A Driving Ambition to Follow the Family Business

Bill Burris

Bill Burris

The son of an auto dealer, Bill Burris ’81 grew up with a passion for cars. His father’s business included dismantling and rebuilding vehicles, so Bill got to work on cars as a youth. With access to wrecks and a body shop, he put together a Porsche from salvaged parts when he was 19.

Recruited to compete with the Westmont track and field team, Bill became interested in human physiology through his experience as a runner. That led to a major in biology and a possible career as a dentist. He served on the medical-dental team for Potter’s Clay and assisted Cliff Benton, a chemistry professor, in his research. After graduating, Bill got a job as a research and development chemist for six months and then discovered he could make more money and have more fun pursuing his first love: cars. His brother, Barry Burris ’84, an economics and business major, also followed the family business and works for Nissan in Tennessee.

Jobs with two Porsche dealerships led to a position as a technical instructor for a Volkswagen distributor, and Bill has chosen to remain on the distribution side of the industry ever since. He spent five years with Porsche Cars North America before joining Toyota in 1991.

“I’m really in the people business, not the car business,” Bill says. “Toyota is focused on taking care of the people in our market.” He has held a variety of positions during the past 18 years. “Toyota is a rotational organization,” he says. “About every two years, everyone in the corporate office stands up, moves over and sits down.”

Bill lived in Japan for two years, serving as a liaison between the parent company and Toyota businesses in the United States. He explained to Americans what Japan wanted and made sure Japan understood the U.S. market. “It was a blast,” he says. “I made the choice to live in Japan as a Japanese, studying the language and learning how they think.”

His recent positions have focused on advertising, first for cars and now for trucks and sport utility vehicles. “I write really big checks to really big advertising agencies,” Bill says. In fact, he does much more, targeting the markets for various Toyota models based on his analysis of research data and his gut feeling. “We sit down together as a team and make decisions by consensus,” he says. Previously, he spent five years in relationship marketing for Lexus, developing the Internet business and direct marketing for that brand.

Like all car companies, Toyota has seen a steep decline in sales. Consumers reacted to the precipitous rise in gasoline prices, global recession and bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler by postponing purchases. “The Cash for Clunkers program was successful in part because it unleashed the pent-up demand for cars,” Bill says. He sees Toyota returning to its roots as a “good value, small-car company. We’ll always sell trucks and SUVs, but they won’t be focus of our global business.”

Bill drives a Camry hybrid, and his wife, Sheila, gets around in a Lexus RX 400 hybrid. His daughter, Vanessa, is 12 and looks forward to her first car. They live in Westminster, Calif. For fun, Bill owns a Ferrari 360 Spider, a Ducati motorcycle and a Honda scooter. “My life is pretty much involved in motorsports,” Bill says. “Getting into the car business was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

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