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Delaware Auto Dealer Santosh Viswanathan on Bringing Teams Together for Success

Published May 9, 2022

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Sheryll Poe

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When Fiat Chrysler Automobiles called Santosh Viswanathan three years ago to say they wanted him to open a dealership to represent them in southern Delaware, he thought it was a scam. “I almost hung up,” Viswanathan said with a chuckle. “They had heard about me and wanted me to represent them. They said they wanted a different candidate, not someone who was already long established in the area.” 

Within six months, Viswanathan, a 30-year veteran in the auto retail industry, opened Lakeshore Chrysler Jeep Dodge and Ram in Seaford, Del. Viswanathan is also managing partner of Willis Ford in Smyrna, Del.

Viswanathan was born in India and spent time in Kuwait, where his father was in the oil business, selling to Japanese clients. He came to the U.S. at 17 years old to attend college at Hofstra University in Long Island before joining his brother at Salisbury University in Maryland. 

While still in college, Viswanathan’s family lost everything due to the Gulf War. “I lost my home. I couldn’t pay my school tuition. We just didn’t know what to do,” he said. The university changed his status from international student so he could pay in-state tuition and gave him a six-month work permit so he could stay in school. 

After graduating with a degree in finance management, Viswanathan started a career in banking, only to get hit by a savings and loan crisis in 1991. It was then that he saw an ad in the newspaper for a dealership looking for someone to work in the finance department. “The first job I applied to, the dealer said, “Now Santosh, how is someone who looks and speaks like you going to survive in southern Delaware?”

Viswanathan has not only survived, but thrived, moving from Delaware to Northern Virginia and back to Delaware, to further his career. He rose from finance to sales manager to general manager and finally, partnering with Bill Willis.

“While working six days a week in Northern Virginia, my wife said, ‘Why don’t you just do this for yourself?’” Viswanathan then called Willis to ask about any dealership opportunities and he offered him a partnership.

Now, he serves as the chairman of the Legislative Affairs Committee committee for the Delaware Automobile and Truck Dealers’ Association, leading the charge in the Delaware legislature to represent the interests of the Delaware franchise automobile dealers.

Fifteen years later, Viswanathan is focused on weaving diversity and inclusion into the staff at his own dealerships. “When I first partnered with my previous employer there was no diversity,” he said.

By taking an active role in the hiring process and meeting each candidate himself, Viswanathan has built a diverse staff at both dealerships, noting that his finance manager is Latina, and he has a Spanish-speaking sales person from Columbia.

When he started his career, he said, “I didn’t notice a difference between me and anybody else. All I knew was I could sell and I could bring a team together under one vision, one roof, one set of principles.” 

Today, Viswanathan says he’s doing just that. “Everything I did I had to start on my own. Doing it the way I did, I put everything on the line, so it has to work. That was always my mentality. Losing was not an option.”  

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. To celebrate, NADA is sharing the stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans in the auto industry. Read the previous post in this series.

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