Former NADA president, who died this month, fought for dealers' rights

Dealers mourn Tonkin, miss his spunk

Former NADA president, who died this month, fought for dealers' rights

Ron Tonkin once said: “If being outspoken means speaking out about the injustices ... then I plead guilty.”
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As they headed into the 2014 National Automobile Dealers Association convention in New Orleans last week, dealers longed for another outspoken advocate like the late Ron Tonkin.

Tonkin, the Oregon auto dealer who crusaded against what he considered overbearing factories while president of NADA 25 years ago, died Jan. 17 at 82. The founder of Ron Tonkin Family of Dealerships in Portland, Ore., became known as a firebrand among dealers for his forceful pushback against automakers.

Remembering Tonkin, an outspoken advocate for dealers, hopefully will encourage other dealers to speak up, said H. Carter Myers III, a Virginia dealer and chairman of NADA in 2002.

"My concern is we're getting more and more of the manufacturers controlling the retail process, and yet they're not really retailers," Myers told Automotive News. "We need to make sure the dealer's voice is heard."

While president of the dealers' association, Ton-kin railed against manufacturers' fleet subsidies, retail rebates, cost transfers and mandatory advertising association memberships. He founded a group of dealers called the Rough Riders, who worked to resist manufacturers' attempts to force excess inventories onto dealership lots.

Manufacturer control is worse today than it was when Tonkin was NADA president, said Myers, who recalls signing up for the Rough Riders and pledging $100 or $200 to the effort.

"We need more Ron Tonkins to speak up," he said. "It's a crazy time going on, and I wish Ron were 38 or 40 years old and back speaking up."

Myers: Dealers need a voice.

Sued automakers


Gordon Stewart, a dealer with stores in Michigan, Florida, Alabama and Georgia, said Tonkin was not afraid to tackle the hard problems as NADA president.

"He set a pace for those who followed him," Stewart said.

"NADA had a reputation somewhat up to that point of just kind of going along with things and not rocking the boat," he went on to say. "Ron was a challenger. He was considered somewhat of a maverick at the time. But looking back, he was right on the money."

Stewart also recalled Tonkin as a lot of fun and a great human being. "He was very good at balancing a spoon on the end of his nose," Stewart said.

The colorful Tonkin had a blunt way with words. He titled his 1990 Automotive News World Congress speech "Quit Screwing Your Dealers."

During a stirring opening address at the 1990 NADA convention, Tonkin announced he was suing Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Toyota over fleet subsidies. He accused the manufacturers of unfairly paying fleet incentives that allowed the car rental companies to buy vehicles at prices below dealer invoice. The top rental companies at that time were owned in part by Ford and GM, and Tonkin objected to what he viewed as a conflict of interest. He dropped the suit when the automakers' 1991 fleet programs showed progress in buying back retired rental-fleet vehicles and making them available to dealers.

At that 1990 convention, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca followed Tonkin on the NADA stage and good-naturedly referred to Tonkin as a "pain in the ass."

Stewart: “He set a pace for those who followed him.”

Justice Department probe


In addition to Tonkin's preaching to dealers on stage, he also wrote a letter to NADA members urging them to lower their inventories to send a message to the automakers.

"What we did best was draw visibility to the issues that confronted dealers and concerned consumers," Tonkin said later about his turn as NADA's leader.

But such actions ultimately drew the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which in 1994 began a 16-month investigation into alleged antitrust activities by NADA and its presidents dating back to Tonkin's letter urging dealers to trim their inventories. In 1995, NADA agreed to a settlement. Though it admitted no wrongdoing, the association promised not to engage in antitrust activities and agreed to 10 years of Justice Department monitoring.

Stewart said he viewed the Justice Department scrutiny as "almost a nonevent." Myers said the investigation was connected to several NADA leaders and he doesn't consider it a meaningful part of Tonkin's legacy.

In 2009, Automotive News ranked Tonkin as one of the industry's 50 Visionary Dealers.

Ron Tonkin, left, opened his first dealership, Ron Tonkin Chevrolet, in 1960. His son Ed is at right.

Tonkin opened his first dealership, Ron Tonkin Chevrolet, in 1960, according to the dealership group's Web site, which also said he became the country's first Ferrari dealer in 1966.

Today the group operates 16 dealerships representing 15 brands. It ranks No. 98 on the Automotive News list of the top 125 dealership groups in the United States, with new retail sales of 8,291 vehicles in 2012.

"I don't know if I'd be good at anything else," 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."

Tonkin stepped back from day-to-day oversight of the dealership group after a prostate cancer scare in the mid-'90s. Sons Ed and Brad have operated the stores since then.

Ed Tonkin followed in his father's footsteps as head of NADA -- the title had changed to chairman -- in 2010. He lauded his father's legacy at the time.

"My dad was a phenomenal NADA president," Ed Tonkin told Automotive News in 2010. "Critical times call for critical measures. At that time, the dealers were really getting beat up with fleet subsidies, and he was the cause that really put an end to that. He really made a mark."

In 2006, Tonkin summed up his view on the franchise system.

"There is no better way," Tonkin told Automotive News. "The automakers that produce the cars are really not good at selling them. Every time they have made an attempt, it has resulted in failure. It's a different side of the business. They have to make them, and we have to sell them.

"The automobile industry is like a three-legged milk stool: the unions, auto manufacturers and the dealers. Remove any one of the legs and the stool falls over."

You can reach Amy Wilson at awilson@crain.com.


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