Anticipating a “very competitive” 2002
John Hine experienced the fruits of one of the best years in automotive sales history last year.
“The 0% financing really stimulated our business but now we're starting to see that drop off,” the southern California dealer says.
The great interest rates, though, have hurt the value of his used-car inventory, he says. “We're off about 10% in our used car sales,” he adds.
It becomes a question of survival, according to Hine. “The OEMs are in an incentive game that is real tough. Dealers are glad they did it, but once you start, these things are tough to end.”
Hine already is preparing for what he says will be a “very competitive” 2002. “It's going to be a real challenge this year,” he says. “I'm anticipating sales to be at around the 16 - 16.5 million level.”
Dealers in California also have to be concerned with potential legal problems in 2002, he warns. “There have been a lot of lawsuits filed in California because of alleged advertising violations,” says Hine, who will be cutting his ad budget by about 25% this year.
One law firm alone filed suits against 1,100 dealerships over a minor statute called the single lease document rule. “We're all getting hit pretty hard,” states Hine.
This is the first year in a long time dealers are starting to see the “light at the end of the tunnel” with their relationships with the OEM, according to Hine. “To (GM CEO) Rick Wagoner's credit, he recognized the need to bring car guys into the company. Things are happening very quickly and that is not typical of. It's great — Bob Lutz is already having an influence.”
Dodge, on the other hand, has specific needs that need to be addressed, says Hine. “We need a serious product infusion and some strong, creative advertising and marketing.”
“I'm a recession rat - I know how to handle a downturn”
The Northwest region of the country — Washington, Oregon and Idaho — is experiencing a worse recession than other areas. As a result, sales at the Town & Country Dealerships have been slower than anticipated.
“We were ready, though,” says Ralph Martinez, the group's CEO. “We prepared for it. We worked at becoming more efficient and cutting expenses. We also remodeled and became more automated.”
Having grown up in New York City, Martinez wanted to help Sept. 11 survivors. On a Saturday in September, his dealerships offered a lube and oil jobs in exchange for a $25 donation to the New York City Firefighters Fund.
Five of the group's stores held barbecues and the event became a big party, says Martinez. “It really pumped our people up. We kind of beat to a different drum here. I'm a recession rat — I know how to handle a downturn. We seem to get better when things start getting difficult.”
Martinez sees used vehicles as a great opportunity. “This year will be the ‘Year of the Used Car,’” he says. We're renting out a huge storage facility and we're going to stockpile inventory. When those used car prices start rebounding, we'll be in position.”
Dealer/state senator: “Pretty darn confident”
Pretty darn confident!” Kathleen Sims responds when asked about 2002. “I don't have any real big concerns,” says the Idaho dealer. “The interest rates are down — our sales are, for the most part, strong and steady.”
She is cautious, though. So far she has withstood pressure from the manufacturer to expand, saying, “I hope the OEM understands our concern. Now is not the time to be expanding.”
Sims says 2001 was much better than expected, especially following Sept. 11. Kia sales softened noticeably in November, but she remains unconcerned. “Kia has some great product coming, so we should be okay.”
Likewise, Sims is confident about. “We have that bigger SUV coming this year and that should be a big winner. And Odyssey minivan production will be up by almost one-third. That will help in getting us the product to sell.”
In addition to running the dealership, Sims serves as a state senator and as chairperson's Committee on Regulatory Affairs.
“We held the line” after Sept. 11
Business was good overall in 2001 according to Greg Jackson, who owns six GM anddealerships in eastern Michigan.
“I'd have to say we held the line pretty well. We did sell less cars and saw the market soften after Sept. 11 — November was particularly slow,” he says.
Jackson expects a further softening of the market in 2002. But he is quick to point out that he's not making a “doom and gloom prediction.” He just thinks the market will be at 16-16.5 million units.
He is concerned about the business environment as a whole. “We're going to see a real tightening of expenses — but just how much is dependent on how far the softening goes.”
Another concern is the lack of minority dealers. He explains, “The import automakers andespecially have shown a real inability to bring minorities to the table. They talk a good game, but for some reason it isn't getting done.”
Revealing that his true feelings lie with the ‘average Joe,’ Jackson says that he is worried about the escalation of car prices. “We have to be careful; vehicles are being priced out of the reach of the common man. The OEMs have to remember that that buyer is still the bread and butter of the industry.”
