From Driving Beer Truck to Running Car Dealerships

In a WardsAuto Q&A, NADA’s new chairman tells how to succeed in business while really trying and why dealers are like persevering quarterback Peyton Manning.

Tom Beaman, Contributor

March 14, 2016

10 Min Read
New NADA Chairman Carlson takes call
New NADA Chairman Carlson takes call.

Jeff Carlson of Colorado, who drove a Coors beer truck while in college, is the new 2016 chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

Carlson’s term officially began Jan. 1. The ceremonial passing of the gavel from outgoing NADA Chairman Bill Fox will take place at the trade group’s March 31-April 3 convention in Las Vegas.

Carlson is president and majority shareholder of Glenwood Springs Ford and Glenwood Springs Subaru in Glenwood Springs, CO, about two hours west of Denver. He also co-owns Summit Ford in Silverthorne, CO.

“(Glenwood Springs) is a very good car town due to our proximity to Vail and Aspen,” Carlson says. “We have good brand representation in town, and all the dealers do well. The only Audi dealer on the western slope is here, and there’s a Land Rover store. While the town is small, it’s an excellent market.”  

Glenwood Springs’ population is only about 9,000, but Carlson says his market area extends to about 50,000.

With 50 employees and annual sales of 1,200 new and used units, Glenwood Springs Ford is the largest of his three stores. The Subaru and Silverthorne Ford stores employ 25 people each and have combined new and used sales of 800 and 350, respectively.

The dealerships generate annual revenue of $83 million-$85 million and return 2.5%- 3.5% on sales, Carlson says.

A chance encounter with a Ford parts representative in 1973 introduced Carlson to the car business. “I needed a better job,” he recalls. “The guy had a car and an expense account and I thought that sounded pretty good.”

At that point, Carlson’s interest in Mustangs and GTOs morphed from mere enthusiasm to an automotive career.

He accepted a job at the Ford district sales office in Denver after graduating from the University of Northern Colorado and turning in the keys to the beer truck.

“In two years of training I was everything from a clerk to an analyst in all the departments,” Carlson says . “I finally got the car keys and an expense account and got to travel as a sales rep in Wyoming, western Nebraska and western South Dakota. Then after about four years in the Denver district they sent me to Kansas City and I became a business management manager.

“I loved calling on dealerships and I could see how cool it was to sell cars. It got in my blood.”

A dealer in Kansas City saw his potential and suggested he join the retail side of the business. A personality test confirmed he was dealer material. Carlson joined a former Ford colleague who had left the company to buy the dealership in Glenwood Springs.

“I packed up my 18-month-old son, my 7-month pregnant wife and left an incredible potential career with Ford and decided to come to western Colorado and sell cars,” Carlson says. “I started as a sales manager in 1979 and did that for three years. I bought out the investment partner, and that’s when I started to develop my equity interest in the auto business.”

Throughout his career, Carlson has served in many roles in the community and at NADA. He is past president of Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs and was appointed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens in 2000 to serve on the Colorado Motor Vehicle Dealer Board.

Carlson has been NADA convention chairman and has served on many committees, including dealership operations, finance, government relations, industry relations and regulatory affairs. He chairs the group that’s planning the organization’s 100th anniversary in 2017.

WardsAuto spoke with Carlson about his life on and off the showroom floor.

WardsAuto: Are you a car guy?

Carlson: When I started off, I wasn’t. When I went to work for Ford is when I started to develop the interest in the auto industry.

As a young man I had a GTO, a real hot car. We would tinker around building cars. I love Mustangs; I have six of them, all convertibles, all GTs and I have two Shelbys. I’d have more if I had places to store them.

We’ve sponsored our folks in racing. I have a manager who drag races a Mustang and we campaign a Lincoln demolition-derby car that my technicians put together. We have a new car in production right now to get ready for the demo derby season that starts next August.

My son built a rock crawler I keep under our racing umbrella. It’s a totally off-road vehicle that they take into the desert. It will literally almost climb a wall.

WardsAuto: What has been your best experience as a dealer?

Carlson: The most fulfilling experiences have been developing people who didn’t think they could do what they ultimately ended up doing.

I had a very talented technician who didn’t want to interface with people. He just liked fixing cars. But I saw he had the potential to be a service manager. I worked with him and trained him and he overcame a lot of his inhibitions of dealing with customers to ultimately become one of the best-respected service managers in Colorado.

WardsAuto: Your most challenging experience?

Carlson: When I bought out the investor partner in 1982, business was booming in western Colorado. We sit right on the edge of the oil shale. At that time, Synthetic Fuels Corp. was subsidizing alternative oil (production) out of coal, oil shale and other technologies.

I made the (dealership) investment only to find out four months later Exxon had written $4 billion off its balance sheet and our economy in western Colorado collapsed. Interest rates were 18% to 20%. I had a young family and a big payment for the dealership I had just bought. It took a lot of faith and hard work to make it through those times.

How to Survive

WardsAuto: How did you survive the 2008 downturn?

