Twenty years ago, Charley Smith was a dentist with a private practice in Hobbs, NM, pop. 30,000. Today, he's the incoming chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. It started because of a strong sense of loyalty to employees at his father-in-law's dealership.
“My career path isn't exactly typical for most dealers,” he laughs.
He graduated from college with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry, then got a dental degree from the University of Missouri in Kansas City in 1966.
He married two years earlier. His wife's father owned Watson Truck & Supply Inc., a Pontiac and International Harvester dealership in Hobbs. Smith had no interest in getting into the business at that time, he says.
Things changed. His brother-in-law died of cancer at age 42 in 1972. He was being groomed to take over the dealership. “He was very capable, bright and energetic,” Smith says.
Also in 1972, the dealership incorporated. Smith began serving on the board of directors. Still, he had no burning desire to be a car dealer.
Nine years later, his father-in-law retired and sold his stock back to the corporation, leaving Smith as the largest stockholder. Over the course of the next few months, Smith pondered a major career change.
In 1982, he gave up his dental practice to become the dealership's chairman of the board. He says he wasn't dragged into it. “We could have sold the business. But we had 153 employees at the time, who could have lost their jobs. They had been extremely loyal and good to our family. I felt like it was the best thing for me to do.”
It's a decision he's never regretted. “I enjoy the people and seeing the customers' excitement when they purchase new vehicles,” he says.
He also enjoys the business aspect of managing a dealership and the entrepreneurial challenges.
“For years, as a dentist, I depended on the work of my hands. Now I have to depend on others and being in that type of team environment is rewarding,” he says.
Today the dealership sells Pontiacs, Chevrolets and Buicks as well as heavy trucks. “My business is pickups, pickups and pickups,” Smith says. He drives a Buick Ranier.
Alan Starling, the current NADA chairman and an Olds dealer in Florida, once told Smith: “You should like that Ranier. It was great when it was an Oldsmobile.”
Smith succeeds Starling at the NADA convention in February. Jack A. Kain of Jack Kain Ford in Versailles, KY, becomes vice chairman and ultimately will become NADA's 2005 chairman.
Smith has served in several capacities at NADA over the years. He's chaired the association's committees for government relations and strategic planning committees. He was vice chairman of NADA's Region IV.
He's served on NADA committees for information technology, dealership operations and finance.
He has been New Mexico chairman of the Dealers Election Action Committee and chairman of the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association.
One of his top concerns for the year is dealing with the continued assault on the franchise system.
“It has to do with our image among the car buying public,” Smith says. “The finance and insurance issue is going to continue to be an issue that we'll have to contend with.”
The Code of Ethics effort championed by NADA has been criticized as being little more than a public relations tool.
“It certainly isn't the end-all,” Smith says. “But we're better off than we were before. We have to continue to impress on dealers to evaluate their business practices in their stores.”
Smith plans to carry on with the customer satisfaction survey concerns that Starling has focused on. “Judging from the number of emails, letters and phone calls we get on that subject, it's a big deal,” Smith says of dealer unhappiness with how auto makers structure and format the satisfaction surveys.
He also plans to address the “serious shortage of trained technicians and of all dealership employees.”
Another area important to him is training dealership personnel.
“If a dealer thinks education is expensive, try ignorance,” he says.