The woman behind Wheelers’ success
(Michael Keinhofer photo)
By Kris Rued-Clark
Soft-spoken and a self-described “private person,” Ann Wheeler prefers to remain in the background and let her daughter, Mary Jo, be the “mouthpiece” for the company that Ann has dedicated herself to for 50 years. Yet, Ann’s leadership has expanded a local car dealership into several businesses: Wheelers Chevrolet-GMC in Marshfield and Wheelers Chevrolet, Buick and GMC in Wisconsin Rapids. Ann’s son Daniel and Mary Jo own Wheelers Chevrolet in Medford and Wheelers Auto Repair and Tire Center on Marshfield’s north side.
Sometimes Ann has to pinch herself to make sure it is real when she reflects on the growth of the business that her husband began and she continued to run after his illness and death.
“She always wants to be the one behind the scenes,” said Mary Jo. “My brother and I were 16 and 14 when Dad got sick. When Mom assumed my dad’s role, she had to step out of her comfort zone.”
Chuckling as she admits that she’s comfortable as the “mouthpiece,” Mary Jo added, “Mom never wanted a minority label on her. She felt she earned it on her own. She also created a culture here at the dealership that women can do anything. Because we grew up in that bubble, we didn’t realize that this is not a typical, male-dominated dealership.”
Although pleased that her son and daughter have joined the family business and stepped into leadership roles, Ann noted, “We never pushed the kids to come into this business. They have to have a passion for it. You have to like what you do.”
She added that Daniel and Mary Jo were not given special treatment as the owners’ children, “They cleaned toilets and did outside maintenance. Mary Jo answered phones. As a result, they had respect of people here because they had done all their jobs.”
Likening life to a book, Ann said, “As things progress, you go from high school to college, marriage, death. When one chapter opens, one closes. That’s how you progress through life. Some of those chapters aren’t so nice, but you have to get through them.”
In 1965 as a recent high school graduate, Ann was accepted at Viterbo College, but she was not sure if she wanted to attend. “Dad saw a want ad, sat me down, and told me to write a résumé,” recalled Ann.
She never dreamed she would end up running the company.
“I started at the very bottom. It’s not good to start at the top. By learning all the different positions, you are able to develop procedures. You know how things should be done,” Ann added.
For the Wheeler family, being honest and open to learning and changing are the keys to success.
“You have to learn something new every day. Businesses fail when people become stagnant and feel they know it all. Especially in this business, things change all the time. What you did five years ago or even a year ago is not even relevant anymore,” said Ann.
“The most important thing the kids have is a work ethic,” Ann said. Although she would love for her grandchildren to eventually become involved in the family business, she will wait for them to make that decision on their own.