Steve Gourley always has enjoyed the haggling involved in buying a car.
As a customer, the former corporate lawyer could hold his own when a salesperson applied pressure, and he has railed at dealership employees who have overstepped their bounds.
"I would walk out but leave my business card and tell them if they were serious to call me," Gourley, 54, says.
But he had no idea that he eventually would police dealership sales practices, much less that his tough enforcement tactics would have an impact on the industry.
In 1999, the California Department of Motor Vehicles appointed Gourley director. Since then, his willingness to challenge large corporations and levy stiff penalties has shaken California car dealers and had a ripple effect on dealers nationwide.
Gourley is not the first state regulator to crack down on questionable finance and insurance practices in recent years. But his investigation and six-day shutdown of Gunderson Chevrolet in El Monte, Calif., drew national attention three years ago. Gunderson is owned by AutoNation Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the nation's largest auto dealership group.
"We were all forced to look at our operations and what our people were doing," says Fritz Hitchcock, CEO of the eight-store Hitchcock Automotive Resources in City of Industry, Calif. Hitchcock just finished his term as president of the California New Motor Vehicle Board, which hears appeals of the motor vehicles department.