So far, Jackson remains unconcerned about Ford's corporate financial problems. “I have a lot of respect for the Ford family. I have no doubt as to whether or not that company will be successful.
“On the other hand, I think Jac Nasser did a good job. But with that declining share value, his head was the one to be served up. I think he got caught up in the politics of getting it done.
“A lot of your success is dependent on the politics of getting it done.”
Despite his concerns, Jackson is excited about the industry. “It's the best job in America,” he comments. “You have the opportunity to make a healthy sum of money and it really is the industry that drives America.”
“Can I get enough product?”
Findlay Ford in 2001 had a “phenomenal year,” says owner Stan Kujawa as the Ohio dealership moved to a brand new 15-acre site and built a 80,000 sq. ft. service facility that includes 10 Quick Lane service bays.
“The timing was right for an expansion,” says Kujawa. “Being in Findlay has been great for us. Hancock County is in the midst of a robust economy — we have the headquarters to Marathon Oil, Cooper Tires, among others. And those companies are doing very well.”
According to Kujawa, every aspect of his dealership operations is doing very well. “For example, we had over $100,000 in accessory sales in both October and November.
Much of Findlay Ford's success is being driven by the new service facility. “Right now, we're seeing 40% non Ford customers driving into our Quick Lane bays. That's an opportunity for us to capture more sales,” he notes.
Kujawa also points to his 120 employees as a big reason for their success. “You know, they do all the work,” he says.
He's hard-pressed to think of any real concerns for 2002. He says, “It all comes down to the dealer's attitude. I haven't bought into all that negativity.”
His only concern: “Can I get enough product? I'm not sure I understand why Ford and the others have been cutting back on production. Maybe they see something I don't.”
“Some things you just don't question”
His small Southern Ford dealership is like many others across the country.
September was down, October was a record month and November was strong, although a little down by the end, according to General Manager David Tabb.
Overall, Tabb says, “Things got back to normal in November. But we did have an excellent two months — some things you just don't question — you just go along for the ride.”
Tabb believes January and February will be slow because the 0% financing pulled sales forward from the beginning of the year. “It is tough to predict, though. With this economy and the war — if that's what you want to call it — who knows what will happen.”
He adds, “Of course, the economy is my biggest concern. And with those production cuts Ford is talking about, are we going to have enough product to sell?”
He is optimistic about the direction of the relationship between Ford and its dealers. “It's going to take some time,” he cautions. “Changes like this don't occur overnight. It will probably take two-three years before the relationship is where it needs to be.”
Tubb also like that William Clay Ford Jr. is the new CEO of Ford Motor Co.
“He has some common sense,” says Tabb. “This ‘back-to-basics’ approach is exactly what the company needs. Paying attention to the basics will always work.”
“2002 is not the year to take chances”
Sometime in the middle of November, car sales hit the brakes in the Midwest region according to Greg Goebel.
“There is no doubt that with the 0% interest rates, we were robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he says. “From my estimation, we were pulling sales from about eight weeks out.”
Goebel expects 2002 to be a rough year — especially if those predictions of 14.5-15 million sales ring true. “Think about it,” he says. “That would be a 20% decrease.”
Coming off a record year and a flooded used-car market with unprecedented drops in wholesale prices does not bode well for 2002, he fears. “And that used car market is only to drop further. We still have a large number of off-lease vehicles coming back in early 2002.
“It will be a rugged year for those dealers who fail to take prudent steps to prepare,” he cautions.
“We're cutting our expenses to the bones and we'll have 20% fewer employees coming into 2002,” Goebel notes.
The dealership is also leveraging its advertising, focusing on the Internet and email marketing. “We just have to be sure our advertising counts,” he says.
Goebel is also asking that his employees get involved in community activities as a way to give the dealership a higher civic standing.
Like many other dealers, Goebel is sharpening his focus on the used sector. “We've always been focused on sub-prime — so used cars are an important part of our business.”
He offers one other piece of advice: “2002 is not the year to take chances.”
“Just get me the product to sell!”
Jack Stanko is optimistic — and has reason to be, according to him. His Champion Chevrolet dealership had a record year in both volume and revenue in 2001. His October sales were up 97% and November's were up 41%.
