Attendees of the 2014 NADA Convention & Expo stream out of New Orleans’ Morial Convention Center. The four-day event offered countless opportunities for education, networking and socializing.
I was watching television last week, sort of aimlessly flipping through the menu of channels, all 800 of them. You know the drill. I usually stop when I reach the upper tiers with programs from India and China. Then I start going the other way until I reach Channel 3. It’s hard to find good TV these days, even with all the choices, unless you’re a big fan of “Duck Dynasty,” “Honey Boo Boo” or three channels’ worth of “Law & Order” reruns.
In the course of my endless, mindless journey across the vast expanse of the Comcast universe, I stumbled upon two different versions of the same movie, “The Alamo,” playing at the same time on adjacent channels. Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton were playing Sam Houston and Davy Crockett on one channel, while John Wayne and Richard Widmark starred as Crockett and Jim Bowie on the other.
I had watched a few minutes of the Duke’s version when my thoughts turned inward. I remembered how the theme song from that old Alamo movie had always moved and haunted me. I have always thought of it as one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing songs I’ve ever heard. You can find it by searching for “The Green Leaves of Summer by Dimitri Tiomkin” on YouTube, but mark my words: Once you hear it, it stays with you for days.
Shirley B. Ziegler
Having traveled to NADA 2014 by car, the author and his wife were able to escape New Orleans before winter storms struck the city. Many less fortunate attendees were forced to extend their stays.
Memories of my mother weigh heavy on my mind. She passed away Friday night and I’ve been in a reflective mood the past couple of days. It was a long time coming and far from a surprise. She was in her late 80s and lived a full and wonderful life. We all often joked that she’d been dying for the last 40 years. So it was expected but, nevertheless, a flood of memories and flashbacks to times and places keep coming to mind. We leave for the funeral in Jacksonville tomorrow.
Then there’s that song. “The Green Leaves of Summer” keeps looping in the background of my memories like a soundtrack to our lives. Bear in mind, I’m not sad, obsessed or depressed. It’s just one of those times where you cue up your memories, rewind them and play them again.
The news about my mother came several weeks after the news that my friend, Ron Tonkin, had passed away. The man was a legend and an inspiration to me, and he built one of the most successful dealer groups in the Northwest. I first met Tonkin in 1988. It was my first time serving as keynote speaker for the Oregon Auto Dealers Association (OADA)’s annual meeting. He and his young sons sat right up in the front row and asked a lot of questions. At that time I was predicting that Ford and General Motors were about to start buying, owning and operating dealerships in direct competition with their franchised dealers. I also told the crowd we could expect large corporations to start buying dealerships.
The industry lost a friend when Ron Tonkin, founder of Ron Tonkin Dealerships and past president of the NADA, died in January at the age of 82. The author remembers Tonkin as an ally, an effective leader and a true dealer advocate.
The dealers in the room were angry. I was relatively unknown at the time and they thought I was a total crackpot. They made rude comments and shouted me down. The idea the manufacturers would do that to their dealers was inconceivable to everyone in the room — except Ron Tonkin, who wanted to hear more. To my surprise, he called me a week later to discuss the subject in depth.
In the years that followed, history would vindicate us both. The scenario I had described played out exactly the way I predicted. I was invited back to Oregon — several times, in fact — and many dealers apologized to me privately for the way I’d been treated on my first visit. When Ford and GM made their moves to own and operate retail dealerships in the ’90s, I was at the forefront, organizing the opposition.
In 1989, Ron was president of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA). He led the NADA to adopt initiatives that forced the manufacturers to reform blatantly anti-dealer practices. He was the kind of leader who stepped up and was counted. His love of dealers and the industry and his willingness to put himself out front, at great personal risk, inspired me and helped mold the model of my life and career as a dealer advocate and activist.
Ron and I visited at every opportunity. The last time I saw him was a few years ago, when the OADA’s Greg Remensperger invited me to speak at a multistate convention. But we communicated many times through the years, and exchanged emails frequently toward the end. As often as not, he would send me something funny or thought-provoking. He had a terrific sense of humor. When his health issues arose and the emails stopped coming, I was greatly saddened. He was truly our friend.
An Ice Storm, a Deep Freeze and a Roast
The author was invited to speak at a dinner honoring Brad Deery (left), Iowa’s TIME Dealer of the Year for 2014 and a longtime friend. Ziegler joked that the committee gave Deery the award after learning that every other dealer in the state had already won it.
