Doing well by doing good

Doing well by doing good

David & Holly Wilson, Dean Leslie Wilson, Jim Jermier and President Mark Nook applauding as confetti blows in the wind after the historic gift announcement


Alum's historic gift establishes the David W. Wilson College of Business

At 75, David Wilson, ’70, is reflecting on life. Having spent nearly five decades rising in the auto industry and accumulating numerous honors along the way, he is looking back and contemplating his legacy.

How did this small-town Iowa kid from a lower-middle class family become chairman and CEO of Wilson Automotive, one of the country’s largest privately held auto dealerships? Luck? Sure, he says, but more importantly: hard work, mentorship and a commitment to doing business the right way.


“I believe in the long run,” explains Wilson, a philosophy alum who also earned a minor in business. “I believe if you do things ethically and responsibly, you will be rewarded. Our company has done well by doing right.”

That simple, yet profound ideal is the motivation behind his $25 million gift to UNI, which was announced at a special event at homecoming 2023. Several hundred gathered on the south side of Curris Business Building to celebrate the transformative gift, the single largest donation in the university’s history, and unveil the new name for UNI’s renowned business college.

“I’ve been interested in the value of the liberal arts and ethical-based education since I was a student here at UNI,” Wilson told the crowd. “I believe my business success is a result of the philosophical education I received here. And for that I will be forever grateful.”

David Wilson standing in front of the Wilson College of Business sign

He added that he hopes the contribution will “foster instruction that reveals the importance of maintaining ethical principles in the corporate environment at all levels” while also recognizing the value of business to our nation’s future and the prosperity of its citizens.

In honor of the investment, the college will henceforth be known as the David W. Wilson College of Business.

I believe my success is a result of the philosophical education I received here. And for that I will be forever grateful.

David Wilson

Dean Leslie Wilson

‌“The Wilson College of Business will truly transform business education at UNI, taking our already premier business programs to new heights,” said UNI President Mark Nook. “This is a historic moment for our campus. We’re honored that UNI’s first named college will stand as a testament to David’s belief in the power of education and will provide the resources for the university to foster innovation for the future.”

“Our students are the leaders of tomorrow,” said Leslie Wilson, ’84, dean of the Wilson College. “You’re looking at students today who are future CEOs; who are future business owners; who may be in the health professions, or social work, or teachers.”

She explained that now more than ever students need an education that fosters critical thinking and ethical reasoning skills to help them “make the right decision[s] for the business, for society, for their communities.”

“This gift will allow us to continue to maintain that tradition of excellence that we’ve been known for,” Dean Wilson added.

This most recent gift expands on David’s previous philanthropic support for UNI that established the Wilson Chair in Business Ethics in 1999. For the past two decades, the faculty in this position have educated students about ethics and served as a resource and authority on the topic for the community. The Wilson Chair will play an important role in the vision for the Wilson College and its focus on ethics and integrity.

This gift will allow us to continue to maintain that tradition of excellence that we’ve been known for.

Leslie Wilson

Early life and UNI

A portion of the gift will also establish the Wilson Scholars Fund, providing renewable scholarships for students from Tama County, which includes Traer – David’s hometown.

That small town of 1,000 is where Wilson forged the foundation of his entrepreneurial spirit, delivering The Des Moines Register and Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier as an adolescent. His initial foray into sales, the job demanded he “sell the subscription, deliver the paper and then collect” from his neighbors.

Wilson acknowledges growing up in a lower-middle class family was rarely easy. As the eldest of five children, David took on responsibilities to support his parents, such as night and weekend chores once the Wilsons moved outside of town.

A young David Wilson sitting on a desk overlooking a car dealership

“I went from being a paperboy and shoveling snow and mowing grass in town to working for my dad, which didn’t pay as well,” Wilson laughed. “But that’s what we had to do to survive.”

Neither of David’s parents attended college, but they always expected that path for their kids. David’s mother, who also worked full-time, arranged to pay his first year of school on the condition that he funded the remainder. Thus began David’s time at UNI as well as his entry into the auto business. “Car salesman” was the last in a series of mostly blue collar jobs – night time mechanic and a stint in a foundry among them – which financed his degree.

As an incoming UNI freshman, Wilson wasn’t sure what his future held. He considered dentistry; he thought he might become a minister. He admits that above all he was concerned with staying in school. The specter of the country’s intensifying war with Vietnam loomed over his college years. Too many of his friends, including a fellow Traer native who had dropped out of UNI, were wounded or killed in the conflict.

A young David Wilson pictured with UNI business classmates in a UNI yearbook

There were fond memories of UNI, too: attending wrestling meets, hanging out with friends in the Psi Omega fraternity and listening to the chime of the Campanile bells from his dorm in Baker Hall.

Inspired by classes with Professor Thomas Thompson, a longtime faculty member and head of the Department of Philosophy and World Religions, Wilson would graduate with a degree in philosophy.