“The increases definitely were because of the 0% financing,” says the Reno, NV dealer. “Hopefully the incentives bridged a real bad time for the economy. Those car sales generated a lot of sales taxes for the states and kept a lot of people working.”
Also, Stanko is pleased with his relationship with.
He explains, “It's pretty good right now. About three or four years ago, GM reorganized the districts. Before, we would rarely see our marketing and district managers. But now, with the new set-up, we see them on a regular basis. We're communicating a lot more. I don't hear too many dealers complaining any more.”
The optimism also extends to the product GM is putting out. He says, “Chevrolet has a good line and I think that it will only continue.” He is looking forward to the S-10 pick up's replacement, the Colorado. ‘That will be a big seller for us,” he predicts.
With Bob Lutz in charge of product development at GM, Stanko believes product design is going to be even better. “He is a dye-in-the-wool car guy, a fresh innovator.”
Stanko's only concern for 2002: “Just get me the product to sell!” he exclaims.
“2002 will be a great time to increase market share”
Ron Fortt says 2001 was a “phenomenal year” for Tracy. Fortt opened the store only a year and a half ago with partners Keena Turner and former football great Ronnie Lott.
October and November were record sales months for the store and according to Fortt, December was on track to be the best month of the year.
And 2002 should be no different, Fortt says. “I'm expecting to be up 30% in net profitability and sales volume.”
“We're a little bit different here,” notes Fortt. “We're very innovative and organized around technology and teamwork.”
The store is heavily involved with customer retention using CRM tools like Autotown and Dealertrack. Every salesperson has a computer and enters each contact's information into a database.
Fortt also attributes his store's success to being in the right place at the right time. “It's about location,” he explains. “I'm a new dealership in a growth location. We have people escaping from the Bay area because of the housing prices - and they're coming right to us.”
Fortt has no major concerns about the coming year — “at least, not with my manufacturer,” he says. “I've got great product, my days' supply is in line and I've got an OEM who reacts quickly. In fact, I feel real good about 2002.”
He adds, “Guys who have their finger on the pulse of the industry, and have solid operations will be fine. I think 2002 will be a great time to increase market share.”
“Optimist comes with being a car dealer, I guess”
Baranco Acura was having a decent year. October was pretty strong. Then November hit. “It was very hard month - probably the worst for our dealership since I started,” says owner Juanita Baranco.
She blames speculation that President Bush might put a moratorium on the sales tax as part of his economic stimulus package.
She explains, “I think some people may have decided to wait to buy a vehicle so they wouldn't have to pay the sales tax. Unfortunately, what most people didn't realize is that car sales wouldn't be included.”
Another factor is the location of the Atlanta dealership. “We're close to two major military bases that have deployed several troops over seas and we're near Delta Airlines' headquarters which has seen several layoffs recently,” she says.
Calling herself an optimist — “it comes with being a car dealer, I guess,” — Baranco is expecting things in 2002. “We'll see a pretty strong spring recovery,” she predicts.
She is concerned about the availability of product. “I understand the OEM's need to not stockpile, but we need inventory so we can sell. Right now, I'm operating on a 14 to 15-day supply. Ideally, I'd like to be at about 45, but would settle for 30 right now.”
Believer in theme dealerships says his is recreation
It was a very good year for us, actually,” says Dean Walts, owner of Dalton Mountain GMC Truck in Hanover, NH. “Of course, 9-11 has changed the rules of the game, somewhat. That 0% financing spurred a lot of other problems,” he adds.
“I was a little concerned about inventory starvation but General Motors made some adjustments so we should be okay,” he explains.
Also, used-car saturation is a problem, according to Walts. “But we're taking a real hard look at that,” he says. “I think we should have a solution soon.”
None of that has affected his outlook, though. He invested a lot of money this past summer on a state-of-the-art recreational vehicle sales facility next to his truck dealership.
“I guess I'm just an optimist,” he says. “I've got all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, three-wheelers, dirt bikes, boats - you name it. And you know how people are going to tow these things around? With my trucks.”
He also is building a racetrack on the property and purchased a small railroad to cart people in for wining and dining. It's all part of a strategy to be at the forefront of what he says will be a direction dealerships will be going in the near future.
“Dealerships are going to have to distinguish themselves from each other in some way, and I believe they're going to have to do it with a theme,” he says. His theme is outdoor recreation.
