Gates said the experience impelled him to get more involved in issues on Capitol Hill, especially those affecting auto dealers.
"I made the decision from this time forward, I'm going to have a voice," he told Automotive News.
This year, Gates takes on a new role as chairman of AIADA, the main trade association for dealers of imported vehicles.
Gates, 69, spoke with Staff Reporter Audrey LaForest about his priorities and concerns for the year. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: What's your first priority as chairman?
A: The first and most important thing is with the new administration — just trying to get a feel for who the players are and try to develop as quickly as possible a relationship, which is a little tougher given it's difficult to be face-to-face with people.
Pandemic aside, what is the major issue facing your members this year?
I hear a lot about the creation of union jobs, and I just want to make sure that we're focused on creating American jobs. That's very important to me.
We also hear a lot about "Buy American." Most of the manufacturers we represent — maybe all of them — build vehicles in the U.S. I think a Toyota Camry built in Georgetown, Ky., or a Honda Accord built in Marysville, Ohio, is just as American as anything built by General Motors or Ford. So many people that I have met over the years in Congress really aren't aware of the impact that international nameplate dealers have on the country.
What do you think about President Joe Biden and his administration?
I feel in some respects that maybe it's like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The one thing that I see and really love is that I think this administration may be more predictable. We are always faced with — and have been faced with for the entire existence of AIADA — possible tariffs, Buy American policies and protectionist legislation. Our role today is no different than it was 51 years ago.
What's on your radar for trade?
Trade always has to be fair and equitable. Policies should not be designed to be the benefit of a certain industry — for instance, some policy that would be adverse to Toyota but beneficial to Ford.
In the past administration, I was really concerned that at times we weren't working with our allies, and I expected at any moment that there would be tariffs placed on the, particularly, German manufacturers because it seemed as though President Trump and Angela Merkel didn't get along very well. We want trade policy to not be a weapon.
Volvo has set goals to be an electric vehicle-only brand by 2030 and that its models will only be available for sale online.
Well, clearly, I'm not a fan of that. Is that the beginning of a new way of doing business — a new distribution channel? I hope not, but it concerns me. I think it's something that, as dealers, we really need to start that discussion.
Do you expect that approach to turn into a larger trend, especially as more automakers commit to selling EVs?
I don't see why it should. I don't understand why bringing forth more EVs necessitates the need on the manufacturers' side to change the distribution method. I hope the manufacturers are committed to the franchise model. I don't see the franchise system as being something of a bygone era. It's as relevant today as it has ever been.
What about reports of proposed legislation in states such as Ohio that would allow for EV startups to sell directly to consumers?
It would be foolish not to be concerned about it, but it's important for us not to appear that we as dealers want to be an impediment to technological advancement. We just want to make sure that our customers are treated fairly. I'm concerned, but I'm confident that our manufacturers are committed to our system.
The positive thing that these startups have done is they've made us rethink everything that we're doing. Even if the pandemic hadn't occurred, people love the way they buy Tesla. I think a lot of people buy Tesla not because of the car but because it's so easy. So they've helped us. In some instances, they've made our industry stronger.