Officers of the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn. (DADA) checked out the ooh-la-la Paris Auto Show in September. They'll stage their own extravaganza, the North American International Auto Show, in January.
But in October, the association's officers traveled 125 miles north of Detroit to midsize Midland, MI, to see a unique event with its own claim to fame.
It's the Northwood University International Auto Show, billed as the nation's largest outdoor show of its kind. Northwood has been doing this for 41 years.
It's entirely student organized.
“Really!” says Northwood President David E. Fry. “Everything, from designing the outdoor space, to acquiring the vehicles, to moving them to campus, to presenting them, to getting them back home again, is done by students.”
He says Northwood students in virtually every field of study contribute in one way or another.
Adds student Robert Wilson, chairman of this year's show: “We are taking the knowledge we have gained in the classroom and putting it to the test. How cool is that?”
About 500 students are involved, even local high schoolers with an interest in automotive retailing.
There are 450 vehicles in more than 40 displays of domestic and import nameplates, as well as nearly 20 truck, aftermarket and recreational vehicle exhibits.
They are displayed amid the changing fall colors of the woodsy campus, noted for its auto retailing program and the number of alumni who now are dealers.
The weekend event draws about 50,000 visitors.
“I'm here to check out the competition,” says Rod Alberts, the DADA's executive director and director of its big auto show that began, humbly enough, in 1907 as part of a fishing and hunting show in a Detroit beer garden.
He says Northwood's campus-wide show has more exhibit space than Detroit's Cobo Convention Center, serves better food and is only two hours from the Motor City.
“We have some issues,” quips Alberts.
Another Northwood visitor, Ford Motor Co.'s Paul Russell, Mustang marketing manager, says of the show, “It overwhelmed me.”
For the students, there were lessons to be learned not only in producing such an event, but from industry leaders who attended, such as DADA President Richard Genthe.
He tells them, “If you want a comfortable desk job, don't get into the dealership business.” That said, he adds: “I'd never choose another career.”
A third-generation dealer, Genthe began working at his father's dealership 28 years ago. He now runs Dick Genthe Chevrolet in Southgate, MI. A son attends Northwood's Florida campus, with an eye towards becoming a dealer.
“People want to buy from real people who give back to the community,” Genthe tells the Northwood show organizers.
Fry tells them that becoming a dealer is a good way to become rich.
But he adds this: “Integrity has no substitute. There is no right way to do the wrong thing.”
And this: “If you are busy collecting stuff, you'll only die with a lot of stuff. People build lives by ideas, not things. The ideas create the things. You can get a lot of stuff and still give to others.”
Fry reckons he knows 20,000 Northwood alumni by name, in part because “I've been around so long.” He started at the school as an economics instructor in 1965, two years after Northwood's first auto show.
He is a man guided by his beliefs, including from whom he thinks he should buy a vehicle.
“I never buy a car from anyone but one of our graduates,” he says.
Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]