His enthusiasm also spreads over to the relationships dealers now have with General Motors. “Any dealer that is still concerned, has not had the privilege I've had of being on the dealer council and working closely with GM.”
As an example, Walts points to the problems dealers were having with specialty tool surveys. The old requirements were cumbersome and expensive for the smaller dealer.
“That has all changed now,” he says. “We're looking at setting up regional sources so smaller dealers can rent the tool out for a period of time instead of having to buy something he will use only once.”
“We'll have the product we need to succeed”
Although, Jerry Bowman describes 2001 as being an “up and down” year for his store, he believes it was still a decent year. “October helped,” he says. “The OEMs came up with the 0% financing programs that helped save the new car sales.”
He expects 2002 to be good and predicts the economy “will start bouncing back in the spring.” The economy, though, still is his biggest concern because it is critical to's restructuring plan. “If the economy stays the course and rebounds, Chrysler should be successful. And if Chrysler is healthy, then that is good for the dealer.”
Bowman is also positive about the productis developing. “There is some strong product in the pipeline,” he says. “I think we'll have the product we need to be successful.”
The outgoing chairman of the Chrysler-Jeep Dealer Council likes the relationship dealers have with Chrysler now.
“We're communicating pretty well” he explains. “It is a good working relationship. And we're pleased with Dieter Zetsche (president of the Chrysler Group). Dealers are pretty impressed with him. He's a strong car guy and has shown that he understands the business.”
“15 million sales really isn't all that bad”
Our best year ever!” Frank Rodriguez says of 2001. October was his Greenway Ford's store second biggest profit month ever.
But he expects the market to soften in 2002. “It is hard to tell,” he admits. “Being in Orlando, we're in a real tourism market. Several of the theme parks, like Disney, have laid off several employees recently. So I'm sure we'll experience a downturn from that.
“I am still positive about next year. You know, 15 million sales really isn't all that bad,” Rodriguez says.
“Overall, I think dealers are well-positioned for 2002. When you think about the low interest rates and smaller inventories, dealers have been able reduce floor plan expenses significantly.”
Of course, there are those nagging dealer/OEM relationship issues, but Rodriguez believes Ford is moving in the right direction. “They've indicated rather strongly that their mission is to regain dealer trust, and I think they're being genuine. It's going to take some time for them to re-nurture that relationship. I am optimistic about Ford, though.”
Regarding the Blue Oval certification issue, he says, “It's time we put that behind us and move on. There is no doubt the program has benefited dealers. It is just my opinion, but I think the majority of pot-stirring is coming from outside the company now.”
“Positioning to react quickly if market turns”
Business has been up “slightly” for Kuni Automotive as a whole thanks largely to the performance of their luxury nameplates such as Lexus and, says Greg Goodwin, group president.
Goodwin says some recent sales increases can be attributed to the October 0% incentives, promoted largely by the Big Three. While not offered by all brands, the offers did help bring traffic into showrooms after Sept. 11.
However, Goodwin thinks the incentives “have probably bought a lot of purchase intent forward. So I think the first quarter (of 2002) will be a challenge.”
Although there is always the risk of more terrorist attacks disrupting business, he is “pretty optimistic about the year as a whole.”
Goodwin says Kuni is trying to prepare itself in case of a market downturn. “We're trying to position ourselves so we can react quickly if the market does turn down once incentives disappear,” he says. They've also asked their partners to save money by eliminating unnecessary travel.
Besides Lexus and, Kuni also sells domestic brands such as Cadillac and Oldsmobile.
Goodwin is “jubilant” about the recent appointment of “car guy” Bob Lutz to chairman of General Motors Corp.'s North American operations. “I think he's a very, very bright man, a visionary leader for the industry,” says Goodwin, who anticipates Lutz will put interesting new products in the pipeline.
One of the new GM products arriving soon is the 2003 Cadillac CTS sedan.
“Cadillac is hitting the target with this car,” he says, waving off criticism that it departs too much from the Cadillac brand image.
Tourism off, Hawaiian economy hurting
The tourism industry has been hit hard since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., and it is being felt especially in the tropical islands of Hawaii, whose economy relies heavily vacationers.
