Midland, MI — A student hustles by Northwood University President Keith Pretty in the hallway of the school's National Automobile Dealers Assn. building.
The young man, polite but late for class, swaps quick hellos with Pretty, who says, “Good to see you have your dealership law book with you.”
Later on the woodsy campus here, 125 miles (201 km) northwest of Detroit, Pretty stops to chat with a student who chairs the school's annual auto show, billed as the largest outdoor event of its kind.
She asks if he'll be at that night's awards ceremony, honoring key participants of the auto show involving most of 2,000-member student body in one way or another.
“I'll be there,” Pretty says.
He is the big man on campus, and not just because he is a tall and husky former college football player at Western Michigan University.
He oversees Northwood's main campus in Michigan; campuses in Florida and Texas; as well as six international programs in various countries, including China, Switzerland and Sri Lanka.
Pretty began his career as a lawyer. Clients included the former Standard Oil Co. (“They were a good client who paid their bills on time,” he says.) He later became a Standard Oil executive. He switched to academia, becoming president of Walsh College, a business school in Troy, MI.
Two years ago, he became president of Northwood, home of the nation's first college program on dealership management. He is also Northwood's CEO, a title that reflects its status as a business school.
Ward's interviewed Pretty at the main campus, where the newest building is a $6 million facility dedicated to aftermarket studies.
Ward's: How did the university begin?
Pretty: It was founded in 1957 by the admissions director and the head basketball coach at nearby Alma College. They wanted to create their own school focused on business. Automotive marketing and management were among the first areas of study, which now number eight, including automotive aftermarket, banking and entertainment and sports management.
Everyone here studies business, entrepreneurship and leadership. The last one is a big element.
Ward's: What is emphasized here?
Pretty: We effectively teach change and change management. You can't predict the future, but you can prepare for change. Our faculty is good at that. Most of them were business leaders before academics.
Ward's: The students in your auto marketing and management programs are primarily dealership kids who are preparing to join the family business, right?
Pretty: That's something of a misnomer. Originally we had a lot of children of dealers attending Northwood. Today, it's about 15%. The common trait of the automotive-studies students is that they are car people. They have a passion for the industry. Many aspire to work for or be dealers.
Our students believe there's a future for auto dealerships. We do too. It will be different, but we believe it will prosper.
Ward's: How will it be different?
Pretty: Probably fewer, but larger dealerships, with a broader service mix and a wider range of products. I'm not suggesting 10 brands under one roof. But we have to look at things differently than 10 years ago when cars were flying off lots and financing was readily available.
Ward's: Does fewer dealerships mean fewer students at Northwood?
Pretty: We haven't seen much of a drop off of students entering the automotive program. And there has been no problem in our students finding jobs upon graduation. With dealership consolidation, there is a need, perhaps a stronger need, for professionally trained people who have graduated from our automotive program. We don't fear it will be relegated to extinction.
Ward's: Do your students get a chance to see how dealerships work?
Pretty: The university is built on real experience. All our students have internships. Students working at dealerships have seen the recent changes in finance options and inventory mix. They see it up close in the summer, then come back to school for their studies. There's a blend of academics and real-life experiences. They have wonderful opportunities to learn from the industry.
Some of our students this summer were at dealerships doing customer surveys for AutoTrader.com on what consumers were looking at; leasing vs. buying, new vs. used. The students learned interesting things, sometimes unexpected things. For instance, one student said she was amazed at how many customers came in with newspaper ads. We're teaching — as many are — the importance of a strong Internet marketing presence. She's saying the marketplace is more dynamic and varied, if customers are holding print ads.
Ward's: Do your alumni pitch in much?
Pretty: We couldn't run the types of programs we do without alumni participation. They provide hundreds of internships to our students. And they're not just running the copier machine for a few weeks. They may be on the sales floor, in the finance office or the parts and service department.
We're business people, so there should be something for both the alumni and the students. In some cases, a 10- to 12-week internship is like an extended job interview, a chance to check out someone who you may want as a future employee. For the students, it's a robust educational opportunity.
There is also a public-service requirement for students. Prospective employers not only get a student's academic transcript but also a public-service transcript, so it better not be empty. Dealers might want someone who not only works hard but also has the same spirit of public service that dealers tend to have.
Ward's: Talk about your new MBA program that started last fall for dealership executives and people in related fields.
Pretty: It's a first of its kind. We had a modest expectation of 20 students. We ended up with 27. It's a diverse mix; black, white, male, female, people ranging from about late 20s to late 50s, and including a fellow from a Porsche dealership in Syria.
About a third are currently working at dealerships, a third at OEMs and a third are in the finance and service side of the industry. So there are wide discussions and exchanges of philosophies when they meet on campus for fairly intensive sessions. Between that actual class time here, there are Internet studies, writing papers and doing research.
Ward's: How hopeful are you that auto sales will come back?
Pretty: Very. The market clearly will be strong again. Americans value transportation. We teach that transportation is a freedom, an economic freedom especially, but also a freedom to go where you want.
Transportation is a given in American society. The market is down now. But there will be a pent-up demand. And if you meet the needs of customers, you can remain competitive.