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VIProfile: Shannon Harper

Story by Gay Lyons | Photography submitted 

Shannon Harper, owner of 13 Harper auto franchises in Knoxville, graduated from West High School, earned a degree in business management from the University of Tennessee and returned 10 years later for an MBA. His father, Tom Harper, started Harper Porsche Audi Jaguar in 1981. Later came Volkswagen, Infiniti, Acura, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Jeep, Ram, Chrysler and Dodge. Shannon says he was not pressured to join the family business, but “it’s what we talked about around the dinner table.”

He enjoyed summer jobs at the dealerships. During his college years he became a certified tow truck driver and revealed a “side perk” to knowing how to operate a tow truck. If a fraternity brother “was on the prank list and deserved a little karma,” he might discover that his car had been moved to another location on campus.

Shannon spent his junior year studying in Australia and says he came back with a new outlook. “I wanted to graduate and go down to the Caribbean and be a sailboat captain. My dad said, ‘Son, that’s fun, but that’s not a career. You need to come up with something more meaningful.’”

Instead of a tropical paradise, he headed to Detroit, Michigan, working in the marketing department at Audi USA. He attended the National Auto Dealers Association’s dealer academy, a year-long program where he learned about each aspect of a dealership: new and used cars, parts, service and finance. “It’s five businesses under one roof,” he explained.

After the 2009 death of Dale Underwood, Tom Harper’s business partner for 25 years and a mentor to Shannon in leadership and business management, Tom asked Shannon to be his operating partner.

Tom Harper’s leadership style was empowering and encouraging. “He was great at letting me make mistakes,” said Shannon. “ He let me learn things the hard way. He always believed in having people ‘weigh in to get their buy in.’ He said you have to get people to want to follow you. He was more of a leader by love than fear. Threatening people doesn’t engender long term loyalty.”

2010 was a watershed year for the Harpers. “We knew we needed to modernize our business practices and processes,” he said. “We knew we needed to grow and keep up with the times. We needed to be A+ across the board. Dad put me in charge of all the facility projects. Between 2010 and 2020, we spent $30 million on facility upgrades and additions. In 2010, we had 100 employees. Now we have 375.”

Shannon’s sister, Samma Bromley, is general counsel for the business, which he characterizes as a good partnership. He describes Emily, his wife of 10 years, as a “counter balance, with a strong moral compass and insight in dealing with people.” He says the staff are “like family,” noting the average tenure of a general manager is at least 25 years.

Tom Harper remained an active partner in the business until his death in May 2021. “He was the chief therapy officer,” said Shannon. “He was so good at helping people. I got my core values and moral compass from him, but we had different styles. He said, ‘don’t try to copy me; you be you.’”

Being the second generation in the family business has its challenges. “You have to work harder or no one’s going to respect you or take you seriously,” he said. “You don’t get special perks because of your last name. I manage by walking around. I don’t have an office. I talk to employees, talk to customers.”

Not surprisingly, inventory shortage is a current challenge. “Our inventories are down by 80 percent from 2019,” said Shannon. “But we’ve increased our used car inventory by 50 percent. Our guys have done a fantastic job. Even with inventory shortages, sales are still up. I’d much rather have a supply problem than a demand problem.”

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