INSIDER

When Jim Allee died in February 1983, Henri Allee could have sold her husband’s lucrative automobile dealership and eased into retirement, spending time with her three grandchildren on the family boat.

After all, the dealership’s bank and franchisers, which include Oldsmobile, Jeep and Honda, would have preferred their franchises be run by an individual with a more experienced hand (read: a man). In addition, tempting offers to buy the dealership were coming in from all over the country, and the IRS was threatening to levy a whopping tax if she took over her late husband’s business.

“Nearly everybody was telling me that I just had to sell,” says Mrs. Allee. “I was scared to death to even think about running the dealership. It’s not like it was any stranger to me-Jim discussed everything with me. But this is a very complicated business. It’s almost like running five separate businesses.”

But a few of her close friends were encouraging her to keep the dealership. On their advice and after searching her conscience, Mrs. Allee decided to bite the bullet and make a go of running the dealership herself. “I knew that if I sold the business many of the people I knew would be replaced by their new employer,” she says. “Jim had a lot of people who had worked for him for 15 or 20 years.”

The early going was tough, she says. “At first I felt uneasy-very uneasy. It was like walking on a tightwire for a year. I thought I could drop by maybe three days a week and run the dealership. I found out quickly that it was a five-day-a-week job.”

Now Mrs. Allee has turned the corner. She prevailed with the IRS, and, although she is the only female car dealer in Dallas (there are about 30 nationwide), Mrs. Allee is known as “one of the boys.” Moreover, the dealership, which still retains her late husband’s name, had its biggest volume year in its 24-year history last year. The three franchises did $58 million in sales, up from $48.7 million the previous year. Only a few weeks ago she moved her Oldsmobile dealership to a new $7 million facility at LBJ and Shiloh.

One of those who encouraged Henri to take the helm of the dealership was Dallas automobile dealer Bob Eagle of Eagle Lincoln-Mercury. “She’s done an outstanding job,” says Eagle. “She’s a very nice person. She’s low-key and an extremely honest, capable competitor. She’s asked me for advice on several occasions and I’ve been glad to assist her.”

Eagle attributes much of Mrs. Allee’s success to her ability to surround herself with good people. “She hasn’t got the experience, but she hires experience,” he says. “She’s very sentimental about her employees.” One of those employees who has been responsible for the dealership’s success is her son, Rusty Wallis, who left a post with a Fort Worth dealership to become CEO of the Allee dealerships.

“Henri has earned the right to do what she does,” says Eagle. “She took care of her husband all those years and now she’s taking care of her business.”

“She’s made some tough decisions,” says Dallas oilman G.N. Parrott, a long-time friend. “She let some people go and she’s sold some of the assets she didn’t need. When she had to, she jumped right in with both feet. But she’s also had a lot of help from some of her automobile dealer friends. That’s kind of rare, I don’t believe it would happen in my business.”

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