NADA Chairman Bill Fox’s ascendance to dealership and association leadership was largely happenstance, he says.
William “Bill” C. Fox is the 2015 chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) and a partner with his sister, Jane, in Fox Dealerships Inc., a four-rooftop auto group with Chevrolet, Chrysler, Honda, Subaru and Toyota/Scion stores in the Central New York towns of Auburn and Phoenix.
A former college basketball player and licensed attorney, Fox joined the automotive industry and became a leading figure at the association level almost by chance. But he seized the opportunity to give back to his home region and lead U.S. dealers through a period marked by serious economic and regulatory threats.
F&I and Showroom sat down with Fox to learn about his circuitous journey to dealership and association leadership, ask how the NADA is tackling challenges to the franchised dealer model and get a snapshot of life as a dealer and businessman in Upstate and Central New York.
F&I: You joined the auto industry after practicing law for 12 years. Did you initially plan to continue practicing law and have a hand in running the dealerships?
Fox: The way it started was my sister, Jane, and I pooled whatever money we had in 1976 — and it wasn’t much — to buy a dealership and to provide our parents with a road to retirement. They were wholesalers who were constantly buying cars and cleaning them up and reselling them, and by the time they were in their mid-60s, they really had no retirement plan.
When we started, my sister was the dealer and I continued to practice law. I did represent some dealers and I had some idea of how stores were bought and sold and operated. And we were lucky. We bought a dealership that sold 100 cars a year. A few years later, we were selling 1,500 new and used cars.
Then an Oldsmobile/Cadillac dealership in Auburn, N.Y., became available. We entered into a contract with the seller, but General Motors had a rule that said no dealer could own two dealerships in the same area, so my sister was excluded. So I said, “Put it in my name.” Of course, GM said, “You can’t do that. You’re a lawyer!” So I had to go to dealer school.
I told my partners in the law firm that I was going to take a six-month leave of absence. At the end of the six months, I told them I wasn’t coming back. I did maintain my law license. I kept it because it was too hard to earn and too hard to give up.
F&I: How does your legal experience inform your work as a dealer?
Fox: This is just my opinion, but if you look back at who would traditionally become a car dealer, sales was the primary route. A good salesman would become a sales manager, then a general manager, and then buy out the existing dealer. In the last generation, we’ve seen that experience in different disciplines can be a substitute for being a good salesperson. The discipline of law and business training has been beneficial and served me well.
F&I: You have mentioned that you like to run your company like a team, drawing on your experience as a college basketball player at Georgetown.
Fox: Well, to be honest, I should never have gone to Georgetown. My parents couldn’t afford to send me there. I got in because a doctor friend of mine who had gone to Georgetown had naïve faith in me and got me in. I was afraid I was going to flunk out. I decided that trying out for the freshman basketball team would force some discipline on me. I was the last guy to make the freshman team, and only because I was three inches taller than the next guy. But they kept me, so by the time I was a senior, I got to sit on the varsity bench.
But I think sports teach discipline, and I think that discipline serves us well in any business. It’s team-building. At four dealerships today, we have about 200 employees. You can’t do it all. If you want to get ahead, you’ve got to build a team.
F&I: What inspired you to get involved at the association level?
Fox: It’s a funny story. My sister had been the chairman of the New York State Automobile Dealers Association. I saw how busy she was that year. It was a full-time job. But she committed to doing it. My job was to stay home and take care of the dealerships the year she was on the road.
I didn’t intend to be active in the association, but Bill Cramm, who became chairman after my sister, asked if I would do him a personal favor and serve as the director for the Central New York district. He said, “Three or four times a year, you go to a meeting in Albany. You don’t have to do what Jane did.” And so I started off on this merry path.
A good friend of mine, Mike Barnard from Newark, N.Y., was the NADA’s New York State director for nine years. Steve Scoville replaced Barnard for the next term and then stepped aside. I was with Barnard at a dinner in Rochester and I asked him if he thought I could do it. He said “Yes,” so I threw my name in, not realizing there was going to be an election, and I was up against Al Carbone, a dealer I had known for many years. I saw Carbone at the next meeting and said, “Al, you know, I don’t like running against you.” He said, “Me neither.” Then he stood up and said, “I withdraw!”
So I became the NADA’s New York State director by happenstance. And once I got in — it’s kind of like going to college. You know the other new directors, but everyone else has been there for at least one term. They know what they’re doing and they have friends. It takes a couple years to find your way. I started in 2006, and when I was just beginning to understand some of it, the financial crisis hit in 2008.
Bill Fox has made the defense of the franchised dealer model his No. 1 priority as the 2015 NADA chairman.
That’s when I began to understand the impact a trade association like the NADA can have. We were up on Capitol Hill. We ate the rubber chicken dinners and banged on doors. And so many of them didn’t know who we were. Some thought we represented the manufacturers. So thanks to the NADA — and I don’t mean to exclude any of the other forces that were brought to bear on Congress — I believe that’s how the industry was saved.
Did dealers get burned? Yes, some did. Did the manufacturers treat us all the same? Probably not. But the result is the auto industry rebounded, the surviving dealers are doing reasonably well and the economy is picking up steam. We’re lucky.
So, finally, in 2013, I was elected to be vice chairman. I knew going in what the job entailed. [Former NADA Vice Chairman and Chairman] Forrest McConnell was a great teacher. Our president, Peter Welch, is a great leader. We dealers are very fortunate to have that mix of people in our leadership. I hope the NADA is the voice of dealers for the next 100 years.
F&I: You have identified the threat to the franchised dealer model as your No. 1 concern. Are dealers winning that fight?
Fox: Local new-car dealerships provide the most competitive and most cost-effective way of buying and selling new cars for both car buyers and manufacturers. Dealerships create price competition that drives down prices, provide extra accountability in recalls and warranty claims and offer well-paying local jobs across the country. Yet, those consumer benefits of the dealer franchise network sometimes get lost. In June 2014, the NADA launched the “Get the Facts” initiative to inform car buyers, policymakers and the media about the benefits of the dealer franchise network. A series of videos, fact sheets and infographics are available at www.nada.org/getthefacts.
F&I: What about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)? It seemed like the NADA and several lender trade groups scored major points with Congressional lawmakers with that Charles River Study.