ST. GEORGE, UT – Stephen Wade, the National Automobile Dealers Assn.’s 2011 chairman, started in the car business 41 years ago as general manager of a new Mazda dealership in Salt Lake City.

Many franchises later, the Stephen Wade Auto Center is headed by a growth-minded entrepreneur with dealerships in St. George, UT, and the northern California city of Chico.

Wade, 67, co-founded the SunFirst Bank in St. George and owns a Marriott hotel there, as well as southern Utah’s only TV station, KCSG.

He has served as chairman of the board for Dixie State College and on the alumni board at the University of Utah. He was state chairman of the American Cancer Society, and president of the Utah Automobile Dealers Assn. He served in the National Guard from 1969 to 1975

Ward’s talked with Wade about his business and NADA.

Ward’s: How did you become a dealer?

Wade: I began dabbling with car sales when I was a student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I was working towards an MBA degree when I was presented the opportunity to be general manager of a new Mazda point with the Ken Garff Group.

With the added possibility to become a partner, the lure of owning a dealership proved irresistible. Those were good times. In our first few months of operation, we had a month high of 88 new Mazda sales making our new little operation No.6 in volume in the U.S. for that month.

Ward’s: When did you begin branching out?

Wade: Within one year, I became a partner at the Mazda store. In 1975, when things looked bleak for the new rotary engine and Mazda in general, I had a chance to buy my partners out. I purchased a Pontiac dealership later that year. We were off and running with our new Stephen Wade Pontiac Mazda dealership in downtown Salt Lake City.

In 1980, we purchased an array of British and European brands – MG, Alpha, Fiat, Land Rover and Jaguar. Then in 1981, we were able to buy a Ford dealership that was in bankruptcy. From there, we were awarded Mitsubishi and Suzuki franchises, which were very exciting and cutting edge at the time.

About then, another dealership in southern Utah was having challenges and after a call from GMAC, we looked at and purchased a Chevrolet, Cadillac, Nissan and Mazda dealership in St. George, a small town on the Utah-Arizona border that appeared to have substantial opportunity for growth.

Ward’s: What's the complete list of franchises today?

Wade: BMW, Buick, Cadillac, GMC, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru and Volvo in Chico, CA; and Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Honda, Jeep, Mazda, Nissan, Ram and Toyota in St. George. Ward’s: No Hyundai, Kia, hot brands right now?

Wade: Let's just say they were not available, but I'm always looking to grow. That's part of the Wade dedication to the auto retail business and the St. George community. We’re in the fastest-growing town in the U.S., smack in the Red Rock area near Zion National Park and with year-round temperatures as moderate as anywhere in the Southwest. Palm trees grow here.

Ward’s: How many units do you sell?

Wade: Our goal is to sell 400 new and used vehicles a month, but in 2010, we sold about 4,000 new and used units. We’re looking for a 10% increase in 2011.

Ward’s: What are you doing as far as facility improvements?

Wade: We have upgraded more than half of our franchises to new image stores and are in the process of completing them all. Our collision center and service departments service all brands.

Ward’s: What did your experience as NADA vice chairman in 2010 bring you?

Wade: We overcame one of the greatest threats to dealers ever faced by NADA: the financial reform legislation in Congress. Because of Ed’s passion, which was echoed by thousands of dealers across the country, we made the case to Congress that auto dealerships should not be in a Wall Street reform bill.

It was only through a massive grassroots effort that we were able to educate members of Congress about the benefits of dealer-assisted financing and how unnecessary and burdensome new rules would hurt not just auto dealerships but also consumers.

Ward’s: What’s your feeling about dealers’ numbers and values in 2011?

Wade: We'll fight to save our dealers from further cuts, and I’m confident that General Motors (Co.) and Chrysler (Group LLC), under their new leaders, will see the light after all the setbacks they've been through.

I am optimistic as I look to the future. The economy, lenders and consumer confidence are all moving in the right direction. As the economy improves, so will sales and ultimately the strength of our dealerships.”

Ward’s: How many employees work for you?

Wade: We employ about 300 at eight separate dealership locations.”

Ward’s: What’s your view of publicly owned dealerships?

Wade: There is enough room in the marketplace for both independent and publicly owned dealerships. What’s most important is that both remain focused on providing car buyers with the best products and service possible.

We are encouraged that the public companies are increasingly seeing the value in participating in the activities of state and metro trade associations, as well as NADA.

Ward’s: What is the future of the franchise system?

Wade: It’s here to stay and thank goodness it is. The last couple of years have demonstrated a strong dealership network benefits both consumers and the auto makers.

Ward’s: Who runs the Stephen Wade Center when you’re off on NADA business?

Wade: My son’s C.J. and Adam Wade work with our controller, Dan Powers, as overseers of the business. My wife Marcia and I are proud of our family of four sons and a daughter.

Ward’s: The Wade dealerships have reached a milestone in advertising, what’s the breakout?

Wade: We now spend 35% of our ad expenditures on the Internet. We reach customers as far away as Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, so the Website is No.1 with us. Radio gets 23%, print 20%, TV 10%, billboards and social media 5% each, and fliers only 2%.

Ward’s: What side interests do you have?

Wade: I enjoy spending time with my wife, children and grandchildren. I enjoy traveling to our home in Mexico, spending time at our ranch where I especially love working with our horses, and house boating at Lake Powell. When we lived in northern Utah, I was for years an avid snow skier and instructor.