Jim Willingham walked a tightrope during his closing speech last week at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention.
Willingham, the new chairman of NADA and owner of Boulevard Auto Group in Long Beach, Calif., touched on two topics that have riled dealers: the rise of factory-owned dealerships and the failure of the national title-branding bill. But his simple message of optimism drew applause.
While Willingham admitted that factory-owned stores are a threat to dealer entrepreneurs, he also promised the thinning convention crowd that NADA would represent all dealers, including 'factory-partnered' stores. 'We are going to find a way to handle' the threat, Willingham assured fellow dealers.
He said that mergers and consolidation are inevitable but that things must be fair for all the dealers.
'NADA will demand that new factory-dealer partnerships and holding companies must not put independents at a disadvantage. And any reduction in dealerships should include a dignified exit strategy for those who choose to leave the business,' he said.
But NADA's approach will be one of cooperation, not confrontation. Willingham called on manufacturers, dealers and dealer associations to work together to improve the relationship between dealers and automakers. 'It's not going to be easy. But it can be done, and we can make it happen.' he said.
A new push for a strong, consumer-friendly title-branding bill was among Willingham's top priorities, in addition to opposing strict new emissions standards for sport-utilities, reducing estate taxes and getting relief for dealers who are forced to contribute to cleanup of polluted Superfund sites. Willingham said NADA is beefing up its lobbying staff and strengthening its presence on Capitol Hill.
But he said he believes dealers' most potent tool for meeting the legislative and competitive challenges is optimism.
He told dealers to count their blessings, pointing to current strong auto sales and independent surveys showing high customer satisfaction ratings for dealerships. He also said that dealership acquisitions by both public chains and factories have increased the value of well-run dealerships.
Dealers should view the industry changes as an opportunity for growth, Willingham said. The industry consolidation and strong auto sales can be seen as a lucky break.
After all, it was a lucky break that landed Willingham in the auto business.
'My best break ironically was when I suffered a severe broken leg and ankle playing football at the University of Missouri,' he said. 'At the time, I was devastated. But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.'