We toured the entire dealership. Mr. Estes interviewed every employee! His questions were direct. He even wrote notes of employees' suggestions.

ALTHOUGH CAR DEALERS OFTEN WONDER ABOUT some auto company executives, two such General Motors' executives gained my lasting respect.

The leader by far was Elliot Pete Estes, followed by Bob Burger. I had personal contact with both. I admire them now as much as I did as a dealer.

Pete Estes was general manager of Chevrolet Division during the years when a zone manager described Chevrolet's position in the industry this way: “There are two types of new-car dealers, Chevrolet dealers and those who would like to be Chevrolet dealers!”

Pete Estes, who went on to serve as GM president from 1974-81, was a compassionate individual who showed respect for and interest in dealers.

I fondly remember when he visited my Chevy dealership. We had recently moved into a new facility and Mr. Estes arrived with the usual retinue of region and local managers. He left them at the door, put his arm through mine and said, “I'd like to visit with some of your employees.”

We toured the entire dealership. Mr. Estes interviewed every employee! His questions were direct. He even wrote notes of employees' suggestions.

It is important to also measure Mr. Estes as the president of GM. After the Arab oil embargo of the early-1970s, auto manufacturers faced a big decision: would there be a lingering oil shortage, and, if so, what to do about it?

Henry Ford II was adamant and vocal that America still was going to buy large cars and Ford had no intention of downsizing its cars and trucks. On the other hand, Mr. Estes convinced the GM hierarchy that the oil shortage was going to be a real threat, and downsizing was the path to follow.

Back then, development of vehicles took about three years, from crafting the initial clay models to making the finished product. GM and its dealers profited from Mr. Estes' decision as a second, and more serious oil embargo hit America in 1979. GM dealers were ready with downsized new vehicles while Ford struggled with big gas-guzzlers.

Mr. Estes was a brilliant automobile exec who understood the soul of the car industry. He died in 1988.

Mr. Burger in the 1970s was GM's vice president of sales and marketing. My contact with him occurred when I was serving as NADA chairman of a committee attempting to resolve overdealering in the Northeast. Most of that committee's members were New Jersey GM dealers who were not noted for their shyness or quiet manner.

Mr. Burger arrived at a meeting accompanied by the local zone manager, whom he quickly dispatched, saying, “Pick me up in three hours.”

The zone manager was aghast as he left the group. In those confrontational days no auto executive ever met with dealers without the presence of a company representative, if only to corroborate or deny any controversial statements.

Exacerbating the situation were those New Jersey dealers who could use choice language and display behavior on the verge of unruliness.

I wish I could report the overdealering issue was resolved during that meeting. It wasn't. It hasn't been, to this day!

But another important NADA development saw the light of day, courtesy of GM and Mr. Burger. During the lunch break, sitting next to Mr. Burger, I mentioned the results of an NADA survey that showed a passionate interest among new car dealers in training their intended successors. NADA had no formal training ground for that.

Mr. Burger replied that GM had recently spent $1.3 million with the Jam Handy organization to develop a series of audio and video tapes focusing on training minority dealer candidates.

He offered the entire program to us gratis to train dealer successor candidates and included the services of William Fickling their current program coordinator.

This was the genesis of the current NADA Dealer Candidate Academy which trains young people to become dealers and general managers. The academy will soon graduate its 3,000th student.


Nat Shulman was owner of Best Chevrolet in Hingham, MA for many years.