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S. Mitchell Walters

Friendship Ford of Bristol
Bristol, Tennessee

“I have always thought that if we treat our customers like friends and our team members like family, our business would be a great success. And it worked.”

Walters attended the Ohio State University in Columbus and earned a B.B.A. in automotive marketing from Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, in 1976. Since he was 10 years old, he knew he wanted to be a car dealer. His father and grandparents owned Walters Chevrolet in Hebron, Ohio, and Walters spent afternoons after school at the dealership. 


“I remember sweeping floors, stocking soda machines, picking up shop rags, washing cars and working in the service and parts departments,” he said. “I did it all. In the beginning, my pay was a bottle of Coca-Cola.” 


Walters never lost focus on his dream and is thankful that he was able to experience all facets of the dealership operation, even as a young boy. “Knowing what you want to do in life at an early age makes the journey so much easier,” he said. 


Rather than return to his family dealership after college, Walters relocated to Tennessee to start his automotive career. “I moved with my wife, our 4-year-old son and a child on the way – plus my ambition and $35 in my pocket,” he remembered. “My wife and two sons have been my greatest supporters every step of the way.” 


Walters landed a Chevrolet/Cadillac/Honda Dealership in Bristol in 1976 and worked in several leadership positions before becoming an operating partner. Then in 1993, his dream was finally realized when Ford Motor Company awarded him a franchise in Bristol. 


“I am where I am today because I had a clear goal, a great plan and put in lots of hard work,” Walters said. “Most important, I have been able to surround myself with the best people. Watching our team members grow and succeed in life is an amazing gift.” 


Walters has advocated for the industry on the national, state and local level. He has served on advisory councils for several manufacturers, as well as on the board of the Tennessee Automotive Association. 


“Because I take our business seriously, I was committed to improving the customer experience at every level in sales and service by offering honest feedback to the manufacturers we represent,” he said. “I have also always been vocal about protecting the rights of consumers and retail automotive dealers. I tried to be a champion for fair regulations and reasonable processes to allow businesses to succeed.” 


Walters’ philanthropic efforts touch many different segments of his community. In partnership with Bristol Tennessee Schools, he is donating his original Ford facility to house the Friendship Career Center, which will provide real-world technical education programs to students. 


“Students will graduate and be manufacturer certified and ready to work immediately in an area of their interest,” he said. “Regional auto dealers will also benefit from a new pool of qualified automotive technicians.” 


He also created Friendship’s Bikes for Kids, an initiative that donates new bicycles for distribution to children in need during the year. Additionally, his Friendship Foundation provides donations to more than 100 organizations, from schools to youth sports to scholarship programs to food banks to churches. 


Recently, he has donated to a new building fund for PETWORKS, an animal shelter in Kingsport, Tennessee. And to honor his generosity, the organization’s dog park was named Friendship Bark Park. In the Spring of next year, Camp Friendship will open to provide outdoor activities for the underprivileged children in the region. 


Walters was nominated for the TIME Dealer of the Year award by Bob Weaver, president of the Tennessee Automotive Association. He and his wife, Danea, have two children.