Harold Wells, NADA leader who challenged factory-owned stores, dies at 81
Harold Boney "Toby" Wells, a leader in the 1999 auto dealer revolt against factory-owned stores, died Wednesday at Waltonwood Assisted Living in Cary, N.C. He was 81.
At the 1999 National Automobile Dealers Association convention, Wells was a newly elected first vice chairman, unofficially the next year's chairman. The owner of multibrand General Motors and Chrysler stores in Whiteville, N.C, Wells planned to spend his apprentice year as a voice for small and rural dealers.
Then GM announced it planned to buy out some dealers to form a factory-owned network, GM Retail Holdings. GM said it wanted to experiment with new retail approaches and then share its findings with its dealers.
Dealers felt betrayed. NADA leaders shifted lobbying into overdrive. Within 12 months, 22 additional state legislatures required all auto sales be made by franchised new-car dealers, bringing the restricted-sales law total to 48 states.
Wells was the incoming chairman at the 2000 NADA convention, when GM CEO Jack Smith appeared to say he was scrapping the automaker's factory-store program.
"These initiatives broke a fundamental trust between dealers and manufacturers and directly threatened the franchise system," Wells told Automotive News a year later as his NADA chairmanship was ending. "Thankfully, the large-scale factory-store programs met the fate that awaits any ill-conceived program lacking meaningful dealer input."
But Wells said he spent the end of his chairmanship helping rebuild factory-dealer relations and added that both groups were cooperating better.
"Intuitive, intelligent and compassionate, that was Harold," said David Westcott, a Burlington, N.C., dealer who will become NADA chairman next month. "He did a great job as [NADA] chairman and was loved by other dealers. A great loss."
The GM-NADA showdown capped Wells' 50-year career as an auto dealer in his native North Carolina. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Wells graduated from General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in 1953. A past president of the North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association, he received a lifetime achievement award from the association in 2004.
But beyond auto retailing, Wells was also active in business, education and community organizations, including the Boy Scouts and Civitans, and was a 32nd degree Mason and a Shriner.
He became a director of the Waccamaw Bank & Trust in the 1960s and three mergers later was a director of BB&T Holding Co.
Wells served 30 years as a trustee and past board of trustee chairman of Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C.
He is survived by two children, three grandchildren and two sisters.
Memorials may be contributed to the Harold and Elizabeth Wells Campus Beautification Fund, Campbell University, P.O. Box 116, Buies Creek, N.C. 27506, or First Baptist Church, 412 N. Madison St., Whiteville, N.C. 28472.
For his full obituary, click here.
You can reach Jesse Snyder at firstname.lastname@example.org.