By Marilyn Tinnin
Michael Joe Cannon, proud native of Calhoun City, Mississippi, has, over the last decade, become something of Mississippi’s very own “Car Czar.” With stores in eight cities and franchise rights to eleven different brands, Michael Joe’s original career plans did not include the car business at all. He was planning a career in the NFL.
As an outstanding high school player, Michael Joe attended Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia on scholarship. He left there for Memphis State (now University of Memphis) where he was a standout linebacker, but he quickly recognized he was not NFL material. He chose the next best thing. With a degree in education, he was going to be a coach.
After two years coaching at his alma mater, Northwest, he became a graduate assistant at Ole Miss. He had studied the way Coach Billy Brewer motivated his team, and he took note. Michael Joe, who was a young twenty-something, said, “I would listen to him talk, and I wanted to go out there and play football!” He assumed he too was going to one day be in a head coaching position.
The next year he was chosen as offensive line coach by Billy Brewer. He was thrilled and couldn’t wait to get going. And then his career path did a 180 when his father died before the start of the 1986 fall season. The older of two sons, he needed to wrap up the details of his father’s financial affairs and help his mother arrange for her own financial security. He thought he would be back to coaching within the year, but it did not work out quite that way.
Cannon’s dad, Joe Bob Cannon, had owned a successful used-car dealership in Calhoun City. Although it was a small operation, it had provided adequately for his family. He did not have a lot of formal education, but he was wise in every way that mattered. He believed his sons needed to know what hard work was and that you get out of something what you put into it.
Michael Joe recalls what it was like to grow up in small town Mississippi in those days. “Dad bought a peanut parching machine when I was about twelve and put me to work.” Michael Joe learned to parch, bag, and sell his product, but that was just the first of many jobs he held in his youth. At sixteen, he managed a service station. In between his peanut business and the service station, he washed cars or drove a wrecker for his dad.
He found all those jobs to be quite educational. He loved working with people, and he found his father’s words to be wise. “Work hard. Treat people right.” Such advice did not guarantee success, but it certainly helped. Earning the trust of those he did business with mattered a lot to Michael Joe’s dad and to Michael Joe as well.
In 1986, when Michael Joe went back to “tie up the loose ends” of his dad’s business for his mom, the months flew by. Twelve months later he realized he had collected all of his father’s accounts, but he had reinvested that money into additional used cars. He could not walk away yet. Not only had he reinvested the money, he was turning a handsome profit. And what is most important, he really enjoyed the business. It was decision time.
Michael Joe put the coaching track on the back burner and committed to the car business. He really has not looked back saying that for all the things he loved most about coaching, he feels like he goes through similar coach-type drills every single day motivating sales people and staff and keeping the “team spirit” alive and well.
He bought his first new car store in Greenwood in 2001, a week or so before 9/11. Delta Chevrolet was a downtown dealership that carried Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and Nissan. It took a lot of faith in the good Lord to carry on in the uncertainty of those next few months. Michael Joe confesses a few “What have I done?” moments right after.
He also had kept up with so many of his buddies who had persevered in the coaching field. They moved their families around—a lot! Although Michael Joe has dealerships in eight cities, home base does not change. He might make a lot of “day trips,” but his family remains stable and sure of where home is.
He is every bit a family guy and father of Tyler, Morgan, and Luke. He and Cheryl Marlarcher have been married for 32 years. They met when he was a linebacker and she was a cheerleader at Memphis State. Cheryl is a retired nurse who spent many an hour working while her husband was dealing in used cars in the first decade of their marriage.
Oldest son Tyler, 27, now runs the Cannon Motors in Cleveland. He spent a year at a dealership in Virginia working like an intern under one of his dad’s friends and learning the business from the ground up. Daughter Morgan just graduated from Ole Miss and does all the social media for an Oxford Boutique. Son Luke just graduated from Pillow Academy and will start Ole Miss this fall as a freshman.
Family matters to Michael Joe. So does faith. The Cannons attend First Baptist Church in Oxford. He talks about the values his father instilled in him and the same values he has tried to instill in his own children. Along with a good work ethic and the commitment to treat others the way you want to be treated, he has a great awareness of eternity and a father’s yearning to know that his children have a very real relationship with their Savior.
“If I could carry them across the finish line on my back, I would—all three of them. But each one of them has to make that decision for themselves.”
He is just trying to be the father who leads the way.