U.S. auto sales rocked again in October, but I didn't sense much glee in the dealership folks I met.
Their fear: This streak won't last forever. Things can go south in a hurry. We could be heading to 2008-09 all over again.
Could we? For some perspective, I called Allan Gilmour, the former Ford CFO and vice chairman. At 81, he has seen more industry ups and downs than most of us. He joined Ford in 1960, a year after the Edsel was axed, and he owns a Chevy dealership in his native Vermont today.
(He's also a bean counter Bob Lutz would love. Recent additions to his well-stocked garage: a 2015 Mustang GT and a 2015 Aston Martin Vanquish -- both convertibles.)
So what's his take on the state of the industry? Gilmour sees four big forces at work:
1. Competition is tougher than ever. Weak foes don't exist anymore.
2. Urban congestion is a huge issue, and autonomous vehicles will help fix it. That said, we won't need self-driving cars for a Sunday cruise in the country.
"You can almost see a split in products between the very high-tech ones and the more traditional ones," Gilmour says. "Which means all sorts of complications for anyone involved in the food chain."
3. Government mandates on safety and fuel economy pose high hurdles. The electric vehicle will likely be an answer. But have we thought enough about the ability of utilities to supply all that power cleanly?
4. Dealers are here to stay. Yes, the corporate groups will get bigger, and smaller dealers will have to learn how to sell and repair complex cars. But Gilmour doesn't see "a major change in distribution."
That's the long view. But what if a crash keeps us from getting there?
First, the next downturn doesn't necessarily mean a collapse. Remember: There were big macroenomic forces that converged to topple the auto industry in 2008.
That said, this is a good time for heightened alert. Not many auto execs retire to become university presidents, as Gilmour did. But he's not above leaning on his "favorite clichés" for advice.
- Cash is a good guard against trouble. So pay attention to liquidity and the balance sheet.
- Practice good customer service. Take care of people. Work hard to get strong employees and train them and keep them trained.
As much as new technology and the speed of change make these times unique, the day-to-day work for many in the industry is the same as it has always been.