I CHATTED WITH A YOUNG GM DEALER WHO HAD enjoyed a successful year as an aspiring new vehicle entrepreneur. His dealership was extremely profitable and his family enjoys an outstanding reputation in the community. He had represented his fellow dealers on several dealer councils and displayed an excellent profile for a Time magazine dealership nominee for his state. So, I was shocked when he said, "I don't want my kids to succeed me in this business."
A losing dealer makes a comment like this, and one can understand how failure could breed such an attitude. But when an apparent winner loses faith like that it certainly gets one's attention. Especially mine, since I had invested years advising dealers how to ease the succession trauma in family stores. It set me to thinking about my half-century in the retail automobile business that started when I was looking for a career after returning from World War II with body intact and loaded with ambition.
I got into the automobile business when my brother, who had secured a Nash franchise, asked me to join him as a junior partner. Before that, I had decided to remain in the Navy and become a novel writer as an adjunct to my military duties. The point is, I changed the direction of my life just like that. Consequently, my commitment to the retail automobile business was suspect.
Being the local car dealer in a mid-size New England town has its drawbacks as well as its opportunities for a quality lifestyle. Just recently I realized why automobile manufacturers got away with poor quality products and shoddy customer relations. They were insulated from accountability because of their distance from the consumers. Their dealers formed a defensive barrier between them and the ultimate consumer.
When you're a family owned and operated new-car dealership in a community the entire family is involved in its daily operational challenges.
There were times when my wife would leave the local beauty shop in tears because someone there recounted lousy service on their car, not realizing the dealership owner's wife was in the next chair.
Or we'd attend a local cocktail party where guests vented their frustration and anger about their car dealers until my wife and I would hide that we were in the business. And woe to some friends who purchased cars from competitive dealers. The friendship was over!
The negative attitude of many factory reps toward dealers was readily apparent. Audit teams were constantly checking, and charging back dealers for procedural errors in warranty policies and sales incentive campaigns. I'm certainly not condoning warranty fraud. It was just the cold-blooded attitude of the factory personnel. It was as though they were saying, "I caught you, you S.O.B."
Fortunately, this process has improved. However, a basic dislike and disrespect for dealers is still part of the factory personnel make-up. It has been my persistent suspicion that factory persons who see dealers' financial statements as a part of their jobs are inherently jealous of dealers' financial success.
Justified or not, the reputation of new-car dealers among the public and government agencies ranks somewhere between lawyers and bank robbers. In the current prosperous economy, financial success is not hard to come by, and is enjoyed by anyone who is willing to work hard.
Maybe, the young GM dealer's observation that he doesn't want to subject his kids to the trials and tribulations of being a car dealer in the 21st century has some justification. I consider myself to have had a successful career in the retail new car industry. If my brother had not offered me an opportunity in the Nash dealership, would the Navy and a side writing career have fulfilled my version of success?
It's a personal decision we all make sometime in our lives. Did you make the right choice? I'm not convinced I did. I'm not convinced I didn't. Let's hope the young GM dealer is making the right choice for himself as well as his family.