New TrueCar exec aims to mend company's strained dealer ties
Pat Watson spent nearly 39 years with the South Carolina Automobile Dealers Association, mostly as CEO.
Pat Watson, the newest member of TrueCar Inc.'s executive team, was months away from retiring and wondering whether he could recapture a golf game he gave up three decades earlier to raise his young children.
But TrueCar founder Scott Painter came knocking before Watson could officially end this month a 39-year career with the South Carolina Automobile Dealers Association, mostly as CEO.
Watson's new mission: use his years of connections and inside knowledge of auto retailing and regulation to repair TrueCar's ties with U.S. dealers.
TrueCar, an online shopping site and lead generator, created the position of vice president of industry relations for Watson.
He will oversee relationships with dealer associations, but he is open to all dealer questions.
Watson said he plans to travel the country, answer questions and explain how TrueCar has changed its model to better serve dealers.
Trying to rebuild trust
He said dealer concerns about TrueCar, which led to regulatory crackdowns in several states, were fueled by TrueCar's rapid growth, the company's inability to adequately explain its plans and a dose of arrogance that TrueCar now regrets.
"Maybe we tried to go a little too fast," said Watson, a 63-year-old former college football player and coach who talks easily about his faith in God.
Watson said Lou Holtz, now an ESPN college football analyst, was the secondary coach at the University of South Carolina when Watson played defensive back there in the late 1960s.
Rebuilding trust with dealers is no small order. TrueCar had about 5,700 participating dealer franchises in late 2011 before controversy erupted over TrueCar's advertising and other practices. For instance, TrueCar was using the word "invoice" on its Web site, but consumer laws in many states ban that word from advertising.
Some states also said TrueCar's practice of charging dealers when a TrueCar lead resulted in a sale violated brokering laws. To solve the problem in several states, TrueCar switched from a pay-per-sale model to monthly subscriptions.
After dealer defections caused the participating franchises to fall to 3,200 early this year, it has recovered to about 3,700, according to a source familiar with the company.
Watson said many dealers in South Carolina approached him for guidance when the TrueCar controversy broke in December.
It was touched off by Group 1 Automotive Inc.'s decision to drop TrueCar over what the dealership group called data-security concerns. TrueCar receives computer data from participating dealers to verify sales.
Watson said his main job now is to listen and communicate -- a trait that caused that long interruption of his golf game.
It goes back many years to when his 3-year-old son, one of four children, innocently asked him one day why he was leaving to play golf instead of staying home and playing with him.
Said Watson: "That's when I gave up golf."
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