CHICAGO — Jerry Cizek III has paid his dues.
Since 1988 he's been president of the Chicago Automobile Trade Assn., the trade group representing more than 500 Chicagoland new-car dealers, as well as sponsor of the annual Chicago Auto Show that attracts more than a million consumers each year.
Now Cizek, 64, has decided to retire at the end of June. Replacing him is Dave Sloan, who has served as CATA executive vice president under Cizek.
Cizek grew up in the auto industry with broom in one hand, umbrella in the other.
Grandfather and father, Jerry Cizek I and II owned a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, so it was only natural for him to join the business, cleaning up the parts department after school and on weekends.
Once Cizek mastered the broom, he handled other chores until eventually becoming a salesman.
When the family dealership eventually closed in 1973, Cizek was recruited to work for the CATA as a field representative, the bottom rung on the ladder, where his initiation into auto shows was much like his early work in the auto dealership.
“What an indoctrination into the world of generating interest in cars through the auto show,” Cizek says.
“When I joined the CATA in October of 1973, gas was 30 cents a gallon and the speed limit was 65 mph (104 km/h). My first auto show was the following March of 1974, by which time gas had risen to $1 a gallon and the speed limit had fallen to 55 mph (88 km/h).”
Rather than carry a broom like he did at the family dealership, Cizek's first duty at the auto show had him holding an umbrella.
“My first job at the show in McCormick Place (now designated Lakeside Center) was to find things that needed to be fixed, like leaks in the roof so the water wouldn't drip on the cars, and loose carpet, so people wouldn't trip.”
When not looking for trouble, he had another unenviable task: persuade allied exhibitors who sold everything from scale model toy cars to T-shirts, reclining chairs to vegetable slicers, to buy sales space in what was called the center's “lower level” but in reality was the basement.
“It was like a dungeon. No windows, low ceilings, massive pillars every 30 ft. (9 m). I had to convince exhibitors to buy space because the lower level was the entrance to McCormick Place,” Cizek says.
Sell, he did, so much so that he was promoted to director of dealer relations in 1977. It got him to the main level upstairs where he rubbed shoulders with dealers and industry executives and learned that, just like car dealers, the state of the economy dictates how many folks walk through the doors.
“In 1980, interest rates were about 20%, cars just weren't selling and I had a lot of time on my hands at the auto show,” Cizek says.
He used that time to learn something. “A clown at the Chevy exhibit had a lot of time on his hands, too, so he taught me how to make balloon animals.”
Over the years, Cizek says he's seen not only all the new cars, but all the top executives of the auto makers that created the vehicles.
The most memorable was then-Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca, who arrived unannounced for the debut of his new front-wheel drive minivans alongside the rear-drive rivals from Ford and Chevy.
When Iacocca walked through the door into the hall, he actually stopped the show as female models and narrators at rival exhibits left their stands in the middle of sales pitches to sneak a peek at the man who saved Chrysler and was considered U.S. presidential timber.
Cizek also recalls a “bomb scare” that almost closed the show. A man checking out a Ford on the display floor found a black box with blinking red lights under a front seat, prompting an urgent call to security.
Turns out Ford Motor Co. simply had placed an electronic counter under the seat to tally each time someone sat down.
Cizek considers himself fortunate that a teen who started out sweeping dirt in the parts department had the chance to deal with auto shows, auto dealers, and auto executives, since he took a big risk in attempting to land the CATA job.
In 1988, Ross Kelsey was set to retire as CATA president, and the dealer trade group announced it would solicit resumes from around the country to find his replacement.
Before other job seekers could gather, Cizek asked to appear before the CATA board to make one request. “I said, ‘Give me a shot. What have you got to lose?’ One board member said, ‘You're right, if you screw up we'll just get rid of you.’ And I got the job.”
Though not exactly starting out with a vote of confidence, Cizek has been responsible for the show's dramatic growth, moving from the original exhibition hall along the Lake to a newly built South Hall across Lake Shore Drive in 1997 and then into a new North Hall in 2005, giving the show 1.3 million sq. ft. (120,773 sq.m) of space versus 650,000 sq. ft. (60,386 sq.m) in the original hall.
One of Cizek's proudest achievements was creating the space to allow Chrysler to set up an indoor test track for visitors to ride in its vehicles.
That was significant because at the very first Chicago Auto Show, held in 1901 in the Chicago Coliseum, the main attraction was a circular wooden test track which allowed manufacturers to give the public rides. For many people, it was their first time in a car.
The auto show has changed over the years, Cizek says. “It used to be entertainment, with singers and dancers and magicians. Now it's education and a place people come to get information. They used to come to look at female models. Now they come to ask questions of narrators.”
Having attended the auto show nearly his entire life, Cizek says picking a favorite vehicle is impossible, though he admits one does have special meaning for him:
“The general manager of the show gets a golf cart to ride around in so he doesn't have to walk. I will miss the cart.”
Cizek says he'll now spend time traveling with his wife, Cheryl, and spending more time with kids Stacey, Lauren, and Jerry IV as well as grandkids Brandon and Isabella.
He also intends to golf and fish “and only grab the phone if it rings.”