Ramsay Gillman started in the car business at the age of 12, filing papers at his daddy's Pontiac dealership in Houston. Now 59 and the head of a family empire of 16 domestic and foreign franchises selling from 27 showrooms across Texas, Gillman pretty much has seen it all when it comes to the auto business.
But even the veteran Gillman admits to being taken aback by the speed with which Asian and European automakers are capturing market share in Texas, the nation's second-biggest new-vehicle market after California and long considered an unassailable Big 3 bastion.
Since 1997, the Big 3 have lost a combined 18.8 percentage points of car share and 5.5 points of light-truck share in Texas, cutting their share to 38.6 percent and 79.9 percent, respectively, according to retail registration data from R.L. Polk & Co. in Southfield, Mich.
General Motors alone has lost 10.3 points of car share in that period, according to Polk. Each point of car share in the state represents about 4,000 units, while a point of light-truck share equals about 7,000 units.
A strong "Buy American" ethos and brand loyalty have kept many a Texas family in a Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge pickup for generations. But that fierce loyalty cannot be taken for granted any longer.
As the state becomes more urban and cosmopolitan, Gillman and other industry experts agree, the defection to import brands will accelerate.
"Ten years ago, no one in Texas knew what a Subaru was. Now I have three dealerships," Gillman said in an interview at this month's National Automobile Dealers Association convention. "We're seeing a more sophisticated buyer now and more cosmopolitan metro markets."
Don Herring, who owns two Mitsubishi dealerships in Plano, agrees. In contrast to the bedrock Big 3 buyer, he says, the new Texan is young, hip - and often from somewhere else.
"That old Ford, Chevy or Dodge buyer - we don't get him," Herring says. "But Texas has grown. We have people from all over America living in Texas now. They're younger in the big city. They're not the old cowboys."
To be sure, the Big 3's losses in Texas reflect market shifts that are under way nationwide. Since 1997, the Big 3 combined have lost nearly 14 percentage points of car share nationally. Their share now is just 46.7 percent. They have lost 8.6 points of light-truck share in the same span; that figure now is 76.2 percent. The figures include fleet sales.
And with a 79.9 percent share, the Big 3 still own the Texas light-truck market. The three top-selling vehicles in Texas last year were Big 3 pickups, which together accounted for 37 percent of total retail registrations.
But the Big 3 have lost about a point of truck share in Texas every year since 1997. And executives know that the competition suddenly got a whole lot tougher with Toyota Motor Corp.'s announcement this month that it will build a 150,000-capacity, full-sized pickup plant in San Antonio.
The Toyota announcement was akin to a cannon shot against the ramparts.