Humble and unassuming, William Bradshaw claims public speaking is one of his greatest fears.
Yet he is in the midst of several rounds of interviews with automotive journalists while thinking about the speech he will deliver to thousands of people at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention in Orlando next month as he becomes the group's 2006 chairman.
After that, throughout the year there will be speeches at state association conventions, automotive conferences and various events where the NADA chairman's presence is requested.
But Bradshaw, who is the president of the eight-franchise Bradshaw Automotive Group in Greer, SC, has never been one to let a little fear or uncertainty deter him.
He got his automotive start at age 21 in 1971 when a college professor recommended he talk to auto dealer Bob Richards about a dealership job. Bradshaw says he was not convinced he was qualified for the work, but inquired anyway.
Richards liked what he saw in Bradshaw and hired him to be the office manager of his Chevrolet store in Georgia. Bradshaw got to know a service manager at the store who often spoke about buying his own dealership.
Bradshaw says those conversations put it into his mind to become a dealer. He wanted to own his own dealership by the time he turned 30.
In 1974, he received a call from Ed Sherwood, a South Carolina dealer with a reputation of helping others acquire their own stores about a job. He told Sherwood what he wanted, but while the dealer would make no promises, he did hire Bradshaw as his office manager. A year later, Bradshaw became general manager of one of Sherwood's dealerships.
The 1970s were tough times for the auto industry with a looming oil crisis, an economic recession and loan interest rates running more than 20%.
But Bradshaw persisted in his dream. By 1979, Sherwood was ready to help him become a dealer. Taking money Sherwood lent them, Bradshaw and wife Annette raised more by selling their house, and acquired a small Oldsmobile-Cadillac dealership with 15 employees in Greer. He was 29, a year ahead of his career schedule.
All of his initial attention was focused on the store and surviving during hard times. Other endeavors, such as NADA involvement, were luxuries he did not think about.
“We started on a shoestring,” Bradshaw recalls.
“And in those early years we struggled. We had to make sure we could pay our bills. You could say I'm not one of those guys who is averse to borrowing money.”
That small dealership has grown to eight stores with more than 400 employees. Much of the growth involved turn-around strategies.
“We've tried to find stores that were hurting, and worked on turning them around,” Bradshaw says.
Many of those acquisitions occurred before the rise of publicly owned dealership chains that have driven up the prices of many dealerships in recent years.
“We can't justify the money some of these stores are commanding today,” Bradshaw says. As a result, he has not focused on growth by acquisition lately. But his group is preparing to open another Saturn store in Athens, GA.
“Growth depends a lot on whether you have the right people at the right time,” he says. “And that's always a challenge.”
Although the early years were difficult, Bradshaw believes those experiences helped establish patterns that proved critical to the group's success through the years.
“We started in the middle of a recession,” he says. “At the time, we were selling a lot of diesels. The problem is, those engines had a lot of problems, meaning I would have three or four customers lined up outside my office every day wanting some sort of compensation.”
Bradshaw says he often went the extra mile for those customers on the hope that they would, in turn, spread the word that his dealership was a good place to do business. He still takes that approach.
“I've told my employees to treat customers as if they were family,” Bradshaw says. “How would you want your family member to be treated? Now of course, it's got to be family you like.”
The family approach extends to employees, too.
“Any successful business needs to make a profit,” Bradshaw says. “But if you can treat your employees like family, they'll treat your customers well and that will take care of itself. You have to lead by example.”
By 2000, Bradshaw felt comfortable enough with the viability of his dealerships to begin getting involved with NADA and the community.
“I had been blessed, and by then we had great people in place, and it was time to give back,” Bradshaw says. “I'm following the example of dealers before me, and hopefully, we're setting the example for other dealers coming along to be involved.”
He became involved with a local technical College and joined the NADA board, but had no thoughts of becoming the national chairman, a job that entailed, among other things, giving all those speeches.
“Public speaking was never something I was comfortable with,” he says. “But about three years ago, several dealers asked me if I had ever considered becoming chairman.
“This started me thinking about the possibility of running for chairman,” he says. “But I had to push myself out of that comfort zone on the speaking front.”
Despite that, Bradshaw says he is looking forward to a busy but exciting year as head of the national association.
While Bradshaw busies himself with a full schedule of NADA duties, son Wes, son-in-law Bill Donovan and employee Tony Hill will manage the dealerships.
“Want To Keep Dealer Concerns on Auto Makers' Radar Screens”
William Bradshaw, 2006 chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn., knows how challenging the industry has become for many dealers, including himself.
“When you look at the numbers, 2005 could be among the best years for sales in the industry,” he says. “But it won't be great for everybody — especially the domestic brands which have struggled the last few months.”
Some stores could have a tougher time today, in a market where 17-million units are sold, than when 14-million units a year were sold, says Bradshaw.
“It just depends on where you line up with your franchises,” says the owner of Bradshaw Automotive Group in Greer, SC. Of the eight brands he sells, five are General Motors Corp. franchises. The others are Honda, Acura and Infiniti.
Helping dealers cope with the upheavals occurring within the OEM communities may be the greatest challenge for NADA this year. Part of the issue will be making sure auto makers do not overlook their dealers as they restructure, Bradshaw says.
“We realize some of the OEMs have their hands full right now restructuring, closing plants and negotiating with the United Auto Workers, but we want to keep dealer concerns on auto makers' radar screens,” Bradshaw says.
“My Industry Relations work has provided me the opportunity to meet with a number of OEMs and I know there are many times when our input was heard and taken into consideration,” he says. “We're fortunate now that the relationships with the OEMs are good, but our job is to keep that going.”
Dealers are a resilient group, but they have to continuously adjust to today's changing business environment, as they've done in the past, he says.
— By Cliff Banks