NADA leader won't duck a factory fight
Welch hailed for tough stance in Calif.
Welch starts his job Feb. 1.
WASHINGTON -- Dealers praised Peter Welch's selection last week as president of the National Automobile Dealers Association, citing his willingness to stand up to automakers.
As head of the California New Car Dealers Association, Welch went toe to toe with Chrysler Group in 2011 over a factory-owned store in Los Angeles.
Welch replaces Phil Brady, a Washington insider who left in August for a job at the energy company Phillips 66.
Don Hall, president of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, said he was concerned NADA would replace Brady with a political operative or a former member of Congress, but was pleased with the selection of Welch.
"He is one of us," Hall said. "As I said to him in an e-mail: 'Lead and I will follow.'"
Welch, 59, a lawyer and head of the California association since 2003, will start at NADA on Feb. 1, a week before the 16,000-member group's annual conference in Orlando, Fla. In a brief interview, he said he feels comfortable becoming the top lobbyist for dealers nationwide. Laws and regulations that start in California often spread to the rest of the country, he said, one day after NADA's board of directors approved his hiring at a meeting in Dallas.
"The issues are pretty much the same," Welch said. "The car business is the car business."
One task ahead of Welch will be healing wounds from past battles on Capitol Hill.
Most NADA members are better off than they were during the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcies, when the automakers tried to close thousands of dealerships with support from the Obama administration.
Vehicle sales have rebounded since then, but the bankruptcy chapter remains a sore spot for dealers who thought that NADA could have done more.
Tamara Darvish, a Maryland dealer and a leader of the Committee to Restore Dealer Rights, which resisted the termination of GM and Chrysler franchises, said Welch has "great credibility" with the 1,100 dealers he represents in California.
"Serving and protecting members should be their top -- and close to only -- priority," she said. "They've had challenges with it in the past, but I think this is a great leader who can take us in the right direction."
Alan Starling, a Chevrolet dealer from Florida and a past NADA chairman, said Welch's challenge to the Chrysler dealership in Los Angeles shows that he knows how to stand up to an automaker.
"To me, that was pretty telling," he said. "There aren't many people that have had to stand toe to toe with a multinational corporation and tell them they were wrong."
Welch has worked with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers on other hot-button issues in California, such as tailpipe standards, rules for aftermarket parts and scrappage programs, the automaker group says.
But he filed a complaint against Chrysler soon after the company opened a downtown Los Angeles dealership in January 2011 to showcase new retail techniques.
The complaint alleged that the store, housed in a 189,000-square-foot building with a glass tower overlooking Interstate 110, was within 10 miles of three Chrysler dealerships, in violation of state law.
"We can't have rogue manufacturers not following the law and intentionally trying to circumvent it through sham devices to meet whatever the flavor-of-the-month new marketing strategy is," Welch told California regulators during a May 2011 hearing.
Chrysler caved, selling the dealership in October 2011. The company agreed to pay more than $900,000 in penalties and fees to settle the complaint.
Darryl Holter, chairman of the California dealer organization and CEO of the eight-store Shammas Group in Los Angeles, said his departing president did the right thing.
"There are places where they cross the line, and we have to call a spade a spade, call a factory store a factory store," he said. "It doesn't mean we're at war. It means they may take positions that we don't like sometimes."
You can reach Gabe Nelson at email@example.com.