Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

Defending against auto maker pressures on the dealers’ right to sell or close their stores when and as they wish is a priority for Dale Willey, incoming 2007 chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

The son of a used-car dealer, Willey, 65, has operated a General Motors Corp. brand dealership for 36 years in Lawrence, KS, 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Kansas City.

Taking a break from preparing his keynote address for the 90th NADA convention Feb. 3-6 in Las Vegas, Willey spoke with Ward’s Dealer Business.

“My NADA chairman predecessor, William Bradshaw, was absolutely right in October when he told the Automotive Press Assn. in Detroit that the auto manufacturers have no business telling dealers when to sell their stores or fold up,” Willey says.

Bradshaw’s comments came as Ford Motor Co. executives spoke of reducing dealership ranks as part of an overall company downsizing plan. Willey criticizes any auto maker potentially putting undue pressure on dealers deemed expendable.

“This is something that dealers should address themselves,” Willey says. “NADA also will not stand by while auto makers are squeezing dealer-profit opportunities.”

Here is an edited version of our interview with the new NADA chairman:

Ward’s: How did you become a dealer?

Willey: My dad, Howard Willey, was a used-car dealer in Kansas City, MO. In 1957, when I was 16, he bought a Chevrolet-Oldsmobile store in Lee’s Summit, MO, and assigned me to sweep the floors. He died suddenly eight years later, and GM decided against giving my mom and me the franchise. So we sold the dealership. I went to work as a salesman for a Pontiac-Buick-Olds store in Lee’s Summit.

In 1970, determined to prove I could run a GM dealership, I found a Pontiac-Cadillac store owned by a Topeka dealer in Lawrence. GM Motors Holding had to help me out, but we’ve been here for 36 years, and I think we’ve done all right.

Ward’s: Any bumps along the way?

Willey: In 1975, we went outside the GM family to purchase the American Motors-Jeep-Renault franchise. Except for Jeep, their cars left a lot to be desired in quality, and when in 1980 they couldn’t pay us our bills and offered cars instead, we dropped the franchise.

Ward’s: What’s the attraction of Lawrence?

Willey: Being the home of Kansas University, Lawrence is a town of about 88,000 (including college students), many on fixed incomes. Despite the steady college-driven economy, the number of dealerships has dropped from 13 when I started in 1970 to six today. That’s a trend in all markets. There are only 248 franchised dealers in Kansas, down from 1,250 when I started out in 1970.

Ward’s: How has your dealership grown?

Willey: We added GMC in 1991 and Buick in 1996. There’s only one dealer for each major franchise in Lawrence, but we’re in the Kansas City metro market, so we do compete with dealers there, whose ads reach here, of course.

Ward’s: How many units did you sell in 2006?

Willey: About 400 new and 480 used. We did about 800 in 2005, and the growth has been due to GM’s hot new products like the Pontiac G6, Cadillac CTS, Buick Lucerne and LaCrosse and GMC Sierra. We face Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and the other domestics in town, and I know that GM’s quality has caught up and even gone ahead of theirs.

Ward’s: What are your focuses in running the dealership?

Willey: Being active in the community. Participating in 20 Groups and NADA activities. I’ve been in one 20 Group since 1978. Expanding into an all-new building four years ago for a cost of about $400,000. Enlarging customer service facilities with quick-lube lanes. Putting in a new customer lounge.

And above all, hiring and keeping the best managers. My general manager, Gregg Maurer has been with me 14 years and is set up as a co-principal to run things during my year as NADA chairman. Internet salesman Kent Fisher and the website are busy all the time. General Sales Manager Jeff Hornbeck has been here five years. Our 43 employees include seven in vehicle sales.

Ward’s: What are your priorities as NADA chairman?

Willey: Factory-dealer relations have to be improved. NADA can play a key role in helping dealers remain profitable. Our “Lifeline to Profits” program will be promoted even harder in 2007, and we know dealers squeezed by shrinking grosses can benefit from it.

There is no system better for selling and servicing cars than the franchise system. NADA stands for that 1000%, and so do I.

Ward’s: Any family members in the business?

Willey: My wife, Jan, and I have been married 27 years and have five daughters and six grandchildren. Our second-oldest daughter, Laura Carbrey, is our top salesperson. And my 80-lb (36 kg) golden retriever, Toby, comes with me to work every day!

Ward’s: Any business tips for NADA members?

Willey: We keep our inventory in line with monthly sales, in December totaling about 100 new cars and 50 used. We have a body shop and find it a good source of business, since it handles all brands. GMAC has been my main F&I provider. Twelve hundred people came to the dealership for our 36th anniversary party, which shows our ties to Lawrence.

Ward’s: Hobbies?

Willey: I golf and fly my Kansas-built Cessna airplane any chance I get.

Ward’s: Past honors?

Willey: Time Magazine award in 1993 and president of the Kansas Automobile Dealers Assn. in 1991.