The NADA convention in New Orleans was exceptional. Debbie and I drove from Atlanta. We could have flown but the winter storms were making air travel uncertain; also, we had four times as much luggage as any airline would allow. Good thing, too, as it turned out many people were stranded with no way to leave as the big ice storms struck on the last day.
The best part of the convention is the parties, dinners and other opportunities to see old friends and make new ones. One of the highlights of this year’s show was a dinner in honor of my good friend and client, Brad Deery of the Deery Brothers dealerships in Iowa. Brad had been named Iowa’s representative in the 2014 Time Dealer of the Year contest. His association president, Bruce Anderson, asked me to speak, and I jumped at the chance. You have to understand that Deery is one of the biggest cut-ups I’ve ever met. When he and I get together, hilarity ensues. I’m talking about the kind of funny that will make you spew coffee out of your nose.
It started the second Brad walked into the room. He pulled my Alpha Dawg baseball cap sideways like a rapper’s and had someone snap a photo. Okay, I thought, it’s on. My testimonial quickly turned into a roast. First I pointed out to the audience that a “brad” is a small nail with a large head. Then I informed them the selection committee gave Deery the award after they discovered that every other dealer in Iowa had already won it. Finally, I announced that a finalist from another state had raised $30 million dollars for his community while Deery had sponsored a bake sale for the Boy Scouts. It was all in good fun, and everyone, including Brad, had a good laugh.
Nighttime at NADA 2014 offered a thousand options with some of the best parties around town hosted by the OEMs and vendors. Debbie and I chose to go the quieter route, joining friends for early dinners at some great restaurants. My friend Ken Rosenfield of Rosenfield & Co. PLLC hosted dinners at Irene’s and Emeril’s NOLA restaurants, and followed with an incredible Sunday brunch at Arnauds. Debbie and I were honored to be invited to all three with some of Rosenfield’s clients, including some of the country’s most prominent dealers.
We also attended some great parties afterward; Autobytel and Dealertrack’s soirees come to mind. Great food and wine, let me assure you. The Dealertrack party at the National WWII Museum was also a charity fundraiser for Drew Brees and Gary Sinise’s Wounded Warrior Charities. Every dollar of the money collected went to the cause. They even raffled off a 2014 Corvette at $50 per ticket. Having sold my ’Vette in December, I popped for 10 tickets. The drawing is tomorrow, Feb. 4, so I figure I’ll be behind the wheel of my prize by the time you read this.
Monday morning brought the one NADA event I never miss: the AIADA Executive Luncheon. The AIADA is a crucial voice for the international nameplate dealers. This year they installed their 2014 chairman, Larry Kull, a New Jersey dealer and executive board member of the New Jersey Coalition of Auto Dealers. I’ve known Kull for years, and he is a tireless defender of dealers’ interests. He will be a great leader for the AIADA.
Missed the Hillary Speech
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received a standing ovation after addressing the NADA crowd on the final day of the convention. Clinton praised U.S. dealers for their role in the economic recovery.
I promised my friend, David Westcott, the 2013 outgoing NADA chairman, that I wouldn’t write anything or speak a word about the association’s choice of Hillary Rodham Clinton as NADA 2014’s keynote speaker. It was difficult for me to keep quiet on this issue, but I did as promised. If you haven’t got your honor, what do you have?
I am told she got a standing ovation from the dealers in attendance — and a flowery kiss-up article in some other industry publications. Of course, that’s the opinion of those who chose to hear her. I am okay with that; after all, it would be rude not to give her a good reception since she was invited. All that being said, I chose not to tune in, since I personally have a serious problem with her and what she stands for.
Debbie and I were staying at the Hyatt Regency and were scheduled to leave Tuesday morning. We were relaxing in the concierge suite on Monday afternoon when the attendant mentioned there was a major ice storm about to hit New Orleans that evening. I jumped up and turned on the TV. Sure enough, there was a big-ass storm system rolling out of Texas and heading our way. If you didn’t think an ice storm could make it across Texas to Louisiana, you don’t know the South. We went back to our room, started throwing stuff in suitcases and checked out 30 minutes later.
We had split the drive from Atlanta to New Orleans into two days. On the way back, we drove all night and didn’t stop until we were safe at home. The first snowflakes were falling as we pulled into the driveway. We were totally iced in for three days. We found out later that literally hundreds of NADA attendees — Brad Deery included — were stuck in New Orleans and unable to leave for two or three days after the convention.
