Just six days into his job as CEO of Asbury Automotive Group Inc., Ken Gilman received a nasty shock. At a meeting in Dearborn, Mich., Ford Motor Co. executives bluntly told Gilman that too many of Asbury's Ford dealerships were not performing up to par.
That's the kind of news that sends chills through the chief executive of a publicly held dealership group. It means the factory could oppose the group's acquisition of dealerships and stifle the growth that investors crave.
For Gilman, who was fresh out of the fashion retailing business, it was a rude awakening. He was used to dictating to clothing manufacturers. Now he was getting pushed around by the factory.
Indeed, Gilman's critics say he is out of his league in the world of big car dealers. His supporters say he is a breath of fresh air in a stodgy industry.
One thing is certain. In the clubby car business, the 57-year-old Gilman has two strikes against him: He is an accountant, and he is an outsider.
For most dealers the world seems divided up between car guys and bean counters.
And they are skeptical of intruders from other businesses.
Some have bristled as Gilman, in speeches to financial analysts, has drawn parallels between auto retailing and the garment trade.
Responds Gilman: "Everyone likes to think what they do is special - and it is. But it's just not unique."
Still, his toughest critics say Gilman is out of touch with his adopted business. One even calls him "an egomaniac."
Sheldon Sandler, founder of Bel Air Partners, a Princeton, N.J., investment banking firm serving dealers, says, "The car business can be unwelcoming to outsiders."
Gilman spent 25 years as an executive at The Limited Inc., a giant retailer of big-name clothing brands. But when he entered auto sales in December 2001, Gilman lost some of the tools he had used to cut costs and boost profits in the apparel business: He could no longer open and close stores at will.
In the garment trade, the retailers - not the manufacturers - call the shots. In the car business, even the largest auto retailers fear the factories.
"The factories can play hardball," Gilman says.
Indeed, Gilman has faced some major setbacks in his first two years at Asbury, which is based in Stamford, Conn. His plan to acquire the six-store Bob Baker Auto Group in San Diego collapsed last year when Ford rejected Asbury as a buyer.
Meanwhile, a used-car sales experiment at four Wal-Mart stores in Houston failed to generate the expected traffic and cost Asbury $6 million.
Last summer, megadealer David McDavid stepped down as Asbury's regional executive in Dallas, though he remains on the company's board of directors.
Gilman, a former naval officer who served in Vietnam, says the car business can be a hostile environment for outsiders. But he says he has adapted to the auto industry and his problems are behind him.
"I don't believe in being a victim," he says.