Special Coverage

New York Int’l Auto Show

NEW YORK – The franchised auto-dealership system gets a vote of confidence from several auto executives who say they wouldn’t change the way cars are sold in the U.S.

Asked if they would prefer to start over and build a retail system from scratch, they say they like the way things are now, with independent dealers representing the manufacturers in selling and servicing their vehicles.

“We love the way the network is set up now,” Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., says at a conference put on by the National Automobile Dealers Assn. and IHS Global Insight in conjunction with the New York International Auto Show.

“We have a great relationship with dealers,” Lentz says. “They are the face of Toyota in the market.”

So-called factory stores, which are dealerships owned and operated by auto makers, are common in Europe. But U.S. representatives of European brands aren’t keen on those outlets.

“I don’t subscribe to factory stores,” says Mark Barnes, chief operating officer of Volkswagen of America Inc.

Nor does James O’Donnell, president of BMW North America Inc.

“Factory stores in Europe have never been able to do a good job,” he says, citing poor customer-satisfaction scores as one deficiency.

Barnes says he wouldn’t alter VW’s retailing network if given the chance. “Dealers are our arms, legs, eyes and ears.”

Each “component” of the auto industry has a job to do “and dealers do theirs well,” says John Mendel, executive vice president-sales, American Honda Motor Co. Inc.

Required skill sets are different for auto executives and dealers, says Michael Jackson. He has been on both sides, first as president of Mercedes-Benz USA and now as CEO of AutoNation Inc., the country’s largest dealership chain.

“If there is a room full of dealers and auto executives and you picked a non-automotive subject to talk about, I could tell you after a half hour who is a dealer and who is a manufacturer,” Jackson says. “And I agree, factory stores do a lousy job.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com