Sen. Mitch McConnell, in a U.S. Senate tribute, calls Kentucky dealer Jack Kain a “legend” and a “master of customer service.”
Kain, 75, this year's incoming National Automobile Dealers Assn. chairman, has been a dealer since 1952. With white hair and an easy smile, he looks like the Southern gentleman that he is. His dealership is in Versailles, a small town near Lexington, an area of horse farms.
Kain sets the tone for Jack Kain Ford employees by making an effort to meet every customer. That's hard to do these days because of a rigorous NADA travel schedule. “I've flown 100,000 miles in 2004,” Kain says of his vice chairmanship. He'll log more miles this year.
He says his best and most loyal customers often had prior problems with the dealership that he was able to fix.
To get away from his parents' dairy farm, Kain started selling cars in 1947 while attending the University of Kentucky majoring in pre-law. After a stint in the Air Force, he returned to Kentucky in 1953 and bought a DeSoto/Plymouth dealership in Frankfort with help from his father.
He sold the dealership in 1960 after Ford offered him the opportunity to buy a store located in Frankfort. He has purchased other dealerships and brands over the years, fixing them up and then selling them. He sold the original Ford store in Frankfort and bought the Versailles store in 1979. In 2003, the Ford store moved from a 2-acre location to a modern facility on 12 acres. He also owns a Lincoln Mercury dealership in London, KY.
“I love the energy this business has,” he says. “I want to stay around it as long as I'm kicking.”
Kain also has branched into other businesses in the Kentucky area, investing in radio and cable television stations. He also dabbles in real estate, building affordable homes.
Years ago, he spearheaded an economic development authority to attract industry jobs to the Lexington region. “The area was so dependent on tobacco, we had to do something,” Kain says.
His efforts helped convince Toyota to build a plant in the area, which led to the creation of 3,500 jobs.
Kain has a large family, with nine children, 21 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Four children work at the two dealerships.
The day before the interview with Ward's, the family said goodbye to a grandson who has left for a second military tour in Iraq, where he serves as gunner on a Black Hawk helicopter.
Kain was a widower when he married his wife Alice 16 years ago. “She helped revitalize my life,” he says. They met at a college where she worked and he served on the board of directors.
A Conversation with '05 NADA Chairman Jack Kain
What is the most challenging issue for dealers in 2005?
We have to improve the image of the dealer. It is interesting that many people think highly of their dealer but have a low opinion of the industry in general.
The entire industry gets a black eye when the local news or shows such as 20/20 and 60 Minutes report on the few dealers who are doing business unethically or in a questionable manner. We need to get all dealers involved in the process of making sure business is conducted the right way in their stores.
We do have to do more to get the word out about the positive impact dealers have on their communities. In many cases, dealers are the biggest contributors to charity in their towns.
What's your position on proposals to limit dealers' loan reserve rates?
I do not think we should cap the dealer reserve. Limiting it to $100 or $150 like some states are talking about will hurt many dealerships. Taking away that finance and insurance profit likely will force many dealers out of business.
And ultimately it will hurt the customer, especially those with credit problems. Helping a customer obtain financing is a service that dealers provide. It might take my people a week to find financing for a customer who has less than stellar credit. Removing the profit removes the incentive to provide that service.
What about disclosure?
NADA calls for total transparency in the financing process and I support that. Dealers should inform their customers the finance rate is negotiable and that they make a profit on providing that service. But I don't think dealers should be required to disclose what they make. We don't see that in any other industry.
What is NADA's greatest strength?
One of the greatest strengths we have is bringing the right people in the industry together to solve issues. We have seen the dealer-factory relationships improve. Last year, NADA highlighted the way auto makers measure customer satisfaction. Being a Ford dealer, I know the company has stepped up to the plate and got rid of the top box scoring, as have other manufacturers.
NADA's greatest weakness?
That we have no teeth when it comes to requiring dealers to act a certain way. And that is because NADA is volunteer organization. All we can do is educate the dealer. We can demand but we can't make it happen. But we do have to do everything we can to get dealers to see that doing business honestly is the only way to operate.
Your worst fear?
My greatest fear is that the domestics could go under. But let me say, I feel a lot stronger about them. I'm a Ford dealer and certainly would not have invested the $3.5 million-$4 million in my dealership recently if I felt there was a chance it wouldn't be in business in the future.
But I'm not just concerned with Ford or the other domestics. My job as chairman of NADA is to represent all dealers, not just my brands.
The oil situation also concerns me. I sell a lot of trucks and SUVs and am seeing a gradual decline in sales for some of those larger vehicles.
But I do have faith these things will take of themselves. I read a Parade magazine article by Michael Crichton in which he pointed out many of the things that we have feared have not happened. He makes a good point: most of our fears are needless fears.
Are you a University of Kentucky Wildcats fan.
I love the Wildcats, especially the basketball team. The football team can be exciting also. I provide each program with vehicles.
Who do you most admire?
Being Catholic, I admire Pope John Paul II for his ethics and moral stand. I also think a lot of George Bush. I don't agree with him on everything, but I like how he has stuck to his guns.
What is it that you despise the most in people?
I don't like hypocrisy. And I despise dishonesty in every walk of life. I've learned that lies just get bigger and bigger. There is only one way to do business, and that is to do the right thing all of the time.
You'd change what about yourself?
The sin of omission. I want to go back and cover all I missed. It bothers me when I don't do something I should have, such as visit that person in the hospital, make that phone call or send that e-mail or card.
What are you reading right now?
Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation and Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears.
I like The Passion of the Christ and I also like Julia Roberts' first big movie, Pretty Woman. There is a scene when she walks into an upscale store and no one wants to wait on her because of how she is dressed. She comes back with a bunch of packages that she purchased at another store.
I constantly preach to my people to not judge others by the clothes they wear or how they talk.
Sports car or luxury car?
Definitely the Mustang. When the new Mustang first arrived here, we placed it in a prominent location so people could see it from the street. We had people coming in who had never come in before. It was just like the old days when we would cover up the showroom windows before presenting the car to the public. It was a wonderful launch.
A 1935 black Chevrolet coupe.
Barbecue or Cajun?
Barbecue is more my speed. But I'm a “seefood” kind of guy. I see food and I eat it. But I walk three miles a day to stay in shape. And I eat chocolate only on Sunday and limit myself to one drink at cocktail receptions.
Favorite New Orleans restaurant?
Mr. B's in the French Quarter. We get our family together and go there during NADA.
New Orleans is famous for its haunted sites. Do you believe in ghosts?
I do, but we'll leave it at that.