Auto dealership titan Cecil Van Tuyl dies at age 85

Businessman Cecil Van Tuyl, founder of the nation’s largest privately owned auto dealership group and in recent years, a powerful figure in Kansas City development, died Tuesday from lung cancer at age 85.

Van Tuyl was born and raised on a small farm in La Cygne, Kan. He joined the Navy in 1945 and after World War II became a welder in a Kansas City auto plant.

He then decided to go into the used car business, “selling cars instead of building them,” according to a statement from his family.

After enjoying success in the used car business, he opened his first new car franchise in 1955, a Chevrolet dealership in Kansas City.

It marked the beginning of a remarkable career by a visionary leader who had a passion for cars, a rare business acumen and a gift for picking talent, according to the release.

He became a pioneer in the auto industry by acquiring multiple dealerships, hiring talented managers and making them minority partners in the business.

His son, Larry Van Tuyl, joined him in 1971 and together their unique partnership model enabled them to expand the Van Tuyl Group into the innovative automotive retail business that it is today.

Twenty years ago, Cecil Van Tuyl sold most of his local car dealerships, and the firm has just one in the metropolitan area, Van Chevrolet Cadillac in the Northland.

The bulk of the dealerships now are in the Southwest — the most are in Texas — although they extend as far east as Georgia and west to California. There are now 85 locations and more than 120 dealerships in 13 states. Sales are expected to hit $7 billion this year.

Van Tuyl also had a strong interest in real estate development going back to buying farms and other properties in the 1960s and 1970s.

Two years ago, he helped form VanTrust Real Estate, which is controlled by Larry Van Tuyl with the senior Van Tuyl’s financial support. The firm is involved in many major local projects including Plaza Vista, formerly the West Edge; the headquarters for AMC Entertainment and for Freightquote; and the 212-unit Village at Mission Farms luxury apartments.

Although Cecil Van Tuyl is often referred to as a Merriam-based businessman, he had his permanent residence in the Dallas area. One of VanTrust Real Estate’s biggest projects is the 2,200-acre Craig Ranch mixed-use development in the Dallas suburb of McKinney.

Van Tuyl was well known for his Midwestern work ethic, magnetic smile, piercing blue eyes and firm handshake, according to the statement.

Known as simply “Van” to his friends, the release stated, his business philosophy centered on his passionate belief in the development of people.

His mantra, “People, people, people,” can still be heard daily in the dealerships.

He was married to his wife, Ruby, for 64 years. He enjoyed time with his children, Paula and Larry, his five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Van Tuyl credited the growth of his business to his special relationship with his son.

“I could have never, never grown this way had it not been for my son,” Van Tuyl said.

Van Tuyl was an avid sportsman who loved hunting, fishing, and the outdoors. He especially enjoyed hosting the annual bird hunts with his partners in Mitchell, S.D. Despite his illness, he was able to be at this year’s event just weeks ago.

Officials in the automotive industry praised his legacy.

“Cecil represented the best of the auto industry … a driven entrepreneurial spirit and a deep desire to assist everyone he knew to succeed,” Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager of Toyota, said in a statement.

“It’s not overstating matters to say that Cecil Van Tuyl was a true legend in the world of automotive retailing,” said Mark Reuss, president, General Motors North America.

“From the very day he opened his first store, a Chevrolet franchise, nearly 60 years ago, he was an exemplary dealer — and an exemplary human being as well, one who will be dearly missed.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Van Tuyl family,” said Alan Mulally, Ford Motor Co. president and CEO. “Cecil was a valued member of our One Ford team and we are grateful for his leadership, partnership and friendship.”

A private family service will be held in his honor. A celebration of his life will be held Dec. 9 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Signature Aviation, 10 Richards Road in Kansas City.