SLATON, TX — It would be a mistake to underestimate Annette Sykora, our choice for this year's Ward's Dealer of the Year.

At first glance, taking her lightly might seem reasonable. She's a third- generation dealer, so she probably got her dealership because she's “Daddy's little girl.” Right? Not hardly.

She's a small dealer in a small town in west Texas — couldn't possibly be wise in how the big guys play in the big city. Guess again.

And it might be easy to brush aside the fact that she is the incoming chairman for the National Automobile Dealers Assn. She's probably the token diversity card for NADA, right? Not even close.

If you are a franchise car dealer, her ascent to NADA's top spot should matter to you a lot. Sykora is assuming the post in a year that might end up being one of the most critical in the history of automotive retailing.

The next couple of years will be “make it or break it” time for many dealers. Profitability issues plague not only the domestics but also several of the import brands.

On the domestic side, the specter of overly aggressive manufacturers is ever present. Currently, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. are playing nice and doing as well as can be expected in managing the reduction of their dealership counts, according to some state association directors.

But the wildcard the next several months is Chrysler LCC and how it goes about pruning dealership ranks. There are signs that the already difficult relationship Chrysler has with its dealers could get worse. Several dealers tell Ward's they expect the “new” Chrysler to turn up the heat on its dealers overthe next six months.

All of this means the top spot at NADA will be critical next year, and the chairman must have the political moxie and confidence to be tough with auto makers; the deftness to lobby government officials; and the media savvy to position car dealers as critical and necessary to the overall economy of the country.

Sykora, during an interview at her Smith South Plains Ford Mercury store in this Texas community near Lubbock, shows a lot of confidence, fight and toughness — all without false bravado.

But there are times she says when she wonders if she is “equipped” for the job. She talks about the importance of her faith and says she prays “a lot now.”

The moment of self-doubt passes quickly, though, as she focuses on what is at stake.

“We (dealers) need to be very guarded in protecting our turf,” she says.

Later on, toward the end of the interview, Sykora resolutely states, “We're going to protect this franchise system. It's been great for years and will continue to be.”

It is not necessarily a case of us vs. them or dealer vs. manufacturer. But she approaches her chairmanship next year with a keen sense of vigilance because she knows what is at stake.

Sykora does not name names, but it is clear she knows which auto executives understand and appreciate the retail system and which ones just pay lip service.

She also has been known to challenge OEM executives in NADA meetings for things they have said or positions they have held.

Sykora's perspective on the need to fight for what ultimately is survival of the franchise system — and perhaps, her dealerships — clearly is colored by her experiences as a small domestic dealer in rural Texas.

Although she will be representing all of NADA's member dealers, the smaller ones, such as herself, are the ones whose survival pose the biggest question marks.

Along with her husband, Patrick, Sykora also owns Smith South Plains Ford Mercury in Slaton, TX, and South Plains Ford Lincoln Mercury Dodge Jeep Chrysler in Levelland, TX.

These are challenging times for many dealerships and the Smith South Plains stores are no exception. Sales are down, the Chrysler and Ford dealership in Levelland is dualed, prohibiting it from being a Chrysler Five Star-rated store.

There are plans to separate the two brands into different facilities, but for now it doesn't make sense financially, she says.

Although times are not as good as they once were, the store will be debt free soon, according to Sykora.

The Ford store in Slaton, meanwhile, desperately needs two more technicians. “I've been through the cycles,” Sykora says, mentioning that when she started out in the business in 1982, the prime-lending rate was 17%. She does feel some pressure, though, of running a family business. “You have the numbers of the failure rate for third-generation dealers,” she says. “So there's that to deal with.”

Growing up in Lubbock County, Sykora worked part-time in the Slaton dealership her grandfather, Bill Smith, opened in 1952. Meanwhile, she had visions of going to law school and studying abroad, perhaps at the University of Oxford in England. But after graduating from high school, she began working at a local bank.

Sykora's job let her see the salaries of other bank employees. It dawned on her that several who had been at the bank for many more years than she were making not much more than she was.

Having decided her future in banking in was bleak, she walked into her father's office at the dealership in 1982 at age 19 and told him she wanted to buy the store someday.

He laughed at first, she remembers, but then he put her to work as a title clerk for $600 month, significantly less then she was making at the bank. His rules were that nothing was off limits for her. She could open any cabinet, read any file, or work any job in the dealership. But the moment she got into something, she was responsible for it.

Any commission she made, she put into buying stock in the dealership, as part of the agreement with her dad and grandfather. “It took some sacrifice and a lot of lessons learned,” Sykora says. “I ate a lot of beans and rice in those days.”

Her first new car, a country blue 1991 Ford Explorer is still her favorite.

“Other than that, I love the Mustang,” she says, revealing a need for an exhilerating drive. “If I'm having a bad day, if I can take a 5-minute drive in a Cobra Mustang — it has to be black — then everything is all right with the world.”

A couple of years later, Sykora decided to learn the finance and insurance part of the business. The finance and insurance manager quit soon after, and Sykora found herself running the department. Although her predecessor had a demo car, she didn't.

That changed quickly, though, after she doubled the sales in the F&I department.

Sykora says the lessons her father taught her helped her become independent, while learning the business.

One important lesson came with the first car she sold. It was hers — an '82 Mustang she had put on the used-car lot. The dealership took a trade in as part of the deal. Her dad gave her the check minus the money for the trade. She got that later after the trade sold.

“That taught me the importance of managing the capital,” she says.

