By Jeff Gilbert

by Jeff Gilbert
WWJ AutoBeat Reporter

Interview: NADA Chairman Ed Tonkin talks about issues involving car dealers, as their annual convention gets underway.

SAN FRANCISCO (WWJ) As the nation’s car dealers head to their annual convention this weekend, an industry they describe as “shell shocked” is seeing signs of recovery, and those dealers are starting to expand their operations again.

“We’re seeing very good growth, and we don’t want to miss out on any of that,” said Richard Genthe, who’s the Detroit representative to this week’s National Automobile Dealers Association convention in San Francisco.

The Southgate, MI dealership that’s carried the Genthe family name for three generations recently hired six new workers.  Genthe says he’s looking for five or six more people, to fill positions in service, sales and management.

“We are certainly not yesterday’s automobile dealership,” said Genthe.  “Every one of us is under the gun to rapidly change and to become relevant to today’s consumers.”

Many of the nearly 35 thousand new car franchises represented by NADA are also planning expansion.  The organization’s chairman, Ed Tonkin says the last year has seen not only an increase in sales, but dealers adapt to a new environment.

The other big change that’s come in the past year, says Tonkin, is the relationship between the car dealers and car companies, which had been strained during the recession.

“We’ve made, great, great progress,” Tonkin said, in an interview with WWJ AutoBeat Reporter Jeff Gilbert.  “Everybody, dealers, suppliers manufacturers were bruised during the downturn and the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler.  Relations were bruised.  But, that has started to heal.”

General Motors was not at the convention last year.  But this year, Tonkin says they will have a large presence.  GM North America President Mark Reuss is listed among those scheduled to speak.

“The NADA convention provides an opportunity for us to hear directly from dealers about the issues that matter most to them,” said Jim Bunnell, GM’s general manager of U.S. sales operations, in a statement. “We are able to talk to a large number of dealers, answer their questions and share news about our business plans and performance.”

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne will speak at a pre event conference, sponsored by JD Power and Associates.

While the fight over dealer terminations was a difficult one, Tonkin says that’s over, and it’s now time to rebuild the relationship. 

“They’ve got new people in charge.  They’re excited and enthused about crafting a new relationship with dealers.”

Representatives from most of the major automakers will be at the convention.  The meeting is also an opportunity for dealers to set their legislative agenda for the coming year.

“The biggest issue on the radar screen is to take care that the government doesn’t regulate our financing business too greatly,” said Tonkin, who is a dealer himself, in Portland, Oregon.

Tonkin referring to new laws aimed at protecting consumers.  Dealers were able to successfully lobby Congress to remove certain elements.  But they are concerned that restrictions that couldn’t be passed legislatively might be imposed by regulators.

“One of the biggest priorities for NADA is to continue to have dialogue with regulators, so they don’t regulate in a vacuum,” Tonkin said.  “They have to understand how everyday business works, in the real world.”

Follow Jeff Gilbert on Twitter @jefferygilbert

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