Pollyanna? No. Upbeat? Yes

I'm as confused as the next guy as to what's been going on in the car business. Despite what appears to be a meltdown in opportunity, dealers were reportedly upbeat at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention despite a paucity of candid interaction between them and their franchisors (many of whom attended in the thinnest way possible). Like most car guys, I too am an optimist, but this is

I'm as confused as the next guy as to what's been going on in the car business.

Despite what appears to be a meltdown in opportunity, dealers were reportedly upbeat at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention despite a paucity of candid interaction between them and their franchisors (many of whom attended in the thinnest way possible).

Like most car guys, I too am an optimist, but this is more from an unswerving belief that personal transportation is the backbone of our nation, not the notion that any particular brand or sales system will ultimately prevail.

By necessity, there will always be a dealer in the equation. So I can identify with being upbeat without being Pollyanna. A car in every driveway became possible because of the unique partnership between innovative manufacturers and incredibly hard working, optimistic and risk-tolerant local dealers.

Over the years, the complexity of a car deal always necessitated dealers, no matter how hard manufacturers tried to dumb things down to eliminate them.

Trade ins and financing are just too damn complex for an uninvested clerk to fashion a deal. As much as the World Wide Web has demystified most of what goes on in a car deal, the average consumer has insufficient math and organizational skills to gather and analyze all the necessary information to make a smart decision without the guidance of a dealer.

Moreover, the number of geniuses who have failed while trying to adapt the Dell-computer model to the car business shows the importance of entrepreneurial dealers in the equation.

It's bothersome how many accounts, MBAs and politicians are convinced that mega dealers and public conglomerates are the better answer.

For as long as I can remember manufacturers have favored the deep pockets of mega dealers — with their thick layers of middle management and elaborate building plans — to the scrappy local car guys who manage by pulling together just enough staff and money to keep going, and who survive by living in their stores sweating it out one deal at a time.

It's not hard to understand the comforts offered by big dealers with strong balance sheets and rolls of architects' plans under their arms. The trouble is that a sexy building and a buck in the bank have never sold a single car. People sell cars.

The ability to suffer losses with a bank roll is inversely related to a passion about pressing the flesh with customers to create profit and volume.

I have rarely been effective at convincing manufacturers how much better off they are being represented by dealers possessing the motivation and skill to sell cars over those with a capacity to pay their way through without working too hard at it.

Manufacturers weak in their products always seem to bet on a dealer body able to buy big inventories and suffer crushing losses. I pray for a manufacturer with enough faith in its products to value a dealer's personal commitments to working the store.

I am keenly seeking a manufacturer run by tinkerers, inventors and engineers rather than the gang of financial wizards who have hitched their decision making to spread sheets, not products.

The mob of MBAs running the show is loath to bet on the quality of their own effort. We have arrived at a world where even the once precious Toyota is now daily bashed for product failures; we are witnessing a national dealer strategy rooted in surviving failure rather than the pursuit of public service and product excellence.

I recently read that a qualified dealer today is one who possess “sufficient capital and willpower to invest according to their respective maker's brand strategy.”

Just as a great dealer is the one whose skills are matched to successfully selling the product, a great manufacturer is one whose dealer strategy is tied to the success of that product rather than a wide margin of tolerance for failure.

Peter Brandow is a veteran of automotive retailing in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Questions or comments about this column? Send us an e-mail at [email protected].

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