Dealer-factory relations are lousy. The past year has been stormy as dealership consolidation programs, the growth of the Internet and the specter of factory stores have riled many dealers.
That's why the next couple of days represent a terrific opportunity to clear the air and, perhaps, improve those relations. The annual National Automobile Dealers Association convention is like a town meeting for the retail side of the business. It is a perfect opportunity for all parties to discuss the issues dispassionately and with candor.
Dealers have a lot at stake - their businesses, their lifestyle, their very existence - which makes the issues very personal. But it's best to keep personalities out of the discussion.
It would be a sad mistake to make Roy Roberts the scapegoat for the miserable dealer relations at General Motors. When Roberts announced his retirement, he spoke of the need to repair dealer relations. It will require a sincere, concentrated effort to rebuild the trust, just as it required a strong effort to repair GM's relationship with the UAW.
GM isn't the only automaker whose dealers are upset. But GM is the poster child because of last year's field-staff reorganization, an abandoned plan to buy up to 10 percent of its dealerships and the ongoing revision of the five-year franchise agreement. That deal must make the dealer a real partner. Ford Motor Co. also has some issues to resolve with its dealers, now that its Auto Collection strategy has been scaled back and its plans for Internet sales are moving at e-speed.
Dealer and factory representatives must sit down in Orlando and at least begin to rebuild trust and understanding. Otherwise, relations will continue to deteriorate and dealers and manufacturers will find themselves at each other's throats in statehouses and courthouses.
Despite the growing role of the Internet, dealers and factories need each other. If both sides take that notion to heart, they will be off to a good start.