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Dealing Well and Doing Good

Willis was “born into the automobile business” at his father’s Chevrolet dealership in Smyrna, Delaware, where he started washing cars as an eight-year-old.


Drive ahead 60 years and Willis is still washing cars, just with a lot more help. Today, he has 500 employees working at his nine Des Moines area dealerships.

It all started with Willis’ decision to attend Simpson sight unseen after paging through his older brother’s college catalogs. Despite being 1,000 miles from home, Simpson was the only college he considered.

“I was ready to go to Iowa and be Rich Willis. Growing up in a small town as the son of the local Chevrolet dealer, you’re under a pretty tight microscope.”

Ironically, making a name for himself here is the ultimate result of a serendipitous connection his father made at a 1972 gathering of dealers in Detroit. There, his dad met prominent Des Moines Cadillac dealer Chuck Betts.

Betts encouraged Mr. Willis to have Rich reach out about working at his dealership. Rich jumped on the opportunity and started out washing cars for Betts as a sophomore at Simpson.

Things accelerated quickly from there. He was entrusted to work in service and eventually sales while still in college. After graduation, he kept driving onward and upward at Betts Cadillac, moving into the driver’s seat to buy Betts’ dealership in 1988.

“My goal was to have a dealership of my own by the time I was 35— and I was pretty much on target,” said Willis. “I saw how well respected the Betts name was in the Des Moines community and the opportunity to buy that brand was God’s gift.”

Growing and Giving Back

After that, it was full throttle forward to eventually acquiring eight other dealerships. As his businesses have grown, so have his opportunities to serve the community. Not only has Willis played an active role in helping to revitalize downtown Des Moines, team members at all of his dealerships are also enthusiastically engaged in serving more than 100 non-profit concerns. Moreover, he and his wife, Kim, are well known throughout Greater Des Moines for their personal investment and leadership in a wide variety of philanthropic endeavors.

“We have opportunities to give back to people in such a huge way. I remember how my first board experience with the Boys Club of Des Moines inspired me that there’s a whole lot more I can do outside this dealership.”

As a former trustee and longtime supporter of Simpson College, Willis is eager to see the College leverage opportunities for greater visibility and engagement in Des Moines and for students to take maximum advantage of what it has to offer.

“I want more students driving to Des Moines like I did 50 years ago to get exposure and practical experience in the business world—or any field they want to be in.”

Indeed, as Willis has modeled, making the commitment to always go the extra mile can take you a long way.