“[Professor Thompson] was the one who really got me interested in logic, ethics and philosophy,” Wilson said. “He was an excellent instructor.”

“This well-rounded education gave me the perspective and the ability to really look at things and analyze them … my training in logic I believe has really helped me tremendously in business,” he added.

Wilson would minor in business as well, more than a decade before the School of Business was formally created in 1981. At the time, the program’s home was Seerley Hall.

Wilson said his college years were also defined by the mentorship he received outside of the classroom under Dick Gray, the manager of the local car dealership where Wilson got his first sales job. The two often played chess after work hours and discussed topics such as philosophy and business well into the night.

It was Gray who first exposed Wilson to “The Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peale. The influential book taught Wilson to believe in himself in the face of adversity, and contributed to his decisiveness as a leader.

‌“I was [a college student] wrestling with those questions about ‘What’s happening in my life?’; ‘Where am I going?’” Wilson explained. “And this book says, ‘Quit worrying about where you’re going and what you’re doing and just do it.’”

In 2005, the power of positive thinking would come full circle for Wilson. He was one of 10 Americans that year who were inducted into the Horatio Alger Association, an organization co-founded by Norman Vincent Peale that celebrates “the achievements of outstanding leaders who have accomplished remarkable successes in spite of adversity,” according to the association’s website. With that honor, he joined a diverse membership that includes Ronald Reagan, Maya Angelou, Buzz Aldrin and Clarence Thomas, who would don Wilson with the medal signifying his membership.

“I believe with success comes increased responsibility,” he told an interviewer at the time.

I'm hoping this gift will ensure students will do things the right way.

David Wilson

"Iowa never leaves you"

Shortly after graduating from UNI, David and his budding family would move to Arizona. Wilson said he was inspired in part by a parade magazine ad that beckoned: “Go where the sun goes for the winter.”

As the family’s Lincoln limped into a Phoenix-area dealership, David made a decision that would change his life. When he learned the vehicle repairs wouldn’t be covered under warranty, David persuaded the manager to make him a salesman so that he could get an employee discount on the service. Within five years he would own a 25% stake in the business, ultimately leveraging the partnership to launch his own dealerships throughout the southwest United States and parts of Mexico.

‌Wilson Automotive now comprises 18 automotive dealerships and related companies, employing more than 2,500 people. Sales for these corporations total more than $3 billion annually, making Wilson Automotive one of the largest dealership groups in the nation.

Wilson credits the company’s longevity and success to its “belief in the value of people.” Wilson Automotive is characterized by its emphasis on customer loyalty and retention, its commitment to employees, outstanding reputation in the industry and dedicated involvement in the local communities as a generous and supportive corporate citizen.

“I left Iowa, but Iowa doesn’t really leave you,” David asserts.

David and Holly Wilson

He says a transformational gift to UNI has long been on his mind, and this past year he and his wife, Holly, decided the timing was right.

“I’ve had a wonderful life, a terrific career,” David reflected. “This gift to UNI is made in the hope that this money will transform the university; transform the College of Business into teaching the ethical way to do business … I’m hoping this gift will ensure students will learn to do things the right way.”

Wilson Scholars Fund

The David W. Wilson Scholars Endowed Fund will provide scholarship support for students who graduate from a high school in Tama County, Iowa, and demonstrate financial need. The first Wilson Student Scholar will be awarded in the 2024-2025 academic year with the intent that eventually four Wilson Student Scholars will be funded annually. David grew up in Traer, Iowa, 30 minutes south of Cedar Falls. The Wilson Scholars Fund will offer a path to greater opportunity for generations of Panthers to come, supporting Student Access & Success – one of four pillars of the Our Tomorrow campaign.

UNI students playing cornhole at the David Wilson gift announcement celebration

Wilson Endowment for Integrity and Excellence

The David W. Wilson Endowment for Integrity and Excellence will broaden the scope of excellence for the David W. Wilson College of Business by achieving the following three goals:

  • Expanding student access and success by providing scholarship support, covering tuition, room and board, and fees for students in Tama County, Iowa.
  • Elevating integrity and expanding ethics education for business and nonbusiness students.
  • Fostering innovation.

This endowment will help create a culture of innovation in the Wilson College of Business by providing direct funding and opportunity for innovation. The college will ensure that critical thinking and ethical decision-making remains central to its mission and seek continuous improvement in business program outcomes for Wilson College graduates, while also engaging non-business students in business ethics education programs. This will be a collaborative partnership with the Department of Philosophy and World Religions within the College of Humanities, Arts and Sciences.

The Wilson endowment echoes the Our Tomorrow campaign’s commitment to academic programs and faculty, renewing our investment in the people and programs that support student success at UNI and beyond, with an eye to the next generation.

UNI student talking to David and Holly Wilson

A recap of UNI's largest gift ever

The red statue in front of UNI's Curris Business Building