Ed Fitzpatrick is one of the most successful African-American car dealers on the West Coast and this year's elected chairman of the 1,400-member California Motor Car Dealers Assn.
His father started working at an Elyria, OH, dealership as a janitor in 1948. Within a few years, he was a parts counterman, then parts manager, “at a time when it was unusual for a black man to have a dealership job other than as a janitor,” says his son.
Fitzpatrick graduated from Ohio University in 1964, taught sixth grade for four years and then hired on as a management trainee at Chrysler Corp. where he spent 11 years in various jobs. He later worked for Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. and Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc., managing dealer development and placements.
After 17 years with auto makers, he bought into a Chrysler Plymouth dealership in Renton, WA. He now owns Valley Lexus, Valley BMW and Valley Infiniti in Modesto, CA, and Coliseum Lexus of Oakland.
He travels extensively as a renowned dealer and state association chairman. Ward's caught up with him back home, catching his breath but fighting a cold.
Ward's: California Assembly Bill 68, the so-called Car Buyers Bill of Rights, looked like it might become a ballot issue until proponents and opponents, mainly your association, reached a compromise. What happened?
Fitzpatrick: Cooler heads prevailed. We resolved the issue essentially to everyone's satisfaction. There were poorly drafted aspects to the bill that would have hurt dealers, consumers and the entire California economy. It went way too far because basically consumers are happy with the car-buying experience.
We opposed two provisions of the bill. One would have let used-car buyers cancel the purchase without cause within three working days. The second proposal called for a flat $150 fee for dealers who arrange auto financing (in lieu of dealers charging a service fee in the form of percentage points added to the loan interest rate).
The compromise calls for a $250 cancellation fee if a used-car buyer wants to return the car within three days. And now, rather than the proposed $150 flat financing fee, there is a 2.5% loan reserve cap, 2% for loans over 60 months.
Ward's: If you could accomplish one thing as association chairman, what would it be?
Fitzpatrick: I've been a dealer now for 20 years, and if I could change one thing, it would be the perception that a lot of people still have about auto dealers. Dealers are among the finest people in the world. They are committed to their associates, customers, communities and the United States of America.
I'm proud to be a dealer and wouldn't want to be anything else. But it turns my stomach when I hear some of the things people say about dealers. I'd like to change that.
Ward's: What is your association's position on the state's zero-emissions movement?
Fitzpatrick: If consumer demand of an available product is there, dealers will sell it. The Toyota Prius with a hybrid engine is a good example. It has taken off. Toyota has increased production and is putting hybrid engines in the Lexus (RX 400h) and the Highlander SUV. Long term, hydrogen fuel cells seem the way to go. But in the history of this business, there have been cars that seemingly were needed, but didn't sell.
Ward's: What has been the aftereffects of the Bob Baker case in which Ford, citing Asbury Automotive's allegedly poor performance with its Ford stores elsewhere, blocked the dealership chain from buying Baker's Ford store in San Diego?
Fitzpatrick: Among other things, it indicates that not only must the buyer do due diligence towards the seller, but the seller must do due diligence towards the buyer.
Ward's: Coming from the auto makers' side of the industry gives you what perspective on manufacturer-dealer relations?
Fitzpatrick: That successful manufacturers communicate well with their dealers, and on an equal basis.
Ward's: As a successful African-American dealer, what advice would you give auto makers regarding their minority dealership programs? What advice would you give minority dealer candidates?
Fitzpatrick: There has been a lot of lip service, but all the goals espoused by upper management haven't been achieved. If you have a goal, have a structure in place to achieve that goal.
Some domestic manufacturers currently seem more concerned with other things. I hate to use the word “survival,” but that could be the word. However, when it comes to selling cars in ethnically diverse America, everyone must sit at the table. We're all here to help.
An important way to go is to make viable dealership points available to ethnic minorities. I've seen a lot of them put their hearts and souls into unviable points that had no way of succeeding.
My advice to minority dealer candidates is to work at becoming the best possible dealer. Take advantage of all that is out there, from 20 groups to schooling. You always need to be a student of the game, because the game always is changing.
And be smart enough not to take hopeless dealership points that might be offered to you.
Ward's: What's the hardest part of being chairman?
Fitzpatrick: It takes more time than I ever thought. But it's an honor and a privilege and a great learning experience. I wouldn't have been able to put in the time the job requires without having remarkable people working for me at my dealerships.