Just off a Montana fly-fishing trip, Cliff Findlay had completely forgotten about our scheduled interview and photo shoot at his Cadillac dealership at the Valley Auto Mall. “Look at me,” he says when I sit down to talk with him and inform him that a photographer is setting up in the showroom. “I’m wearing shorts. I can’t have pictures wearing shorts.”
But with those shorts, he also was wearing a bright red UNLV polo. Truth be told, he’s not only more comfortable in the casual gear, but most people who know him probably wouldn’t recognize him in a business suit.
“Big Cliff,” with his power forward frame and even bigger smile, has more Main Street than Wall Street in him. Besides, wearing Rebel red shows another side of Findlay and his personality.
A fifth-generation Nevadan whose family moved here before it was a state—how many of those people do you know?—Findlay is the head of the Findlay Automotive Group, which has 23 dealerships in Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Idaho and is considered one of the largest dealer chains in the country. A 24th dealership selling Volkswagens is scheduled to open in Las Vegas in August.
Findlay Automotive took off in the early 1990s, running a parallel course with the growth of Southern Nevada. The business got a big boost when Saturn awarded Findlay a dealership, opened as Saturn of West Sahara.
A former Rebels basketball player, Findlay is fiercely loyal to the UNLV program. In 2001, he was named to the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame. He led the Rebels in rebounding on the 1968-69 and 1969-70 teams.
Findlay and his family founded the Findlay Education Foundation, which funds Findlay Preparatory Academy, a college prep school that has developed some of the nation’s top basketball prospects—including current UNLV big man, Carlos Lopez.
Most Las Vegans recognize you as the name and face of the automobile sales industry in Southern Nevada. But who would you say Cliff Findlay is?
Hmm, who is Cliff Findlay? I guess I’d say it’s more than just the dealerships and business. I have a great amount of pride for my family and some of the things we do in the community. I’m a fifth-generation Nevadan and I guess that would make my grandkids seventh generation. There aren’t too many of us around. I love the state, love the city. I like to stay involved with UNLV and with the foundation. To me, it’s all about relationships.
Give us an update on how car sales have fared since the onset of the recession.
It’s hard to believe, but we’re still in an expansion mode. It isn’t going as well as it was back in the ’90s, but we’re still selling cars and people still need transportation and are always upgrading. In this organization, the growth and the expansion are just unbelievable. In 1990, we had just one store. Now, we’re one of the largest organizations in the country. It usually takes buying a bunch of stores, going public or getting some kind of outside funding. But we’re basically a mom-and-pop organization that started with one store and grew to where we’re at now. We only bought about four or five of the places we have. The rest were awarded to us by the manufacturers because they thought we were the best candidate. Let’s say there are two Chevy stores in Vegas and they want to put in a third. They’ll make an announcement to existing dealers and take applications for the third point. They’ll start with about 50 applicants and they’ll narrow it down to one. A typical car dealer will get about one or two that way. We’ve gotten about 18. Everything’s about timing. We got lucky in a lot of areas because the timing was good.
What trigger point will you be looking for to determine when the economy is back on track?
That’s a tough question, but I think it will be when people start building again. We’ve gone through some pretty tough times in the last three years and a lot of businesses are gone. Unfortunately, that has been really painful for a lot of people, but I think we’ll know things are turning around when we see the opening of some new businesses.
You have a number of different dealerships. What’s the car that has sold best during the down times?
We’ve seen a lot of success with the (Toyota) Prius and I think that’s partially because there was so much attention a few years ago on hybrid cars and now, it’s the cost of gasoline. When I first saw a Prius, I wasn’t sure it how well it was going to do, but once people started to drive them, they got a better understanding of hybrids. Of all the alternative-fuel vehicles that have come out or are being talked about, I think hybrids have the best chance for long-term success. There’s a lot of potential for CNG (compressed natural gas), fuel-cell and electric cars, but I think everybody is pretty comfortable with hybrids, and that’s what I think will be most popular for the short term.
What kind of car do you drive?
Well, I’m pretty big, so I usually drive a Cadillac. Even with gas prices up and a lot of good compact cars available, people are still buying SUVs and Cadillacs. A lot of people like to upgrade and sometimes that means going up to a bigger vehicle.
One of your dealerships sells Toyotas. What changes have you seen through the trouble the company had with gas pedal problems, the recall and, now, shipment problems resulting from the March earthquake and tsunami?
Right now, the biggest problem they’re having is delivering cars as a result of the tsunami. That was a horrible tragedy. But the one thing you can say about Toyota is that it’s a resilient company. Even with some of the problems they had and what they’re having to deal with after the disaster, they still make great cars. I’m sure they will make it.
You’re a big booster of UNLV. Is that important?
When UNLV basketball was really going well back in the ’90s, it got the community going in one direction, particularly since we don’t have (National Basketball Association) or (National Football League) teams. It was so much fun. That’s what our athletic department is trying to do right now. With Dave Rice as head coach and Stacey Augmon as assistant coach, who both played on that 1990 national championship team, I think you’re going to see community involvement go to an all-time high. We need something positive in this community to get us feeling better about ourselves.
What was your reaction to how the Nevada Legislature handled the funding of UNLV and education in this state?
It’s hard for me to get involved in that because I’ve had conversations with some people close to UNLV’s president and with the athletic director. It seems like it’s harder for government to make adjustments to the market than private enterprise. In private enterprise, you have no choice. You either make adjustments or you go out of business. For those guys, it’s a different scenario. They don’t think they can get by with some cuts, but at the end of the day I think they can.
What are your views on the UNLV Now stadium proposal under consideration?
I think it would be fantastic, but from what I have read in the paper, the Legislature has turned down what they needed to finance it. I think it would be awesome to have some kind of facility. We’re going to have a new practice facility for basketball. The football facilities on campus are a lot better than they used to be and the baseball team is moving in the right direction. So I think the future is bright for UNLV athletics.
Does UNLV need a football stadium on campus?
What’s your reaction to the recent athletic cheating scandals at the University of Southern California as well as Ohio State?
That’s a hard question to answer because the NCAA has some tough rules that we have to keep up with because we own our own high school. Findlay College Prep is one of the premier high schools in the country in terms of basketball. When somebody blatantly cheats, they probably deserve the punishment they get. I’m not sure that the rules aren’t bent all the time, but some of the stuff I’ve read about seems pretty blatant. When you start lying about stuff, you get in trouble.
Do you think former Rebel Coach Jerry Tarkanian got a raw deal from the NCAA?
He got a very raw deal. It was ridiculous. I read the allegations and it was a joke. Giving a kid a ride to class? C’mon! I don’t want to get into any NCAA-bashing though. There just needs to be a little common sense applied to the rules.
Most people say you had the talent to play professional basketball. Do you have any regrets about not pursuing a career in the NBA?
You know, I actually do because I could have told my kids that I played in the NBA. My three sons and my daughter really like professional basketball so it would have been kind of neat to say I played in the NBA. The coach at UNLV, Rolland Todd, left and went to the Portland Trail Blazers when it was an expansion team and he offered me a spot on the team and I declined.
I wanted to stay here and work. I was a young kid.
If the NBA ever located a franchise in Las Vegas, how do you think that would impact support for your beloved UNLV Rebels?
I think it would actually enhance it if the city is big enough to support both. We’d need to get more bodies to fill both arenas, but I think it would be positive.