WASHINGTON — When the American International Automobile Dealers Assn. approached Cody Lusk this spring about becoming its president, he was happy to talk.
He was unconcerned about the association's tumultuous previous 10 months which saw three different chairmen, a president resign abruptly and the association board split over an ill-fated attempt to create a political action committee.
No one could blame Lusk for harboring reservations. Instead, he says, “Nobody I talked to told me not to take the job.”
So he took it. Lusk says an encouraging 90-minute conversation with Phil Brady, the president of the National Automobile Dealers Assn., is a main reason he did. He assumed the post June 19.
Lusk, 38, had kept what he calls “loose contact” with some AIADA members, having worked for the group from 1995-2001 as its legislative affairs director. Following a brief stint with the Commerce Department, Lusk became chief of staff to U.S. Representative Sam Johnson, R-Texas.
His new job's mission, he says, is to establish AIADA as a credible and effective voice in Washington.
AIADA had lost much of its effectiveness through the years, says Don Hicks, who stepped down as its chairman in May.
That waning of effectiveness led to the effort to create the PAC, he says, a controversial proposal that's now dead after being championed by Lusk's predecessor, Marianne McInerney, who called it quits in March.
Even though the PAC was controversial, the association had to do something to strengthen its clout on Capitol Hill, Hicks says, defending the decision.
“We weren't receiving invitations to several events and had a hard time getting in front of the elected officials,” he says.
Both NADA's PAC committee and the independent Automotive Free International Trade Political Action Committee have promised to work with AIADA to get its issues in front of the right officials, according to Hicks.
The issue of whether AIADA should have a separate PAC of its own divided the organization, showing “just how passionate our members are,” says Hick. But the rancor is melting “like an ice cube in the sun,” he says.
Long-time and influential board members, California dealers Fritz Hitchcock and Dave Conant resigned because of the PAC issue. Both have since returned to the board.
“That was a big win for us,” says Don Beyer, who succeeded Hicks as chairman. Still, he admits the healing process “will need the test of time.”
According to Hicks, the time was right for him to resign although, he will continue to serve as immediate past chairman for the organization.
He wants to spend more time with family and at his dealership business, the Shortline Automotive Inc. in Aurora, CO. While serving as AIADA chairman, Hicks recently built a new Kia facility and opened a new Porsche dealership.
He took over the AIADA leadership when Jim Evans resigned as chairman in August 2005 after serving only six months. Evans had to do that because he left his dealership executive position at AutoNation Inc. He was the first person from a publicly owned dealership chain to serve as chairman of a major dealer association.
Beyer, who owns dealerships in metro Washington D.C. will serve an abbreviated term until February 2007, when Chairman-Elect John Hawkins will take over, and AIADA resumes its normal cycle of annual chairmanship terms.
Lusk says AIADA's internal problems are in the past. He's working on a legislative agenda, with free trade being the primary item.
He believes his experience on Capitol Hill and the relationships he has developed there make his job easier, because “Washington is a relationship-driven town.”
Responding to criticism that AIADA no longer is necessary, Lusk admits complacency is the association's biggest challenge.
“The key for us is keeping everyone motivated,” Lusk says. “It is a tough challenge not unique to AIADA. It is not uncommon for trade associations to have to fight complacency.”
Beyer says, “There is not always that driving issue that is going to get everyone energized. We're not always going to get 500 dealers at the congress.”
But should a free trade issue pop up and threaten import dealers, as one did in the mid-1990s (when the government considered high tariffs on foreign-built cars), Beyer believes association members would descend on Washington, as they did then.
Lusk says it is important to build for the day when the political climate might turn against auto imports.
“I do see a threat there,” he says. “When you combine the problems in Detroit with the current political environment, it quickly can become a problem.
“It is important for us to realize that good legislation takes a long time to get through. And bad legislation takes a nanosecond.”