Over the decades, scores of car dealers have taken themselves away from running their own businesses to contribute time as chairmen of their national associations.
Don Hicks is giving more than most. Hicks stepped in as chairman of the American International Automobile Dealers Association in August when AIADA's 2005 Chairman Jim Evans left the car business and had to step aside.
That head start for Hicks, combined with his own scheduled year-long 2006 chairmanship, means he is on track to serve an unprecedented 17 months atop AIADA.
The association says it represents the interests of 10,000 import-brand dealers.
So does Hicks have a larger than expected opportunity to remold the association?
Not at all, says the multifranchise dealer from Aurora, Colo. He says the reshaping of AIADA into the kind of organization it should be was undertaken by the board of directors and by the chairmen of the past few years. And his main task is to carry forward the initiatives they launched.
"It's the chairman's job to listen and build consensus, and when there is a majority, push forward with the majority interest," he says.
Among the undertakings:
Hicks talked about progress so far and the outlook for the year ahead with Staff Reporter Harry Stoffer.
Were you surprised by the sizable reaction to your decision to form a political action committee, both from the National Automobile Dealers Association and from some of your own board members?
We did get pushback from NADA and, again, their main concern is that there is double solicitation (of dealers), and we're doing everything that we possibly can to not double-solicit NADA members that have already granted permission (to NADA's PAC).
And we have a group of dealers on our board that believe that our needs are adequately served by AFIT PAC (Automotive Free International Trade PAC).
There is a larger group on our board that believes more money in the political process is better than less. And they also believe that AFIT PAC has been a free-trade PAC since its inception.
We have not been able to change that, nor should we. They want to remain free trade and free trade only, and that's what they should do. But our dealers have asked us to lobby on other issues.
And lobbying, even though that's a bad word in Washington, D.C., these days, that's still part of the culture.
So we need to have the ability to lobby on behalf of our dealers on issues that may be ancillary to free trade but may not be deemed pure free-trade issues.
Aren't you bothered by the suggestion that members of Congress and their staffs will listen only to people who give them money?
I'm not so sure that they only listen to people who give them money. But I think they might listen a little bit better. That may be a flaw in our system of governance.
If you take a look at what it takes to get to public office these days, the amount of money is ridiculous.
So you're saying you may not like it but that's the system that exists and you had better be part of it?
As with anything, if you work within the system, you will be successful. If somebody changes the system, you need to be able to change with it. As a result of some excesses the whole process is under scrutiny.
Some of your board members say the creation of your political action committee will cause manufacturers to cut their support for AIADA. You don't agree?
No, I don't. The last thing we would ever want to do is put our relationship with our manufacturers at risk. I can't understand where that would come from. Our PAC is going to be a separate entity. And the support that the manufacturers have given AIADA in the past and our PAC are totally, totally separate.
Have you gotten any indication that any manufacturer is going to alter its support for your organization as a result of the decision to create a PAC?
I have not heard that at all. But I can tell you that if that happened, it would weaken AIADA. And weakening AIADA, if I were an international nameplate manufacturer, I don't think that is in their best interests.
What is happening with the association budget?
I think our expenditures are a little bit higher. We have more people on board, and we have some more things going on than we did last year, at the request of our dealers. (But) we've been running with revenue over expenses for the last five years.
You've made the point that it's healthy for any industry to have multiple voices speaking for it. But since so many import-brand dealers also have so-called domestic brands and since so many import brands are made in this country, is there a better way to set up another voice for dealers other than having international brands?
I believe that international brands are going to come under increasing fire. Your point is well taken that Honda and a lot of other manufacturers have plants in the United States. But there are still people out there who are painting us with a big brush, where we're taking American jobs and hurting the American economy and, more important, hurting Ford and General Motors, which are not manufacturing entities, in some people's minds -- they are icons. When you start tarnishing people's icons, they get upset. So at the very time we (representatives of AIADA) were flying to Thailand in support of the (proposed) free-trade agreement with Thailand and the United States, there was a proposal on the floor (in Congress) to limit FTAs (free-trade agreements) for the next two years. So even if we could successfully negotiate one, if this bill passed, there would be a moratorium. Well, a lot happens in two years.
You've said that you've been concerned about a possible backlash because of the troubles of GM and Ford. Is that starting to occur?
I think it's an underlying current. They have done worse and worse, and international nameplate manufacturers have done better and better. And that happens to be the market that we all live in. That's the net result. And they're not happy. So there could be a backlash.
Other than that moratorium, do you see any particular legislative threat that might have some chance of passing?
Not yet. But it's our job to keep the fire engines polished up and ready to go at any time because something could happen. We've seen it in the past: voluntary restraints, which really weren't voluntary, and the luxury tax, which is aimed squarely at imported automobiles. Things like that could come up and get going. And who knows?
Are there companies in Thailand that you would expect would begin shipping pickups to the United States if the (25 percent) tariff were eliminated?
