A panel of leading dealers expressed concerns about the year ahead, given uncertainties in the economy and the threat of war.
But the multifranchise executives also vowed to increase their sales while spending the "iffy year" tightening up operations.
"Winners are the ones who go out and get it," said John Bergstrom, CEO of Bergstrom Corp. in Neenah, Wis.
Bergstrom was one of a panel of top retailers at the J.D. Power and Associates International Automotive Roundtable held in conjunction with the NADA convention.
Bergstrom predicted his 20-dealership chain would see a 17 percent increase in sales this year. "We're very bullish, and we'll be taking business from people who aren't bullish," he said.
Bert Boeckmann, president of Galpin Motors Inc. in North Hills, Calif., said his main business, Ford, would see only a small increase this year.
Fritz Hitchcock, CEO of the eight-store Hitchcock Automotive Resources in City of Industry, Calif., predicted a flat year, with the second half stronger than the first.
Like the other panel members, Hitchcock said 2003 will be a year to improve operations.
"Employee retention is not at all what it should be," he said. "It may be the single-biggest challenge we face and the thing we want to focus on most this year."
Bryan DeBoer, senior vice president for mergers and acquisitions and operations at the publicly traded Lithia Motors in Medford, Ore., added that employee product training will be critical for Lithia this year.
Lithia has seen rapid expansion over the past six years, a time when customers are becoming more knowledgeable about vehicles and sales, DeBoer said.
AutoNation, the industry's largest retail chain, plans to standardize its operations this year, says COO Michael Maroone. Maroone noted that AutoNation has 285 general managers.
"We've seen that there is a lack of succession planning at every dealership," he said. "That's something we're going to put a lot of effort into in '03."