When asked his agenda for 2007, John Hawkins, the in-coming chairman of the American International Automobile Dealers Assn., pounds his fist on a table and responds, “Trade, trade, trade.”
Supporting free trade always has been the reason for AIADA's existence, but the Democrats' victory in both houses of the U.S. Congress last fall has created a new sense of urgency in the trade association's leadership. Several Democrats already are pushing for fair trade practices, which for import dealers, is code for legislation or taxes that can threaten the viability of their businesses.
“The new Congress does concern us,” Hawkins says. “Some of our dealers are scared to death.”
He may well be one of those dealers. Hawkins says he remembers in 1991 as a Mercedes dealer having to lay off 25% of his staff because of a luxury tax enacted on import vehicles.
“It only takes one incident like that to make you a conservative,” he says. “Free trade will never cease being an issue with me.”
Hawkins is the owner of the California-based Great Metro Autogroup, which sells Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Infiniti brands. He has a quick smile with an engaging personality who, despite his concern, views the situation in Washington as an opportunity for the import dealers association.
“It certainly has rallied us,” he says. The focus this year will be a renewed interest on the grass-roots lobbying program in which dealers invite their politicians into the dealerships. “Sort of like bringing Washington to you,” Hawkins says.
The group also is in the process of putting a new spin and name on its annual congress held each May in Washington. The details should be announced by the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention in February.
Having a common enemy whose threat is very real — at least in the minds of import dealers — may be just what the AIADA needs after a couple of years of turmoil which led to a board split last year. Several of the members, such as Jim Hudson and Dave Conant, have returned and are back on the board.
The association named Cody Lusk, a longtime chief of staff to U.S. Representative Sam Johnson, R-Texas, as its new president last summer. Lusk knows the AIADA well, having worked as its legislative affairs director from 1995 to 2001. His mission is to establish AIADA as a credible and effective voice in Washington.
“Cody has been given a mandate and a clear sheet of paper,” Hawkins says.