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At one point this year, doctors gave Dave Billion a less than 25 percent chance to live.
Bedridden and tube-fed for more than two months after tearing his esophagus in March, the owner of Billion Automotive wasn’t sure himself if he would make it.
“I said, ‘Lord, if it’s time to take me, I’m ready to die if that’s your will. On the other hand, if it’s not, (my wife) wants me to fight this thing through, and I’ll do that. If I make it, it just tells me you’ve got other plans for me.’ ”
He graduated to a wheelchair in June and then set the ambitious goal of going hunting in October.
He credits becoming well enough to shoot pheasants at his ranch west of Plankinton a few weeks ago to the ongoing care of his wife, Christine, and the prayers of hundreds of others.
“That’s all I can attribute it to. I left the doctors shaking their heads. The ones at Mayo Clinic said they consider my recovery miraculous,” Billion said.
“My prayer was that I would be able to listen and follow through with whatever I’m supposed to be doing with what’s left in my life.”
At 74, he continues to lead the auto business his father, Henry, founded with a single dealership in 1935. It has grown to 24 locations in three states, including six in Sioux Falls. The company is on pace for a record year, with expansion planned at major locations around the city.
“I think right now the Sioux Falls business community is good,” he said. “We’ve noticed the agricultural business is a little softer than the business-community business. Farmers were buying a lot, and now businesses are buying a lot. And ag is still OK, just not as strong as it was. But the business is better than it was.”
The most noticeable expansion for Billion will occur in the coming months, as Lewis Drug transitions from its store at 41st Street and Minnesota Avenue to a new building a few blocks north.
Billion owns the 41st and Minnesota property that’s adjacent to its GMC dealership, which is among the nation’s largest.
It plans to convert the 52,000-square-foot Lewis to a space shared by its Kia dealership and by Billion Automotive corporate staff, including accounting and the business development center.
Billion is bullish on Kia, pointing out it has been ranked highest for initial quality by J.D. Power against all automakers for two consecutive years.
“That’s including all high-end vehicles. It’s the first time a mainstream car has won it,” he said. “It’s a growing brand. It’s an excellent brand.”
The conversion from Lewis to Kia will start shortly after the store moves late this year and probably will take about six months, he said.
Billion is tackling an even bigger property on the west side, where the company owns about 15 acres in the area of 12th Street and Marion Road.
Billion already has opened a reconditioning center and parts warehouse there. The next step is to demolish some older buildings, including the former Western Meat & Locker, hopefully before winter, he said.
He hasn’t finalized plans for the vacant property.
“I’m hoping there will be some development there next year,” he said. “We’re working on a couple projects.”
The company also is remodeling and expanding its West 12th Street Toyota dealership – a project held up for years waiting on flood-related restrictions to be lifted.
Now that construction is allowed, the dealership is adding 15,000 square feet and a couple of acres for parking and inventory. The new building will include a customer reception area for the service department, quick lube and customer-car delivery area.
“It will be a completely renovated showroom, the outside is different, and we’ll be up to date with all the current Toyota look,” Billion said.
Don’t expect Billion to branch into new brands anytime soon.
While he has talked with Lexus about the Sioux Falls market, “we’ve been told they’re not ready to come yet,” he said. “We try to take care of the Lexus customer because they’re the Toyota family. We’re not authorized for warranty work, but if they need an emergency repair, we can do it.”
Other high-end brands also don’t make sense with the Billion model, he said.
“Our business model is based on volume. The Billion philosophy is to turn our inventory and sell volumes of cars. You can’t do that with a $100,000 or $200,000 car. It doesn’t fit the profile we want. We like the action, and we like to see volumes of cars come through and inventories turn and taillights going down the road. That’s how we are.”
Retirement isn’t on the horizon, but the future of the business after his leadership has come into focus. Lying there wondering if you’re going to live can cause a person to think about it, he acknowledged.
His top managers, Bill Termaat and Chad Radel, have a minority share in the business, “and it is set up where if I got run over by a bus tomorrow, Bill and Chad would be the owners,” Billion said.
“As long as I enjoy it, I’ll be doing it. When I don’t, I’ll probably ease out. But I have excellent management. We had record months in my absence, and that makes me feel really good.”
It’s important, he said, to keep the company privately owned.
“It means selling for less money, but that’s not important to me. What’s important is the continuation of the philosophy of the business – you take care of your customers and the people who work here.”
Billion primarily lives in Sioux Falls, spends some time in California and balances work with time away. On the day we spoke, he’d just finished on his treadmill and showed no sign of the struggle he endured earlier this year.
“I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been,” he said, adding the experience has changed him. He’s less quick to anger, and more reflective about the reasons he might still be here.
“I’ve dodged a bullet several times in my life. So I must have another purpose before it’s my time to go. I just have to make sure I’m open to whatever that purpose is.”
At one point this year, doctors gave Dave Billion a less than 25 percent chance to live. Months later, he’s recovered with a renewed sense of purpose, and Billion Auto is set to get bigger.