For three decades, Dick Strauss has campaigned for dealer rights. He is a dedicated member of the Virginia Auto Dealers Association and the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Now, all that hard work has put Strauss in an awkward position.
Last month, he sold his Virginia dealership to Ford Motor Co., paving the way for a dealership consolidation in Richmond.
But both the Virginia dealers association and NADA oppose Ford's consolidations, called Auto Collections.
'I don't support him,' said a Virginia Ford dealer who declined to be identified. 'It is a strangely unique situation. I find it a little difficult. For him to sell the dealership like that surprised me.'
However, other dealers support Strauss, a former NADApresident. And the Virginia dealers association saves its angry rhetoric for Ford's strategy, not Strauss.
'Ford made him an enticing offer,' said Donald Hall, CEO of the Virginia dealers association. 'He has done something that benefits him and his family. He did what was in his best interest. He sold to a willing and able party. No one can fault him for that, and shame on us if we did.
'He is persuasive, articulate and knows the issues well. We want him working with us.'
RIGHT TO SELL
Another Virginia Ford dealer, who also declined to be identified, said: 'A dealer should have the right to sell. Dick Strauss has an asset and he should be able to convey that asset.'
Strauss declined to talk about the situation. 'It would be inappropriate to make any comment at this time,' he said.
He remains active with both the Virginia dealers association and NADA. For example, Strauss met Dec. 13 with U.S. Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., chairman of the House Commerce Committee, at the invitation of the Virginia dealers association.
Strauss has confirmed that he sold Dick Strauss Ford to an unidentified 'dealer/investor' who was represented by Ford. Ford has notified the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles that the store will be included in a planned Richmond Auto Collection.
Virginia law states that an immediate family member or a store manager with more than five years' experience has the first right to buy an automobile dealership, Hall said. If that does not occur, the automaker has the right of first refusal, meaning the factory is allowed to step in, match any offer, and purchase the store, he said.
'Virginia is one of the few states with this law,' Hall said. 'The factory has the right to step in during the buy/sell.'
TUG OF WAR
Strauss' position showcases the tumult sweeping automotive distribution. Manufacturers and retailers are grappling with retail consolidation and the Internet, trying to cut distribution costs and stay ahead of customer demands.
In 1997, Ford responded to the changes by establishing Auto Collections in metropolitan markets. Dealers and the automaker jointly own the ventures, which oversee sales and service in an entire market.
NADA is fighting factory intrusion into retailing, arguing that factory stores are inherently unfair and likely to receive preferential treatment. The Virginia dealers association has vowed to fight the Richmond Auto Collection in the courts and state legislature.
At NADA, Strauss is a member of the Dealer Election Action Committee, the political action committee that raises and distributes election-campaign money.
'This is a fund-raising group for pro-business congressional candidates,' said Mike Morrissey, NADA spokesman. 'Factory ownership is not an issue that federal legislation has taken up. Franchise law is first and foremost a state issue.'
Strauss is not a member of NADA's industry relations committee, which is waging NADA's front-line fight against factory ownership.
But Strauss is invited to board meetings of the Virginia dealers association because he is a past president.
'I attend, yes,' Strauss said. 'It depends on my schedule.'
Hall, CEO of the Virginia dealers association, said that so far he has not faced the dilemma of Strauss attending a meeting to discuss the fight against the Richmond Auto Collection.
'He was out of the country in October, and that is when we discussed this,' Hall said. 'I don't know if he would be asked to leave the room. This is not about Dick Strauss. This is about the factory abiding by the rules.'
The association argues that Ford is violating Virginia laws prohibiting factories from owning and operating dealerships.