WASHINGTON - Import-brand dealers came to their annual Automotive Congress here last week proclaiming that the proposed merger of Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz AG vindicates the notion of a global, non-national car business. That, after all, is what most of them have invested their lives in.
By that same token, many went home with the realization that they likely had attended one of the last annual meetings of a stand-alone American International Automo-bile Dealers Association.
In a non-national world epitomized by the new DaimlerChrysler AG, executives here agreed, the rationale for a separate dealer organization focused on 'import' issues has taken a beating.
'I think we really have to review what we're here for and what we're all about,' Dave Mungenast, 1998 AIADA chairman, acknowledged in an interview last week.
'Believe me, this (merger) is a wake-up call.'
Mungenast, other AIADA executives and many dealers stopped far short of saying that the group is no longer needed. But they conceded that an affiliation or merger into the National Automobile Dealers Association is not as unthinkable now as it would have been two years ago.
'As long as (trade) is addressed by the government, dealers are going to have to band together to make sure that they are protected,' said AIADA President Walter Huizenga.
'But that doesn't mean that someday that protection will not take a different form. One of the things we have to understand is that the way it was done in the 1970s and '80s doesn't work in the '90s.'
Mungenast said the country's approximately 10,000 international dealers could, in theory, become a caucus group within NADA. But such an arrangement would be difficult if the NADA board maintains its current makeup, he said.
'The game has changed forever,' Mungenast said. 'They can't continue the us-vs.-them Big 3 mentality anymore.'
FOLLY OF DUPLICATION
Philip Hutchinson, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, which represents non-Big 3 automakers in the United States, said the DaimlerChrysler merger underscores the folly of maintaining separate 'domestic' and 'foreign' industry trade groups.
'Just as with manufacturing organizations, frankly, I don't see any reason for having duplicative dealer associations,' he said in a brief interview.
NADA President Frank McCarthy told Automotive News the merger question is legitimate but has not come up in his organization. Any merger or affiliation would have to be driven by dealers themselves, he said.
AIADA and NADA already have a working relationship.
Lobbyists from both dealer associations called on AIADA members last week to help press members of Congress for a title-branding bill that's been near the top of NADA's agenda for several years.
The measure, to establish a uniform national system of marking titles of wrecked vehicles that have been rebuilt for resale, passed the House of Representatives easily last year but is bogged down in the Senate. Consumer groups and attorneys general have been pressing for alternative provisions.
NADA has said its bill would protect dealers and consumers from getting rebuilt wrecks without knowing it.
SUPPORT FOR SEPARATION
A quick sampling of AIADA conference attendees found strong support for keeping the two dealer groups apart for now.
'As long as the politicians fail to recognize our companies are global, there will be a need for an international association,' said Tim Huggins, vice president of Saratoga Honda of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Kent Petersen, owner of Petersen Motor Co. of Ogden, Utah, and a director of both AIADA and NADA, said the two groups focus on different issues.
'Our threats are a lot different. NADA has the broad approach and takes on a lot of issues, where AIADA is more directed toward free trade,' he said.
'But the lines are blurring, that I would admit.'
The DC deal dominated the dealers' D.C. conference, and AIADA officials said it could not have come at a better time.
In the absence of any burning issues to worry about this year, AIADA leaders said the merger gave their members something useful to take to the Hill - an object lesson on the merits of globalization for their congressional representatives.
'If there was ever a fastball right out over the plate waiting for you to knock it out of the park, this is it,' said Cody Lusk, assistant director of governmental affairs.
Meanwhile, AIADA leaders reminded their rank-and-file to stay vigilant on trade and to stay active politically.
Scott Lane, AIADA's director of government affairs, said continuing economic troubles in Asia will boost the U.S. trade deficit significantly this year - tempting politicians in trouble at the polls to 'play the trade card.'
Mungenast, who operates his five franchises in the congressional district of presidential aspirant and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said he doesn't expect this year's elections to make much change in the Washington political landscape.
But he and Huizenga encouraged dealers to stay active nonetheless.
'Dealers perceive that if the House were to shift from Republican to Democratic, the shift in the leadership of key committees could be devastating to our members,' Huizenga said.
He noted that Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., would take over the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., would return to the chair of the powerful House Commerce Committee.
Neither is thought of as friendly to international dealers, Huizenga said.
'Those committees can do a lot to hurt you,' Huizenga said. 'Let's not forget when the Democrats ran the House and the Senate, we got the luxury tax.'