Morrie Stoebner, president ofof Windward, HI, says the tourism downturn has hurt business at his dealership, but he suspects that the drop off in showroom traffic has more to do with remodeling projects underway than fear of flying.
“We're down in business (for 2001),” says Stoebner. “We've been under construction all year, remodeling the facility. The Hawaiian economy has been off considerably. Sept. 11 didn't help any but hasn't changed a lot as we're off before then.”
He says his dealership hasn't made any cutbacks yet, but if the economy doesn't recover soon, he anticipates cutbacks in the future, reiterating the dire condition of the Hawaiian economy. “The Hawaiian economy has been hurt, especially by Sept. 11 because tourism is way off. We're worried about that,” says Stoebner.
Like many other dealers, Stoebner says sales at his used-car lots have been down due to the too-good-to-be-passed-up 0% financing incentives on new vehicles offered by the Big Three and some other foreign brands. However, he attributes much of the drop there to the dealership remodeling, as well.
“Every dog has its day”
Bill McDaniel likens the outlook for the coming years at his dealership to a “61-in. Hitachi high-definition TV: crystal clear and very bright.”
Business at his dealership is up sharply this year. “We're about 30% up. We're an Acura franchise right now and the products are phenomenal,” he says.
McDaniel, who also sells Porsches, says his dealership is moving vehicles off the lot so fast that he has almost no inventory. The waiting list for the top-selling Acura MDX cross-utility vehicle (CUV) is “two to three months out.”
The new RSX coupe and TL sedan are also best-sellers for McDaniel. “The RSX is selling quite well and the TL, although its design is three-years-old, is still red hot.”
The downturn in the economy hasn't affected the dealership much, McDaniel says, because it took cost-cutting steps in March and April when it became apparent a downturn was on the horizon.
As for 2002 and beyond, McDaniel anticipates new Acura products coming down the chute, helping the dealership gain another 15%-20% next year over 2001.
However, what goes up must come down, and McDaniel is a realist when it comes to the position his dealership and other foreign makes are in right now.
He explains, “Every dog has its day.”
“The big thing we're missing is an SUV”
Tony Malouf, general manager for a southeastern Michigan Saab store, says 2001 was the dealership's best. “We've sold close to 1,000 units and we're Saab's number one store,” he explains.
He attributes the store's success to the Elder family, who owns the store. ‘They've put 125% effort into this store to make it number one,” he explains. “If the owner isn't putting that kind of effort into it, I don't care what franchise you have, you're not going to be successful.”
He says 2002 will be in even better. “We're forecasting a 20% increase in sales this year.” That is, if they get the product to sell, he adds. “Right now I'm out of a lot of product — we'd sell it if we had it.”
The hottest selling vehicle is the new 9-5, both the sedan and convertible.
He likes that GM last year committed $3.8 billion to product development at Saab. Nonetheless, there are holes in Saab's line up. “The big thing we're missing is a sport utility vehicle (SUV). We need them now.”
Malouf believes General Motors needs to provide more support in marketing for Saab. “We're not doing a good job of getting the word out. Saab is a great vehicle that is priced right — actually, it's probably underpriced,” he says. “I think we're the industry's best kept secret.”
“The captive finance companies need to be aggressive”
General Manager Gilbert Chavez says he just wants to see some consistency in 2002. “I want to keep the fires burning in all of my guys.”
The 0% financing has been great, according to Chavez, but he is concerned with the fallout if the OEMs pull it away in January. “I don't know if the rate is going to be an issue or not this year, but I do know the captive finance companies need to be aggressive. I don't think the rate has to be 0% — it just needs to be competitive.”
He sees a fine line between being aggressive and unprofitable.
Chavez says his dealerships are concentrating on customer service. “It's the bottom line,” he argues. “The repeat and referral business is the meat of any good dealership. You have to maintain and take care of what you have.”
If there is a downturn, he believes the Burt group is well prepared. “We've been real aggressive in controlling our expenses. We're very calculating and cautious about how we spend our advertising money and we're focused on turning out our used inventory. It's all about keeping a tight grasp on our wallets.”
He believes product availability will be a real problem for some OEMs in 2002, especially those producing hot-market sport-utility-vehicles (SUV). “You have to make sure the dealer is getting the right product,” he says.
