MIDLAND, MI – Auto dealer Dick Havaere first became involved in Northwood University’s unique annual auto show 40 years ago.

He’s helped out just about every year since, but he gives the student body the lion’s share of the credit.

“It’s a fabulous event with 1,200 students doing virtually all the work themselves,” says Havaere, the owner of a Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep store in Richmond, MI, and the father of two sons who are Northwood alumni.

Thousands of dealership principals and managers are graduates of Northwood, a school that offers one of the nation’s most extensive degree programs in automotive retailing and marketing.

Its 44th annual international auto show here is billed as the nation’s largest outdoor event of its kind. There are more than 500 vehicles in more than 40 displays across the campus.

It’s up to the students to procure the vehicles – ranging from passenger cars to trucks to specialty products – get them to the campus, present and return them.

Students manning the exhibits must demonstrate extensive product knowledge to visitors. About 50,000 people attend the 3-day event.

“Students are graded on their presentations,” says Joseph J. Lescota, the show’s advisor, Northwood’s automotive marketing chairman and a 20-year veteran of auto retailing, including as a dealer operator.

“Dealers serve as mentors, helping the students with their walk-arounds,” he says. “This is totally an academic event.”

Adds Northwood President Keith Pretty: “This is a huge undertaking and an incredible educational opportunity. The auto show is not only a chance to show the cars, but to show the students’ talents.

“I’ve never been to a place where the students are so involved in an event. They’ve worked months to pull off this amazing logistical spectacle.”

In early years, the Northwood show was held well into October. But when snow hit it three years in a row, it was moved to the last weekend in September.

This year’s show was blessed by glorious northern Michigan fall weather, with a touch of fall colors providing a rustic backdrop to the vehicles on display.

Tiffany Nabozny, this year’s show chairperson and the first female student to hold that post, describes it as “a great experience” in part because “I got to work with a lot of great dealers who know a lot and are generous with their knowledge.”

She is taken aback when Chip Perry, CEO of AutoTrader.com and a panelist at a forum held in conjunction with the show, announces that, starting with her, his firm is giving the show chairperson an annual full 1-year scholarship.

“I’m shocked,” Nabozny says of the scholarship. “I was not expecting that.”

She wants to become a dealer. So many Northwood students far and wide, Pretty notes.

He recalls delivering a commencement address at a Northwood program in China. “After my speech, several Chinese students came up to me and said their goal is to become auto dealers,” he says.

Northwood graduates who don’t become dealers are considered prime job candidates in various fields of the automotive industry.

“We need people who love the auto business, and Northwood provides an education to go with that love,” says Dean Eisner, CEO of Manheim and keynote speaker of the school’s auto show this year.

Darryl R. Jackson, vice president-U.S. sales for Chrysler LLC, makes a similar pitch.

“We need more great people in the auto industry, so think about us,” Jackson, a panelist at the forum, tells students.

Likewise, Perry tells the Northwood students: “Think about the digital side of the car business. It’s an interesting place to devote your career.”

One reason for such interest in Northwood students is that they display

“the exact opposite of a sense of entitlement,” says Eisner. “They know they are going to use and apply the skills they acquired here. I rave about this university and will continue to.”

During the panel discussion before a full house in a school lecture hall, Jackson says: “The customer is the only thing that matters. The rest is noise. Whatever we do, it all gets transitioned back to the customer.”

He says Chrysler, at an upcoming dealer meeting in Las Vegas, will unveil plans to help dealers better fulfill customer wants and needs. That includes increased training.

“Dealers truly drive our business, and customers have to roll off the dealership lot thinking they got the best deal and the best product,” Jackson says. “That is where we need to be and that is where we are going.”

But fellow panelist Jody Devere, president of AskPatty.com Inc., a car-buying service, says many women “still are not happy with the car-buying experience.”

She says dealership staffers, both on the sales floor and in the service department, need to “take women seriously” and communicate with them better.

“Men consider the dealership experience as sort of a sport,” she says. “Women don’t want to compete; they just want to buy the car. Sure, dealers sell cars to women every day. But are they life-long customers? Retaining business is so important today.”

Even though the Internet has become valuable for auto research and shopping, few consumers buy a car sight unseen, Perry says. “It’s not about car buying online; it’s about information for consumers and advertising for dealers and manufacturers.”

From both a buyer and seller perspective, the Internet and companies using it as a business strategy are “fundamentally changing the market,” he says.

Eisner cites five changes affecting the auto industry, and offers his take on them. They are:

  • "The changing role of domestic auto makers. He notes they have lost significant market share – about 20 percentage points – in the last decade. That will change their “infrastructure,” including the dealer network. “As you decline in market share, how big an infrastructure can you support?”
  • Technology. Be on the lookout for future vehicles equipped with advanced technology and powered by alternative fuel sources, he says.
  • The creation of Chrysler LCC, as the auto maker went from public to private ownership. Eisner says he’s not arguing for or against one or the other (”each has its advantages and disadvantages”) but such a shift “changes the nature of the enterprise.”
  • The Internet. “It’s a revolution and it is not going to stop,” says Eisner. The future generation will step up use of the Internet as part of the car-buying process.
  • FUsed cars. They are becoming more important to dealers and auto makers alike. For dealers, they’re a big profit center. For auto makers, a vehicle’s used-car residual value affects its demand as a new car. “There’s now a recognition of an interrelationship between new and used vehicles. That recognition wasn’t there before.”