Firebrand Ron Tonkin fought for dealer rights

Ron Tonkin
The word "firebrand" isn't always a compliment, but Ron Tonkin wears it as a badge of honor.

The septuagenarian owner of the multifranchise dealership group that bears his name bore the torch for embattled dealers in the late 1980s when the Detroit 3 were pinching dealer profits. His fierce speeches and use of the national media sought to defend dealers' bottom lines.

During his one-year chairmanship of the National Automobile Dealers Association beginning in February 1989, he railed against manufacturers' fleet subsidies, retail rebates, cost transfers and mandatory advertising association memberships. In founding a group of dealers called the Rough Riders, he encouraged dealers to resist manufacturers trying to jam excess inventories down their throats.

Ron Tonkin
Age: 78
Company: Ron Tonkin Family of Dealerships, Portland, Ore.
Brilliant idea: Using NADA as a bully pulpit for dealer rights

On the retail side, the 14 brands in the Tonkin enterprise have become synonymous with Portland, Ore., growing to nearly half a billion dollars in revenue last year. The family atmosphere at the dealerships resulted in Oregon Business magazine ranking Ron Tonkin Chevrolet Co. the third-best company to work for in Oregon. Among his charitable causes were the Foster Grandparent Program, battling childhood illiteracy and bringing the Ringling Bros. circus to a children's hospital.

Tonkin also has put the "family" in the Ron Tonkin Family of Dealerships. Sons Ed and Brad have operated the franchises since Ron stepped back after a prostate cancer scare in the mid-'90s.

Following in his father's footsteps, Ed Tonkin will take over as NADA chairman in 2010.

"I don't know if I'd be good at anything else," Ron Tonkin said in a 1996 interview, "But I do know that I can turn a dealership around, get it selling cars, get it making money again."

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com