From staying in closer touch with his members to getting more face time with legislators on Capitol Hill, communication was a key element that helped define Tim Smith's year as chairman of the American International Automobile Dealers Association.
Smith, a 57-year-old third-generation dealer who owns BMW and Toyota dealerships in suburban Los Angeles, says 2003 was successful for the association, whose mission is to protect the interests of dealers who sell import brands.
"We really increased our communications with everyone - with senators and congressmen and with our membership," Smith told Staff Reporter Arlena Sawyers during an interview.
"We had about 58 legislative alerts out there where we kept our constituency on top of what's going on and also gave them the ability to respond to something that was going on," he said. "In other words, we did a better job of communicating.
"The changes we made in our program with AIADA were truly remarkable, particularly in such a short period of time."
Smith has been on AIADA's board since 1995 and has been president of the California Motor Car Dealers Association and the Greater Los Angeles New Car Dealers Association.
He is the president of Bob Smith BMW, which this month moved from Canoga Park, Calif., to a new 100,000-square-foot facility in Calabasas. He and his brother, Mike, are partners in Bob Smith Toyota in La Crescenta, Calif.
Here are Smith's reflections on his year as AIADA chairman.
How would you characterize 2003?
I would say it was a really wonderful year for AIADA. We have a new president, Marianne McInerney. She took over on April 1. She had a mission to really turn the place on. We had a very successful transition to a new management team. We integrated new staff members, launched our grass-roots program and had a really successful automotive congress.
Basically, the membership year was a huge success. We hit almost 9,200 members, which is the largest number of members we've ever had. We had 100 new dealers attend the congress, and we had over 200 visits to Capitol Hill in connection with the congress. The previous year, we had 89. We really got our feet into more doors than we had before.
AIADA leadership met with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, and held about 75 meetings in House and Senate offices during the year.
What was your major accomplishment?
First of all, don't give me any credit; it's not mine. It's the organization's. The major accomplishment is it was a very successful transition. One of the most refreshing and energizing parts of it is that we got the board re-engaged.
The board really has embraced this new approach to our trade association. And that's exciting. Number one, we have a wonderful board and a lot of bright people on it. You get a lot of ideas when you get bright people together.
Was there a major disappointment for the organization?
The major disappointment was that protectionism came to the fore with the democratic candidates for president. They're looking for constituencies to vote for them to get the nomination. And in doing so, they're starting to talk a little bit more like they would like to restrict free trade.
That's a little bit of a disappointment. Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) made a comment in Detroit that we can succeed in beating the living hell out of the Japanese and beating the hell out of the Europeans.
(Former Vermont Governor) Howard Dean (a Democrat) made a comment that our manufacturing jobs are hemorrhaging, and we have to go back and revise every single trade agreement.
Those candidates are looking for the support of organized labor. Restricting trade in some fashion helps gather in that constituency. It's a disappointment, but we're going to be responsive to that.
AIADA changed its dues structure in 2002. How did that work in 2003?
It created probably more discussion than maybe it should have. We just updated the sales volumes of our respective membership dealers, and they paid at the corresponding level. The other part is we increased the basic dues for multiple dealers from $100 to $250.
What did the dealers get for their additional dollars?
We invested more in our lobbying organization, we reached out directly to lawmakers, and we provided new levels of information about our industry. We've also invested in new technologies that allow us to reach our members though different forums.
We have much better research capability now, and we're in the process of developing a new Web site and new media communications so that we're on top of the information much quicker and we can react much quicker.
We have conference calls with people. We had Steve Forbes (former Republican candidate for president), for example, and Charlie Cook, a political analyst in Washington, D.C. We got close to 100 members on the conference calls talking to these people. They give a little presentation and then answer questions. This is brand new. That has been another way of bringing value to our membership.
What else are you doing in your grass-roots program?
We're getting our dealers to have their congressman come into the dealerships and meet their employees so they personalize our industry with them.
We're in the process of arranging 95 congressional visits. Out of that 95, my guess is we've had about 22 or 23 visits. This is an initiative we took on in the last few months. As we get into (2004), we'll have more of those visits.
Do your members understand the importance of AIADA's mission as a trade association, and has the mission changed?
The mission has not changed. Basically, our core legislative agenda is free trade. That is always an issue and has become more so this year as the political campaigns have been going on. There are a lot of issues out there that have free trade implications.
For example, CAFE (corporate average fuel economy). Obviously, our position on CAFE might be different than a position that is influenced by the Big 3.
Number one, we're all for fuel economy, OK? We support the work of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But we don't want CAFE to preclude good choices out there for consumers to buy cars. If you increase CAFE dramatically, that can have a detrimental effect on model availability, safety and vehicle cost to consumers.
Why shouldn't AIADA fade away?
First of all, the National Auto-mobile Dealers Association is a great organization.
What we bring to the table primarily is free trade. NADA can't do that because it has a large constituency that's Big 3 - Ford, Chrysler and GM - who may not be as enthusiastic about free trade at different times as our international nameplate dealers are.
For another thing, our organization is strictly a government relations organization. That's our whole purpose. Our dealers want us to be there.
Is the trade imbalance with Korea a threat to dealers who sell Hyundai and Kia?
Our Kia and Hyundai dealers are doing very well. Kia sold about a quarter-million units in 2003, and Hyundai sales are close to 400,000. There's absolutely a market out there for these vehicles.
On the larger question of trade, Korea understands, I think, that trade can't be a one-way street forever. Japan got that message and is adjusting. My sense is that Korea will follow suit. The benefits of two-way open trade are overwhelming, but the potential ramifications of closed boarders can be really detrimental to everybody. Those are successful cars that belong in our markets.
Do you have any advice for the incoming chairman?
As chairman, you don't have to have all the answers. You just got to have smart people around you and use them. These people on this board are wonderful, and the answers come easy when you involve them and the staff and the president. Then all of a sudden, you don't have to do all the thinking.
But my advice to (Chairman-elect) Buzz (Rodland) is: "Don't call me."