Two things her grandfather told her have stuck with her. First, you don't need to know everything.

Second, You have to be right more times than you're wrong.

By 1989, after graduating from NADA's Dealer Academy, Sykora was running the dealership — at age 26. She had controlling interest of the store two years later.

Sykora credits her dad for giving her the opportunity and teaching her, but obtaining the store was not easy. She earned the money herself to buy out her father and grandfather. Having part ownership put her in position to make sure the dealership was not included in her parents' divorce settlement.

Sykora met her husband in 1996 at a Ford dealer's meeting in Detroit. His family owned dealerships approximately six hours away in Waco, TX.

“Their Ford store was always beating us out for the Ford President's Award,” Sykora laughs. “My father-in-law would say, it was a case of ‘If you can't beat them, marry them.’”

Not long after getting married, the couple bought the Levelland store.

It was about that time Sykora's involvement with NADA began to take off. Her husband helps her run the stores and is a big part of why she is able to be involved at such a high level with NADA.

“To me, that is the real story,” she says. “It takes a really strong man to do what Patrick has done.”

Over lunch, Patrick Sykora appears very comfortable with his wife's growing status at NADA. Not only that, but after 10 years of marriage, they appear to be a couple very much in love.

Her father and grandfather encouraged her early on to participate in a local association of dealers that had been formed in the 1950s.

“They were very good to me, sharing with me how to run the dealership,” Sykora says.

It was there that long-time Ford dealers, such as Jimmy Payton (of Payton-Wright Ford in Grapevine, TX, now owned by AutoNation Inc.) and Sam Pack, who owns the Five Star Ford dealerships in Lewisville, TX, saw her in action and decided to convince her to run for the NADA state director's position for Texas.

“We were at a meeting, and Sam grabbed one arm and Jimmy grabbed the other,” she says. “And they asked me to run. I respected them so much, the only thing I could say was, ‘Yes sir.’”

NADA has directors for each state and two women-only positions, one west and one east of the Mississippi. Only women dealers can vote for those two positions.

But Sykora did not go the women-only route. Instead, in 1998, she became the first woman director elected to a regular position.

There were some challenges. Buying the new store, having to buy a new home after marrying Patrick to accommodate children (a total of five) they both had from previous marriages and getting ready for the NADA directorship all made it an interesting time.

And then there was the pregnancy. Sykora went into labor on Feb. 5, 1999, the day after being installed as the Texas state director. She gives a lot of credit to her children for being supportive and understanding when she has to be gone so often.

She has served on various committees, including the Industry Relations Committee, the National Automobile Dealer's Charitable Foundation Board and is a director on the Insurance Trust Board.

Sykora's greatest accomplishments at NADA include being a member on the search committee for the late Frank McCarthy's replacement for president of the association. “There were several past chairmen on the committee, and I learned so much from them,” she says.

She also chaired NADA's Public Affairs Committee, during which time NADA launched its child safety-seat campaign. “I think of all of the lives we saved,” she says.

A lot has been made of the fact that she is the first woman to chair NADA, and that is an important part of the story, but a little known fact gets lost. And that is, at age 44, Sykora will be the youngest-ever NADA chairman.

Sykora decided to become involved with NADA because she's always admired the impact past chairmen have had on the industry. “To see the chairmen and the challenges they have faced, you could say I've always appreciated that,” she says. “I guess I've felt like there was a calling to give back.”

She says her agenda will be dictated next year in some part by the market conditions. One area NADA is pushing hard on is to convince the federal government to develop a national database of vehicles that have been completely destroyed in disasters such as floods. Several states have databases of such vehicles and laws dictating what can be done with them, but it is inconsistent. “We've got the ability to do something great with the Total Loss issue,” Syykora says.

She downplays the gender part and does not dwell on any discrimination she encountered in the male-dominated world of car sales. But she provides some insight into what her true feelings are and the responsibility she feels to make it a more level playing field. “I'm invited to play the game, I can't expect you to change the rules for me,” she says. “But once I get into the game, you can't expect me to not change some of the rules.” Being the first woman elected to the position says a great deal about her character, her toughness and her ability.

She is young, dynamic and engaging and will most likely will hit the ball out of the park in media interviews. Although, she admits, all of the attention is a “little overwhelming for a girl from west Texas.”

But woe to any manufacturer that takes her lightly because this girl from West Texas has a lot of steel running through her veins.

Ride Around the World

For being a small Ford dealership in western Texas, the vehicles at Annette Sykora's Smith South Plains store sure do get around.

Last year, some folks producing an Imax film, called Ride Around the World, about cowboy lifestyles around the world came out to the Four Sixes Ranch in Guthrie, TX, to shoot a significant portion of the movie. The ranch is one of Sykora's larger customers.

As a result, several of the trucks appearing in the film are from Sykora's dealership.

The filming period proved to be hectic for Sykora who says she was on call for two weeks, running back and forth to the ranch to take care of vehicle issues.

At one point, her parts department had to scramble to find a part late on a Saturday for a truck that was being filmed the next Monday.

“I don't know how they pulled it off, but they scrambled doing it,” Sykora says.

That's not all.

Hanging in her office is a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a couple of cowboys lounging on the back of a Ford F-150 dating back to the 1970s.

If you look hard enough you'll see Smith South Plains Ford stamped on the rear bumper.

The photo is part of a series shot by Skeeter Hagler.

“We take that stuff real personal here,” Sykora says. “It shows we're part of our customers' lives.”
Cliff Banks