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‘Who Are You?’

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That’s what Peter Welch, now the incoming NADA president, wanted to know.

An article on the art of interviewing says it helps if interviewees know where you are coming from with your questions, lest they get their guard up.

I would add to that the need to let people know who you are before you start interviewing them. I learned that years ago when attending a California New Motor Vehicle Board roundtable for the first time and began asking Peter Welch a few things.

He becomes president of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. on Feb. 1. Back then, he was a legislative liaison for the California New Car Dealers Assn. He gave a roundtable briefing on state bills affecting car dealers.

I approached him during a break to clarify some points. As I started asking questions, he said, “Who are you?” Good question. And a faux pas on my part. It wasn’t a case of me needing no introduction. Once I established my identity, I got answers.

Welch went on to become president of the California state dealer trade group. In 2007, I attended its annual convention reception in Sacramento. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stopped by to say a few words. I asked him if I could take his photo. He struck a big-smile Arnold pose.

Welch was nearby, just out of camera range. I prodded him to get in the picture. After initially declining, he agreed. It was a nice shot of California’s Governator and Dealernator. I sent Welch the picture.

He mentioned it when we met at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit the other week. He was at the show with some NADA brass, including 2011 Chairman Stephen Wade who told me, “We picked a good one,” referring to the association hiring Welch to succeed Phil Brady as president.

Welch is a native of metro Detroit, so visiting the Motor City show was a homecoming. He grew up in Dearborn, MI, Ford’s headquarters city. His dad was a doctor. “But everyone else on the block worked for Ford,” he tells me.

Welch graduated from the University of Michigan, then got a master’s degree from the University of Durham in northern England. Why there? “I thought it would be interesting.” It was.

After earning a law degree in Los Angeles, he began representing the California dealer association. Now he is going national. Besides making the major move from the West Coast to northern Virginia, Welch is busy getting up to speed for his new job.

Does he foresee a big difference between heading a state dealer association and NADA? “Dealers are dealers,” he says. “Fundamentally, their interests are very similar.”

The auto industry is recovering from a bad fall. Light-vehicle sales came in at 14.4 million units in 2012. WardsAuto predicts they will reach 15 million this year. But the hurt of the hard times lingers for some dealers, Welch says.

It doesn’t help when auto makers prod dealers to spend money on newer and bigger facilities, especially when car shoppers are spending less time at dealerships and more on the Internet, he says. “Those two issues seem to clash.”

As the head of the California dealer group, Welch is familiar with government regulations. California is the regulation king of America, especially when it comes to cars.

The state’s recently adopted Advanced Clean Cars Program calls for 1.4 million zero-emissions and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles on the Golden State’s roads by 2025.

“Three or four years ago, when it really was a Golden State, we could afford such lofty goals,” Welch told WardsAuto last year, referring to the state’s subsequent financial woes.

As incoming president of NADA, he worries upcoming federal fuel-economy targets will require advanced technologies that, in turn, will drive up vehicle costs, potentially forcing some consumers out of the market.

If that happens, it would hinder an unwritten American freedom, “the freedom of transportation,” Welch says.

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Blogs about automotive retailing, commenting on news impacting the business of selling vehicles.

Contributors

Steve Finlay

Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine. His journalism career started 40 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes fast cars, big lakes and cold days.

Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues.
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