It was 1986. Southern Illinois’s once-mighty coal mines were on the decline. And John Eaton was concerned. As a heavy equipment mechanic, his job prospects were fading. The young husband and father knew it was time to try something new.

Opportunity knocked when a friend who managed the service department at a Chevrolet/Oldsmobile dealership asked John if he’d be willing to trade bulldozers and cranes for sedans and station wagons. It was good timing — for John and the dealership.

“Back then GM had decided to convert gas engines to diesel engines,” John says. “They started breaking like crazy.”

Wrestling 5.7-liter V8s into submission was no great challenge for a man who turned his first wrench at age 8, after his father died and every dollar counted. (“If I wanted something, I had to fix it.”) He grew up working on his uncle’s farm, where he learned how to maintain and repair tractors and other implements. That became his full-time job before he switched to heavy construction.

But the move to automotive would prove to be career-defining. After a few years as a technician, he was promoted to service manager and served in that role for 15 years. Then, in the early 2000s, opportunity knocked again: John was offered a position as a subagent for EasyCare. He spent several years there, gaining the experience he needed to start his own agency, Southern Dealer Services, in 2005.

“I had built some good relationships I could call upon, and I had a reputation — not huge, not by any means. But I was known in the area I worked.”

That area would expand to include auto, RV, motorcycle and powersports dealerships in his home state as well as Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas. In 2008, he partnered with NAE/NWAN and its founder, Kelly Price, who joined Portfolio’s board of directors following the 2020 acquisition of NAE/NWAN.

“I started with some of their ancillary products, then VSCs and limited warranties, and eventually any product they had, I wanted to offer,” John says. “Once I started doing business with them, I decided I liked the way they treated their agents and dealers. Kelly takes good care of her people.”

When he isn’t working, John enjoys playing golf, hunting, fishing and spending time with his three kids and four grandkids, including son Ryan, who has joined John at SDS. Ryan helps manage the agency’s motorcycle and powersports business, which has grown to represent a sizeable portion of their portfolio. That suits John, a Harley rider, perfectly.

“Quite honestly, it’s a relief to go somewhere you don’t have to wear a sport coat and dress shirt. They take their business very seriously but it’s a completely different environment,” he says, noting that dealers are increasingly forming separate F&I teams to maximize production. “Even the small ones are trending away from hybrid sales and F&I. They’re starting to realize how much money finance can bring into the store when they do it properly.”