"We were recently Honda dealers: In 1979, we were awarded our first franchise. And [Al Courter] was facing those issues immediately, not only with the gas [shortage], but the talk of protectionist issues," said Courter, 46. "And keeping choice available was the paramount issue. And I learned that at an early age — probably around age six — just sitting around the dinner table."
Courter takes over as head of AIADA as it celebrates its 50th anniversary with unwavering dedication to its founding focus: free trade. And there are major issues to follow in the current political environment, including the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the threat of Section 232 tariffs and U.S. trade negotiations across the globe.
Courter spoke with Staff Reporter Laurence Iliff about growing up in AIADA, its rich history and its goals going into a presidential election year. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: Can you reflect on some of the accomplishments of AIADA over the years?
A: AIADA was established 50 years ago under the premise of free trade. It really started with a bunch of Volkswagen dealers, really around 1970. And they had the foresight to say their issues are kind of an international issue, with all the international nameplates. Then forms AIADA in the early '70s to talk about these free-trade issues, of all the threats at that time. There was a lot of talk, as we rolled through the '70s into the '80s, about protectionism and issues related to that.
When AIADA was formed, we needed that channel. We needed that voice box to continue to talk about that.
A lot of dealers, and their employees and the local communities in which they resided, are all American. And consumers have choices. And consumers liked these products. These products were growing, [during the] gas crunch.
Obviously during that time, we needed to continue to talk about why international nameplates mattered not only to their community, but for the employees and to be able to have that voice box. That was really the idea that I grew up with through even my father, what he always talked about, why he was so interested in being involved with the AIADA.
How do current issues link back to AIADA's past?
As we've gone through the years, there were some more recent issues … the discussion of the border adjustment tax.
Then, we forward to what we're possibly facing today through Section 232 tariffs. And even before that, in the 1980s, the AIADA was paramount in being another voice box and listening to dealers' issues like how bad a chicken tax was going to affect dealers on SUVs and vans that were coming from overseas. And what that would mean to rising costs to the end user, and the end user obviously is basically our customer.
So, those are ones that I kind of remember growing up around. I remember my father a lot talking about it when I was in high school, when I was in grade school, and I kind of paid attention to it. But I remember how he kept talking about why it was so important to be involved. And someone has to go tell the story about why this matters.
This last period of trade challenges — NAFTA renegotiation, Section 232 tariffs, global trade negotiations — do you feel most have been resolved favorably?
Let's just take USMCA replacing NAFTA. Our view has consistently been: What's the agreement? An agreement is better than no agreement. I think what's important — once the details are all hashed out — is for everyone to know what the rules are, the rules of the road.
One of the terms that we've heard under trade among dealers that I've spent time listening to and talking with is the term "uncertainty." That is kind of a common term that comes up, whether that be from the manufacturers as well.
When you look at making the ample investments in the billions of dollars of producing products here.
What is the game plan? And I think our focus, especially for USMCA, is let's get the agreement because it's better than definitely no agreement.
What remains unresolved?
As it relates to Section 232, the time has come, the deadline has hit. We're waiting for word from the president in regard to that. The biggest concern — that we've stated up front — is that Section 232 talks about a national security threat. And quite frankly — I speak for myself and I believe that this is our position at AIADA — but to suggest anything about our vehicles, international nameplates of any kind, the parts that are in them, being viewed as a threat to national security, in my opinion, is insulting.
And I also think it's a dangerous statement, it's a dangerous view. We feel the issue on Section 232 is one that we're ready to mobilize on, whatever comes out about that.
We don't know where it stands, because we haven't heard since that deadline has come and passed. But that's one issue where we are ready to mobilize.
In Washington, D.C., our AIADA staff is well aware and waiting for the next information to come out, so we know what our next step is.
Is AIADA concerned about the trade war with China? How do you see that developing with the on-again, off-again nature of negotiations toward an agreement?
I think any discussion where trade comes up, for our organization, it's always going to be a concern. Whether we worry about it or not, we don't have time for that. It comes down to our staff being on top of the issues every day.
One of the things that I've always enjoyed with AIADA is the fact that we're there when you wake up in the morning and we're there when you go to bed at night. And we have a team that's focused on these issues.
Whatever comes out from other countries, whatever comes out from our government, we're always looking deeper into the issues and then giving back to the dealers and the manufacturers and suppliers and our affinity partners the information as it related to these issues.
With China, with where we're at today, from what I understand is the president even as recent as [Jan. 10] has talked about signing a phase of the agricultural agreement. We don't know how autos play in there, but that's our big issue.
Kind of the same as the Japan agreement. We know that autos weren't part of phase one; that was more agriculture. But our constant view is to make sure that [there are] no tariffs.
Can you expand on the issue of tariffs and new players in the auto industry?
Tariffs decline business; trade raises it. We're focused on what China's next step is there. Making sure autos are out, as well as staying focused on the Japan agreement as well, making sure autos are out of that part of the agreement for tariffs as well. ... We need to see where, you know, what comes out of the China trade agreement for us to see what our position is going to be.
Clearly, we know what's on the cusp here: We have some potential [Chinese] players in the auto market for the U.S.
One of them that we're well aware of is [U.S. distributor] HAAH [Automotive Holdings] is wanting to bring product or products for U.S. distribution. And I think it's very important from their point of view as well as our point of view to see what is either an impediment or a potential issue for them to come to the United States is in regards to trade.
We want to stay focused on making sure that everyone has the opportunity to operate here with a fair trade agreement.