China Sets a New Record
Last year, China became the first country to sell 20 million new vehicles. Considering the implications of an increasingly global marketplace, the author worries that Americans could one day find themselves buying domestic vehicles imported from factories overseas.
It was only a matter of time. In 2013, China became the first country to sell more than 20 million vehicles, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Of course, I am wondering if that volume isn’t tempered by the fact that used-vehicle sales probably aren’t a huge factor there yet. In the U.S. market, those sales may add as many as 43 million units to the 15.6 million new units sold last year. Still, that’s impressive.
The top-selling brand in China is still Volkswagen, but the best-selling model is the Ford Focus. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, I am really nervous about all the U.S. brands now being manufactured in China, especially Buick. Buick is considered a premium luxury brand in China and is among the country’s best-selling nameplates.
To me, something about GM’s relationship with their partners in China just doesn’t smell right. They’ve already come close to conceding that they might export domestic brands like Buick back to the U.S. from China. In my opinion, that would be a slap in the face to the taxpayers who bailed them out. Of course, I just hope GM doesn’t sell the company to the Chinese, since Chrysler is already an Italian company. That notion might not be as far-fetched as you might think.
Shake-Up at Mitsubishi
Mitsubishi expects continued success with the redesigned Outlander SUV. The author has faith in the OEM’s U.S. dealer network and believes Mitsubishi could be on an equal footing with Toyota and Honda were it not for shortcomings in its North American marketing strategy.
Allow me to preface this section with my famous disclaimer: “Some of my best friends are Mitsubishi dealers.” Is news from the OEM’s board really worth a headline? USA Today thought so. Let’s investigate for ourselves.
First, I don’t have to tell you that Mitsubishi has been on life support for most of the past decade. It’s one of those companies that should have joined Honda, Nissan and Toyota in the top tiers of importers. The problem is, and always has been, that the top management at the highest levels in Japan is — and will most likely remain — totally inept and apparently clueless. Of course, that’s just how I see it. But I base my personal opinion on the fact that they have continually misread the market and fumbled every opportunity to grow their market share.
Here’s the info from the press release USA Today picked up: Osamu Masuko, Mitsubishi’s president, is stepping down to be replaced by Tetsuro Aikawa. The new guy is only 59 years old, which is a baby by Japanese executive standards. I hate to pre-judge any executive who has yet to take the reins, but I know him as the guy who was responsible for phasing out several North American Mitsubishi models, including the Eclipse.
Excuse me, but the Eclipse was a home run. The OEM failed to run the bases. They mismanaged that car into extinction. Today, the Outlander is the model the company is placing all of their bets on. After all, Outlander sales were up 58% year over year in 2013. Sounds impressive until you stop and realize there are used-car lots in Texas that can probably beat Mitsubishi’s sales nationwide.
Okay, I am being sarcastic here. Seriously, I’d love to see Mitsubishi regain national prominence as a major player among Asian imports. They have the resources and the infrastructure to do it. The problem is and always has been their management. This isn’t a shot at the Japanese, who have traditionally demonstrated true savviness in marketing their cars here. No, I’m talking about Mitsubishi specifically. There’s some kind of cluelessness ingrained in the culture of this corporation. Maybe Akaiwa will lead them out the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Here’s hoping.
Well, I realize this article may not have been my usual sarcastic, over-the-top Alpha Dawg rant. After all, we’re packing to go to my mother’s funeral. So at least you know it’s personal. I have written literally thousands of articles and blog posts about our industry. My loyal readers have noticed how often I include notes from my personal life, as have my wife and my son. I think that’s because when I write an article or draft a speech, I write as though I’m sharing my thoughts with people who know me.
For 25 years, I’ve shared our triumphs and setbacks candidly. You watched my son grow up and you cried with me and Debbie when our puppy died. One of the magazines I wrote for previously hired a new editor who decided he wanted to reel me in a little. He told me the readers didn’t want to know about my personal life and I should leave it out of my articles. Sometime after the publisher read my next article, he fired the editor.
So thanks for reading, and don’t forget to listen to “The Green Leaves of Summer.” Thanks also for your support and friendship. Keep those comments and emails coming.
Jim Ziegler is president of Ziegler SuperSystems Inc. and one of the industry’s most recognizable experts, trainers and speakers.