By Andrea Lannom - email
When Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, was young, he wanted to be a pilot, never imagining he would actually fulfill that childhood dream along with becoming a government official and a successful businessman in the auto industry.
Cole was born in Boston and lived in New York until the fourth grade. Both of his parents were from Bluefield, W.Va. His grandfather died in the mid-1960s. The family moved back to West Virginia to take over the family business.
"I've been here since the fourth grade," Cole said.
Cole left West Virginia for a brief time, going to Michigan to attend Northwood University. There he received his bachelor's in business administration and an associate's in auto marketing.
"Transportation was one of their themes," Cole said. "Rather than having American history, we had history of transportation. Our advertising professor worked for an ad agency that did work for Lincoln Mercury. School instructors were industry professionals, not teaching professionals."
His education prepared him to come back and work for the family business, a small heavy duty truck dealership in Bluefield.
The business sold various auto parts to the heavy duty truck aftermarket.
"We started with one store, and that grew to 10 or 11 stores in four states," he said. A spin-off of that company took distribution worldwide.
While working for his father, Cole said he learned a valuable lesson, which carries through to his life now.
"I thought I was a pretty smart guy. I came into my father's business. I had been out of college for two weeks," Cole recalled. "I asked for a meeting with him because I had time to look at all the issues and problems. So, I sat down in his office and proceeded to tell him everything wrong with his business. … I felt pretty smug. I felt like I had proven how smart I was and what I learned in college.
"He listened to me. But at the end, he asked, ‘Are you finished?' I said, ‘Yes, sir.' And he said, ‘Now let me tell you something. Anyone can point a finger at what's wrong. … Don't ever do that unless you have thought that problem through to a point that you have a solution to offer. More importantly, offer to be part of that solution.'"
In the late 1990s, Cole was faced with a difficult decision. He said venture capitalists targeted the heavy duty parts aftermarket for roll up and consolidation.
"I ignored their offer for a little while, but I couldn't walk away from that opportunity after a while," he said. "So in my early 40s, I was faced with that question of ‘What do I do? Should I retire or move on?'"
Cole said his automotive marketing degree, coupled with the fact that his father and brothers were involved in the auto business, made for a natural step to find his way into that business, too.
"In 2000, I bought a Honda and Nissan dealership in Bluefield," he said. "We built new facilities and subsequently added Subaru and Kia franchises."
He has since added a dealership in Ashland, Ky., and a manufacturing business in Tennessee.
Cole said his businesses employs 400 people. He also started a side business called Cole Motorsports, which owns exclusive marketing rights to windshield tear-off.
Cole explained that anyone who has watched NASCAR has probably seen this product.
"They came up with this new technology where there is a layer that was clear that is applied to the windshield like window tint is today. It allows you to go through the pit stop, snap a layer off in a split second, clearing the windshield," he said, noting he also does business with the U.S. military.
It wasn't until 2010 when Cole found a love for the government process. That year, he was appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin to fill an unexpired term in the House of Delegates. He served there for six months.
"I think that probably got me to have a little bit of an inside view and interested in the process," he said. "I decided last January for several reasons to run for Senate.
"One thing I found in the House is that there aren't many people up here that are business people," he said. "There are a lot of lawyers and teachers but not a lot of business people. What we need in government is some business sense."
Cole said he feels like it's something he can do to make a difference.
"We live in Bluefield, so it's a rural border community," Cole said. "Historically, West Virginia has not been a business friendly state and Virginia has been. So, I get to see every single day the results of that. There is less and less in Bluefield, West Virginia, and more and more business in Virginia."
Cole said in his work with the Legislature, he remembers his father's lesson and his two questions: "Did you do something to make a difference? Could you make a difference?"
"So far, I'm a freshman senator and in the minority party. However, I West Virginia moving quickly to become a two-party state. Am I singly making a difference? I can't answer that I am at this minute but the charge right now is to help good legislation get through and to get in the way of bad legislation or make it not so bad."
In his free time, Cole said he likes to play golf, and he has been a pilot for more than 30 years. Cole is an ATP rated pilot and he has his jet, helicopter and seaplane licenses.
"Flying has allowed me to prosper in my business dealings," he said. "It's been great to expand my business in areas that weren't easily accessible by other means."