a sincere passion for my business. And for my people. I love my people. We've got almost 600 employees, people who have been with me 20 to 30 years. I enjoy seeing them. I enjoy the excitement of running the business, of working with my son and my partner, Mike. We just opened a new Nissan dealership in Foley, Ala. One of my managers was promoted to General Manager to run that. And it's exciting for me to be able to give opportunities to our young guys and girls and help them have good jobs. As long as I have a passion for it, I'll still be here at work. Again, I don't work near the hours I used to work. I used to be six days a week, eight in the morning to seven or eight at night. I don't do that anymore.

COA: How long have you been married?

SS: We have been married for 44 years.

COA: What's the secret to a long, happy marriage?

SS: Give and take. Learning to say, "Yes, dear.” Learning that I don't get my way all the time. I have a partner whom I love dearly. Her thoughts are not always my thoughts, and I need to do my best to understand and appreciate her and her desires, thoughts, wants and wishes.

COA: Is there anything that I haven't asked you about that you think it's important for people to know about you?

SS: No, I think you've hit on everything—my faith, my family, my business, my childhood, my college, starting business, our growth in our business. I think you've asked all the right questions. I've tried to seek God's will in my life. I kind of want to be like the Apostle Paul. When it's over, then God can look at me and say, "You were faithful. Good job." That's my goal in life now is to be a servant. To be in the middle of God's will and do what he wants me to do. He has blessed me unbelievably, and I  sincerely appreciate it.

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