Jim Willingham, owner of Boulevard Buick-Pontiac-GMC in Long Beach, Calif., blames Congress' obsession with the Clinton sex scandal for the defeat of an NADA-backed title-branding bill last year. But Willingham, the incoming NADA chairman, is unwilling to let the bill die this year.
He explained his strategy and other key issues on his agenda to Staff Reporter Donna Harris. Edited excerpts follow.
What inspired you to seek the NADA chairmanship?
My father was a Baptist minister, and we had a large family. We were always giving. The family had to work together during the Depression. The older ones took care of the little ones.
It was just ingrained in me to be kind to my fellow man and to treat people the way I would like to be treated.
This business has given me and my family so much that I want to give back. I've been giving back since my first board meeting with the Long Beach motor car dealers.
What do you feel you bring to the table as the next NADA chairman?
In my 38 years in the business, I have made tremendous friendships with our factory people. I go hunting with Bob Coletta of Buick.
And the same way with Ross Roberts (of Ford). He was my district manager when I became a Lincoln Mercury dealer. We went on trips together, go fishing and hunting together.
I can pick the phone up and talk to these people.
A year is a really short time. What goals do you have?
There are only really two items that I am working on. I want to continue (outgoing NADA Chairman) Paul Holloway's goals. We have had a difficult time with the manufacturers. We've lost something. That bridge of understanding has been lost.
The (conventional) dealer's world is being turned upside down. There have been leadership changes. General Motors continues to reorganize, change this and change that. With the (launch of the) Ford Retail Network and with dealers selling out to Republic Industries, dealers are frightened.
As a result, dealers have lost that trust (of the manufacturers). Paul Holloway's main goal was to try to rebuild the trust between the dealer and the manufacturer and the communication, the dialogue, between us.
Paul's goal was to rebuild those bridges, and he's done a terrific job. I want to continue that drive to build more bridges of communication and eliminate this mistrust the dealers have for the factories.
What about the second goal?
My goal is to beef up and staff up our government relations office. In our interviews and our surveys with our dealers, they told us three things were on every dealer's mind: Industry relations had to be improved. Government relations had to be improved. Technical training for our technicians and computer training for the rest of our people had to be improved.
We're the only ones that can improve government relations. We have a Capitol Hill office. We have a staff of seven. My goal is to increase it to at least 10, bringing in high-powered lobbyists. This is too much for seven people to handle.
In California, we have four people in our legislative office in Sacramento. We have 80 assembly members. Those four people work that group with a paid lobbyist on top of that. But here (in Washington) we have 435 congressmen and 100 senators, and we have seven people working them.
We tend to be conservative and tend to have more influence with the Republicans than we do with the Democrats, though we've done very well with both sides of the aisle. We need to staff up.
When will the changes start?
We've already added David Regan, a former legislative aide. And we're adding people who can go into the field and work our congressional partners program.
Remember that every congressional district has anywhere from 20 to 100 dealerships. Some of those dealers went to school with the guy (congressman), they go to church with him, they sold him cars, they may have been in business with him. We have every type of connection. What we need to know is who are the dealers who know these congressmen and (we need to) keep an ongoing dialogue with all 435 congressmen through them - and as many senators as we can touch.
We're going to have our staff in the field connecting these people. When we need someone to talk to a congressman about some particular bill regulating us or something we're trying to push through, we want to call these dealers.
Paul Holloway said his biggest disappointment was that the title-branding bill didn't pass. Do you have any ideas on that, on why it didn't pass and on what can be done?
That wasn't a reflection on him (Holloway). That was the chaos in Washington. Our bill was tied to the budget bill. This was so partisan it had nothing to do with the title-branding bill and everything to do with Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. Because of all the controversy within the parties, nothing had a chance to pass. It wasn't Paul's fault or the dealers' fault or our staff's fault. The Republicans wanted to make Clinton look bad before the election, and the Democrats were trying to close the gate and keep the flood from absolutely burying the president. And nothing happened. But we'll get it through. We need to.
What would you do differently?
We'll be working with the state attorneys general. I would hope that this impeachment thing is gone in 30 days. And I hope that our congressmen and our senators introduce the bill.
Why the focus on the states?
Most states have a (title-branding) bill now. In California, if your car was 75 percent damaged, that title is branded. So when the rebuilder rebuilds a car and puts it out for sale, there is a brand on that title saying the vehicle was totaled and rebuilt.
The problem is unscrupulous wholesalers register the car in a non-title-branding state, and they get a clear title.
You get (the rebuilt vehicle) to an auction, and we're looking at 100 cars in less than an hour. There's no way we can put it on a hoist and inspect it. The car works, looks good. A year and a half later when the guy scrapes the fender, he realizes the car has been rebuilt. He's back at the dealership saying, 'You sold me a car that was a salvaged vehicle without disclosing it to me. I want my money back.' I'm the one who takes the hit and has to sell the car for what it's really worth.
Are there other issues you want to tackle besides title branding?
Superfund (reform), mandatory binding arbitration and title branding are my three headlines. There are others, such as the estate tax. Every dime I have been able to make for my heirs will be taxed 50 percent. I've already paid it. You've got a $600,000 deduction, but you have to pay estate tax on the rest of it, and the heirs have to sell a dealership just to pay the taxes. We got that deduction moved up to $1.3 million. Taxes can take 59 percent of what's left. That isn't right.
What about Superfund? That's another issue that keeps coming back.
That's a terrible issue. A dealer hires a certified and licensed hauler to dispose of used oil and contaminants. And years later (the disposal site or recycling facility) is declared a Superfund site. The hauler is broke or gone, and there's no one to come back on except the dealer. And the dealer is made responsible for cleanup.
And mandatory binding arbitration?
We're all for arbitrating problems rather than going to court. But if it is between David and Goliath - General Motors or Ford or DaimlerChrysler or Toyota against the tiny dealer - they can lawyer you to death. There are no independent dealers who can take them on. So if they put mandatory binding arbitration in the dealer agreement, I have nowhere to go (with a dispute). The mandatory, binding arbitration agreements can supersede all these state franchise laws that we have worked on for 20 or 30 years to get some protection for the dealer.
When Ferrari tried to put it in their agreement and they put the agreement in front of me (to sign), I said, 'I'm not going to mandatory binding arbitration. I want the California Motor Vehicle Board to handle my disputes. That's the mechanism we have to use.' And Ferrari said no. I filed suit and won in California. Ferrari appealed in California, and I won. But they sued me in federal court in New York state, where the binding arbitration was supposed to be, and I lost. They wanted to close our dealership because they wanted factory stores.
Are more manufacturers trying to add mandatory binding arbitration clauses to dealer agreements?
Some are. We're trying to get a federal law to keep them from doing that.
Now that the American Automobile Manufacturers Association is defunct, is NADA going to take advantage of that and try to change some of the franchise laws?
No. AAMA, most of the work they did was in conjunction with the dealers. We were partners with them. They were fighting safety issues and emissions issues.
But they had been pretty active at the state level.
But that was to deal with each state's (dealer association) attempt to put in a franchise law. That's up to the state (dealer association).