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Salem Business Legacy: Withnell’s Way – The Path to Community Triumph

Written by Wyatt Jones on Dec. 11th, 2023
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SALEM, Oregon — From a self-described “underdog” to a respected pillar in the Salem business and community sphere, Dick Withnell’s story is one of resilience, community service, and the power of positive leadership. In an exclusive interview with the Salem Business Journal, Withnell, the founder of Withnell Motor Company and now retired, reflects on his journey, sharing insights and wisdom garnered over decades of community involvement.

Born into adversity, Withnell faced skepticism about his potential for success. “Many people said to me, ‘You will not be successful,'” he recalls. Yet, through assembling a strong team in the automotive industry and overcoming numerous challenges like high interest rates and market downturns, Withnell proved his detractors wrong.

A pivotal moment in Withnell’s career came when he paid off Emerson Teague at Withnell Motor Company. Gerry Frank, a mentor to Withnell, congratulated him but also imparted a crucial lesson: success is a communal effort. “Gerry told me it was the people who had purchased my goods and services who made me successful, and I needed to give back to those people—my community,” Withnell shares. This realization ignited his desire to step into a more significant role in community and business leadership.

Withnell’s journey wasn’t without its hardships. He recounts a significant challenge in 1989: an order for 317 Aries K cars with the wrong engine, valued at over $3 million. Not accepted by the State of Oregon, this misstep could have been disastrous. But, by galvanizing his team to retail the vehicles while ordering new ones for the State, Withnell turned a potential crisis into a triumph within 100 days.

When asked about a project that resonated with him or transformed the community, Withnell humbly defers individual credit. “I never significantly transformed our community alone,” he states. He highlights the collective efforts of “Tribal Leaders” in recent initiatives, including those by YWAM, YMCA, UGM, and the Boys & Girls Club, which collectively raised over $100 million.

Regarding empowering community members, Withnell believes focusing on needs rather than differences is vital. He illustrates this with the “No Meth – Not in MY Neighborhood” campaign. Collaborating with the business community, Neighborhood Associations, and former Salem Mayor Anna Peterson, they tackled the law and order issues of meth houses, leading to increased foster care for children removed from these homes. This initiative demonstrated his knack for facilitating dialogue and negotiation in divisive issues.

Looking ahead, Withnell expresses concern about older community members retiring or relocating, taking their experience and community involvement with them. He advocates for continued engagement: “Instead of moving out of the state that has made many of us successful, so to speak, we owe a ‘give back’ to our community.”

Throughout challenges, Withnell’s faith has been a cornerstone of his resilience. “I believe in what has been taught to us by having faith in Jesus Christ, and simply living out the Good Samaritan rule,” he states. This philosophy has not only uplifted his spirit but also influenced those around him.

For those aspiring to leadership roles, Withnell emphasizes the importance of giving back, not just monetarily but through sweat equity and wisdom sharing. He credits his mentor, Gerry Frank, for instilling this ethos, describing it as a “high tide that raises all boats.”

Dick Withnell’s journey from an underdog to a community leader underscores the transformative power of resilience, community service, and positive leadership. His story is not just about personal success but about the collective growth and enrichment of the Salem community, setting a benchmark for aspiring leaders in business and community service.

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