Carlson: I survived two downturns. 1982 prepared me for 2008. You have to consolidate, cut costs. Quite frankly, we were small back (in 1982). I did everything. I was the new-car manager, used-car manager, F&I manager. I wasn’t service or parts manager, but anything that needed to be done around the dealership I did it, and with a lot fewer people than we had when we started.

WardsAuto: What new thinking or best practices have helped you run your dealerships?

Carlson: We had a mantra early on in my retail career. If you’re green, you’re growing; if you’re ripe, you rot. That led us to understand we didn’t know everything.

I got introduced to NADA and in 1987 we were charter members of a 20 Group. The opportunity to be with other dealers, benchmark ourselves and learn how to forecast and develop (ideas and processes) was very important to our growth.

There’s new thinking out there every single day. When you’re in the auto industry you either mutate or die. Whether it’s technology or training or challenges with developing people, you have to always be able to adapt to the things that are happening around you. You have to be prepared for the downturns and the upticks in the economy. It’s kind of Darwinian, but you clearly have to mutate or die.

WardsAuto: What mutation has been the most helpful?

Carlson: Developing my people has allowed us to stay up with, or even ahead of, some of the things that are happening.

I have three stores and they are pretty small. I have 13 graduates from NADA’s General Dealership Management Academy. People ask, “Why do you make that kind of financial commitment to develop your people?” and “How do you let your people out of the store for that long to attend the academy?”

It’s really simple. I have highly qualified folks on my management team who have been extraordinarily well-trained. Because of my commitment to develop them, they are very loyal. Every time someone graduates and comes back, they bring the latest, greatest stuff – the ability to manage and understand how the dealership needs to operate. It’s been the best investment I’ve ever made.

NADA has provided a lot of things that have worked well for us. We put together a profit-sharing program through its retirement trust. That’s been a very attractive benefit. It’s been key to our ability to keep loyal employees for a very long time.

WardsAuto: Do you ever watch “Top Gear” or “Jay Leno’s Garage”?

Carlson: No (laughs). It’s not because I don’t like or don’t know about them. I don’t watch very much TV. I live in a place where I do things all the time. I love Colorado and all the recreational opportunities it affords.

WardsAuto: What do you do for fun?

Carlson: I’ve been an avid fly fisherman almost all my life. I’ve fished almost all the rivers in the Rocky Mountain region from Montana to New Mexico. My wife and I go to Alaska once a year.

I relocated to this valley because we love to ski. My children are all extreme skiers. We’re teaching our grandchildren to ski. My wife used to be a ski instructor.

I have two Labs and I hunt birds. Once you have a Lab, they take a part of your heart. Hunting is not as big a deal for me as it is for the dogs.

I’m a pilot and I fly a Cirrus 22 GT. We lived on the golf course until a few years ago when we decided that with the grandkids growing up we wanted to go back to a more agricultural setting. So we moved onto what I call a “ranchette.” I love working on the property. If I have daylight at all, I’ll be outside doing something.

The Big Deal About Dealers

WardsAuto: What have you and your team done to try to erase the negative image some dealers have?

Carlson: The negative reputation is overblown. Dealers, by and large, have much better reputations over the last 15 or 20 years than what is publicized.

There are some bad actors. I was appointed by the governor to sit on the Colorado Motor Vehicle Dealer Board. I spent seven years being personally involved with regulation of the industry to make sure that bad behavior was not tolerated. Three of those years I was chairman.

We immerse ourselves in the community and the community knows us. Your integrity can’t be just in your store. You can figure that out by going online and looking at your DealerRater reviews. Our industry is pretty transparent about a dealer’s reputation. But it’s more than that.

You get a reputation by being involved in the community. A few years ago, my son came up with “The Code of the West,” which is a promise to the consumer. It includes no handling fees, complimentary first hour of service diagnosis and a pledge that a vehicle’s trade value will be guaranteed for 30 days whether its traded or sold to the dealership outright.

Your reputation takes a long time to earn and I believe most dealers have good reputations today. Over the last eight years, dealers in this country sold almost 100 million cars. People come to dealerships and vote for personal transportation.

WardsAuto: Everyone in Colorado celebrated the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl win and people will get to hear quarterback Peyton Manning’s keynote address at the NADA Convention and Expo in Las Vegas. What does Manning represent to Coloradans and what character traits does he have that dealers would be well advised to emulate? 

Carlson: That’s easy. Peyton has come back from neck surgeries that would have ended most careers. 

I had the same surgery two and a half years ago and cannot imagine very large linemen pounding me to the ground. Yet Peyton overcame his injury, rehabilitated himself and very late in his career has broken record after record, culminating in a Super Bowl 50 victory that most believed would never happen.

To Colorado, Peyton is a hero, a leader and a trusted playmaker. My observations are that car dealers are like Peyton in that we are driven to succeed, want to win, overcome the naysayers and work hard. Like Peyton we are resilient, determined professionals who are unwilling to give up. 

All my life, people have told me what I couldn’t do. Like all the dealers I know, I always look for the people like Manning who just do it.  

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