I think there might be limited importation. If you take a look at what's built in Thailand, Ford builds vehicles there; Mazda builds vehicles there. There are some other manufacturers that assemble vehicles there. They primarily build small pickup trucks, Ranger-sized, Chevrolet Colorado-sized pickups, primarily powered by diesel engines, which are not as popular here as they are in Asia and Europe and other places. So is there an immediate threat? I don't believe so.
Given the geography of Thailand -- look how far away it is -- after NAFTA, these same manufacturers could build all the pickups trucks they wanted in Mexico.
And there's no big rush to do that. So I believe Thailand would be even less of a threat just because it's so much farther. As you know, it costs more every day to ship, unless you are using atomic power in your ocean-going vessels. It actually puts them further away from the viability of shipping to the United States.
So your primary interest is, as a matter of principle, to continue to erode the Chicken Tax, the tariff on imported pickups?
The Chicken Tax has come out of every other trade agreement that has been signed recently, and we need it to come out of this one, and the next one, and the next one, and the next one, until it dies a natural death.
You've raised the possibility of a Korean free-trade agreement. Would there be more opportunities to get some trucks from Korea than from Thailand?
My understanding is that there is a Korean FTA coming down the pike. And two years ago at the Detroit auto show we saw a Korean pickup truck. Kia has a pickup.
At that time it was a show model. And I'm sure it has some features and some options on it that may not be available.
But they certainly had the chassis. They have the frame and the infrastructure to build a pickup truck.
You have the Kia brand. Would you like to sell a pickup?
We'd like to sell just about anything that somebody would buy.
Do you look forward to the day when you would have AIADA members selling vehicles made in China?
Well, I'll be one of the guys competing against those guys. So on that level, maybe not. But certainly on a free-trade level, how could AIADA, or NADA for that matter, turn those folks down as members? If they get certified for sale in the United States and their dealers get certified and have the ability to retail vehicles and they'd like to be members of those two organizations, there is no way to keep them out. That's not what we're about. We're all about free trade.
Have you had any feelers?
We have. We've had inquiries from (Visionary Vehicles founder) Malcolm Bricklin. We've told him the same thing: When you guys are in, give us a call because we represent international nameplate auto dealers, and the Chinese would certainly qualify.
Is there something to be gained for your membership from international talks aimed at a new global free-trade agreement known as the Doha Round? What are the prospects for that from your vantage point?
As long as it's about free trade, we all gain. (But) Doha has been pretty quiet lately. We've heard a lot more, needless to say, about Thailand. That's on the front burner.
The estate tax repeal was close to coming to a (final) vote in the Senate. But given the budget troubles and costly natural disasters last year, has repeal slipped further from reality? Is it time to compromise?
I'd have to say it has (slipped). I don't even know if it is scheduled for a vote now. It's been tabled. And you said it: The two hurricanes not only destroyed the coastline but destroyed chances of quick passage. We were very, very close. Doing a straw vote, we were very close.
I don't believe we're quite there yet (to accept less than full repeal). It would depend on the compromise. It would depend on how much (you could exempt) initially and how much would be covered by, for instance, the capital gains rate. That would certainly be interesting. We will certainly listen to anything. But we believe that in fairness to everybody, the tax should be eliminated.
In the past year or so, some people who don't like Marianne McInerney, your current president, very much cited heavy staff turnover -- that there have been as many as three people in some of the positions over the last three years. Is that a problem for your organization?
I don't believe so. I take a look at AIADA, and my dealerships, just like they were the Denver Broncos. You get a new coach, and the coach brings in new talent to fill the positions. And sometimes it takes awhile to get things going. And look where the Broncos are today (on the date of the interview, preparing for an appearance in the NFL's American Conference championship game).
You have a Democrat (Don Beyer) lined up to succeed you (as chairman). Is that going to work?
Oh, yeah. He's a free-trade Democrat. That is the major difference between Don Beyer and some other people. Don is a very well-thought-of man.
He's kind of the rudder that keeps us on the straight and narrow. He's very thoughtful, and while he is passionate, he is able to keep his passion under control and get a lot of things accomplished for the association. He's very good at compromise. His free-trade credentials are impeccable.
Do you think he might be dealing with a House or a Senate with a Democratic majority after the November elections?
You know, that's certainly possible the way things are going. If you take a look at what is transpiring in our world today and our president's approval rating and how much weight his coattails have compared to the past, anything could happen.
And that's something else Marianne (McInerney, association president) has been very good at. Marianne has reached out to some free-trade Democrats to try and get them on our side and has had a series of meetings with them.
We have talked with some, and they have some pretty good ideas. And some ideas we don't think are so good. The ideas they have on free trade are right down the pike with what we have.
And we need friends on both sides of the aisle. You can't just contribute to the Republicans and vote with the Republicans because there will be a certain time in our history when the majority swings the other way, and you'll need some of those people.
You may e-mail Harry Stoffer at [email protected]