“Happier now than I have been in four or five years”
We did 25% better in 2001 than we did in 2000,” says Steve Barger. And it was all because of Cadillac's redirection on product, the dealer believes. “The new Escalade is incredible and has been a big seller. Also, all of the talk about the new product coming is creating some excitement,” Barger explains. “The 0% financing also helped,” he adds.
Barger is projecting a 30% increase in revenue for 2002, also because of the new product. “We're still going to have momentum,” he says.
Other than the world's political situation, he has no serious concerns. The relationship with General Motors and Cadillac is great, according to Barger. “I'm happier now with the two than I have been in four or five years. Bob Lutz and Mark LaNeve (Cadillac Division's general marketing manager) both know that pretty cars sell, and of course, Lutz likes to wow people.”
The enthusiasm is evident in the voices of the dealership employees. Barger explains it goes back to a phrase that Don Massey, the store's owner likes to say, “People with music in their voice.”
“Our key word here is ‘enthusiasm,’” says Barger. “It means ‘God within you’ in the Greek language,” he explains. “It's easy to train people who don't have a lot of junk going on in their minds. We try to hire people who have good moral fiber.”
Bracing for “a real tough January and February”
Zero percent financing has been a “big boost,” for dealer Ed Bozarth, who sells several General Motors Corp. brands at his dealerships in Colorado and Kansas.
Although he sees a bit of a slowdown in sales now, he expects to end 2001 at about the same level as 2000, largely due to sales created by the 0% initiative. He says it helped move higher-priced models like the Chevrolet Suburban, Tahoe, Trailblazer and Corvette off his lots.
“We're almost going to be exactly the same,” says Bozarth of 2001 sales. “The first nine months were slower, but when GM came out with 0% it was a big boost.” However, he admits sales of lower-priced entry-level models like the Cavalier really didn't “nudge the needle” and expects to see a price drop or incentives on it and the Malibu sedan, which he believes are both overpriced right now.
He agrees with many analysts who say the incentives have “pulled ahead” many auto sales from 2002 and expects a slow start to the year.
“I'm thinking we'll probably have a real tough January and February, like coming off 2.9% in '86,” Bozarth says.
But he sees a sales recovery after the first quarter and expects to end up with higher 2002 sales than 2001 sales.
Part of the reason for his positive outlook is Bozarth's belief that GM is in its best position with products than it's been in a long time.
“GM is so close to being totally on target with their vehicles right now,” Bozarth says. “GM products have certainly worked their way up consumers' shopping list.”
Like many GM dealers, he's excited about the addition of Bob Lutz to a top post at GM. Bozarth is a former Chrysler dealer who says he witnessed how Lutz turned around that brand.
“He's a very aggressive, strong, consumer-knowledgeable person who likes to go after the market and ties well to several of the GM people already in place. He's the missing link,” reasons Bozarth.
“All facets of our lives were disrupted on Sept. 11”
Although Shelly LoCascio says 2001 was a fine year, hurt is evident in her voice.
The dealership is on the outskirts of New York City and as the Lincoln Mercury dealer council representative says, “All facets of our lives were disrupted on Sept. 11. We had employees and customers who lost family members. I don't think we'll ever forget.”
The Pop Warner football team the dealership helps to sponsor lost four coaches that day. “There are memorial services still going on every day,” she observes.
Business was affected. “Our showroom traffic instantly dropped and remained down for a while,” she says. “We also had several customers who lost cars in the rubble.”
Business wasn't down for long, though. LoCascio believes Ford Motor Co.'s immediate response gave her dealership its greatest month ever in October. “November was also very strong for us. The people coming in were buyers.”
Her enthusiasm, however, is tempered by lingering uncertainty. “The long term effect has yet to be seen. We were putting a lot of people into five-year trade cycles — that's a lot of people who won't be buying a vehicle for at least five years,” she says.
She expects 2002 sales to be slow out of the box, but believes the pace will be steady come spring. “We'll have some new product, then. That new Maurader is going to hit the showroom and get some enthusiasm going,” she predicts.
LoCascio is concerned about the Lincoln Mercury brand.
She explains, “The question is, are we going to have enough financial backing from Ford as we launch the new product?
“I'm satisfied that Lincoln Mercury management has done all they can in their power. I'm just not sure Ford has responded strongly enough. It needs to refocus on the Lincoln Mercury brand.”
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