Billionaire brothers Thomas and James Duff buy dealerships Duff Capital Investors last year bought Mississippi dealerships John O’Neil Johnson Toyota and John O’Neil Johnson Hyundai from Neil Johnson.

As Printed online in Automotive News, March 26

Duff Capital Investors, owned by billionaire brothers James and Thomas Duff, is quietly buying dealerships in the siblings’ home state of Mississippi.

But despite owning eight dealerships, several buy-sell experts told Automotive News they hadn’t heard of the investment company or the Duffs, whose family is more widely known for its 50-plus year history in the tire business.

The Duff patriarch, the late Ernest Duff, in 1973 started Southern Tire Mart, a tire retailer and auto service company that now boasts more than 200 locations nationwide. In 1998, Ernest sold the business, but according to Forbes, James and Thomas bought it back five years later.

As of Monday, Forbes ranks both Duff brothers No. 1,091 on its list of The World’s Real-Time Billionaires, with a net worth of $3 billion each.

Last year, the magazine named them the richest people in Mississippi. And their Forbes wealth ranking on Monday puts the Duffs in the company of auto retailers such as Penske Automotive Group Inc. CEO Roger Penske, No. 760 on the list, and Dan Friedkin, who owns southern U.S. Toyota distributor Gulf States Toyota, ranking No. 446.

The Duffs became auto dealers in 2011 when they bought the now-closed Pine Belt Ford in Purvis, Miss., south of Hattiesburg, according to the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission. Acquisition activity ramped up around the start of the decade, according to the commission, and their most recent acquisitions in the last half of 2023 added two dealerships, John O’Neil Johnson Toyota and John O’Neil Johnson Hyundai, both in Meridian, east of Jackson.

“They’re an important part of the car dealer body in Mississippi,” said Marty Milstead, president of the Mississippi Automobile Dealers Association. “We’re glad to have them as part of our organization. They’re committed to making [the association] better.”

The brothers’ Columbia, Miss., holding company Duff Capital Investors, founded in 2007, according to Forbes, boasts a portfolio of 20 businesses and includes companies in the trucking, tire, construction, energy and insurance industries. The website lists eight dealerships in the state. In addition to Toyota and Hyundai, their dealerships sell FordChevrolet,BuickChrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram and Honda.

The dealerships have a shared website using the Pine Belt Motors name.

Duff Capital bought two stores last year from Neil Johnson, grandson of John O’Neil Johnson, and renamed them Toyota of Meridian and Hyundai of Meridian. The Toyota deal closed Aug. 1, and the Hyundai dealership purchase was finalized Oct. 24.

The Duffs bought the Toyota store after Gulf States Toyota exercised its right of first refusal — which allows manufacturers to reject a buyer in a presented buy-sell deal and choose a replacement to close a dealership, and in some states, allow automakers to buy stores back — and brought the Duffs into the deal, Johnson said. This resulted in them subsequently purchasing the Hyundai store, too, Johnson said.

“I sometimes hear a right of first refusal is frowned upon, but in this particular case, it was a really solid buyer they served up and wanted to be multi-buyer dealer in Mississippi,” Johnson told Automotive News. “They’ve done a lot for the state.”

Mike Sims, president of auto dealership brokerage firm Pinnacle Mergers and Acquisitions, of Southlake, Texas, represented Johnson in the sale of his only two dealerships. Sims and Johnson would not disclose the sale prices, and Duff Capital would not comment for this story.

“These stores were a great fit for their growth, and they were great to deal with,” Sims said in an email to Automotive News.

Tom, left, and Jim Duff. As of Monday, Forbes ranks both Duff brothers No. 1,091 on its list of The World’s Real-Time Billionaires, with a net worth of $3 billion each.