WHITEVILLE, NC - He's a "country dealer" and proud of it. But big-city dealers anxious about looming national issues needn't worry about the dedication of the National Automobile Dealers Association's new chairman, Harold B. Wells.

After 43 years as a GM and Chrysler Corp. dealer in this small Southern town, Mr. Wells is ready to carry the banner of all franchised dealers against any threats to a franchise system which he believes is "here to stay because it's proven best for the consumers."

Mr. Wells, an active dealer at age 68, takes a long-range view of the auto retail business.

He'll share that view during his inaugural address Jan. 24 at NADA's 83rd Convention and Exposition in Orlando, FL.

"Factory-owned collections have been a major issue in 1999," he says at his Whiteville GM dealership, which handles all GM brands except Cadillac and Saturn. "But the summit meeting we as NADA leaders had with (GM Chairman) Jack Smith and his team obviously persuaded them to slow down on the program.

"What concerns me even more, with all the emphasis on consolidations and Internet-driven direct sales, is how this will impact on the next generation of dealer principals, including sons and daughters, and their ability or interest to be our successors.

"The auto dealer field is one of entrepreneurs who really are business heroes of the 20th century. We've all survived down business cycles, and poor products. But all the turmoil we're having with factory and private consolidators and direct sellers on websites could make this business less appealing."

Mr. Wells' son, Toby, 33, however, has gone into the "family business" as major owner and operator of Toby Wells Buick-Pontiac-GMC, Southern Pines, NC.

His father has a 30% equity in that store and is happy to see Toby as a dealer after serving a stint in U.S. Senator Jesse Helms' Washington office following his graduation with an MBA from Wake Forest University.

Mr. Wells himself has deep GM roots, graduating in 1953 from the GM Institute in Flint, MI. His sponsor was Cavanau Chevrolet, Wallace, NC.

"I was a car nut growing up in Rose Hill, NC," he recalls. "At the age of 15, I bought my first car, a Model A Ford. Going into the car business always was my idea.

"Even while in the Army at Fort Jackson, SC, from 1953-55, I went to auto mechanic's school and wound up as a sergeant instructing soldiers about internal combustion engines."

In 1956, Mr. Wells got his chance to become a dealer. Oldsmobile wanted a new owner for Lee Braxton Oldsmobile in downtown Whiteville.

Mr. Wells, then 25, put up all his money, $1,500, and borrowed another $6,000 from GM Motors Holding to buy out the store at the location. It's now the site of his Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge-Jeep facility near Columbus County's 191-year-old courthouse.

Wells Oldsmobile started out with just seven employees in a recession year that followed the Korean War. His two stores have 52 employees now.

"Thinking back," says Mr. Wells as he drives a visitor around town and to a new industrial development he's involved in, "there were so many more dealers then. The county, whose population now is only 52,000, had 16 dealers. Now there are five.

"But, you know, we who survive in Los Angeles or Louisville or Whiteville or wherever have accomplished a lot - for ourselves, of course, but also for our employees, communities and society.

"Sometimes our manufacturers misjudge the value of the franchised dealers, but what other system could have done what we've done?"

Over the years, as Wells Olds added GMC, American Motors and Jeep, the business grew. Jeep formed the basis for acquiring all other Chrysler brands.

In 1997, Mr. Wells bought out the Rich Edwards Chevrolet-Pontiac-Buick store and consolidated the GM brands outside of town in the all-GM location on Highway 130.

He says, "We're selling almost as many new Chrysler units as GM - about 350 Chrysler and 400 GM.

"Of course, Chrysler has been hotter on the truck, Jeep and van side until just this past year, but I go back 43 years with Olds and have a warm spot for that line."

Asked if he plans to act as a champion for the 80% of dealerships in small towns like Whiteville, the NADA chairman-elect, says "I recognize the problems especially faced by smaller dealers, and will do my best to point them out.

"There's a real challenge for us in getting and keeping good people, and affording the new high-tech service equipment and training for it.

"In my case, I have to advertise for a market that stretches from Wilmington, NC, where there are 17 dealers, to Fayetteville, NC, and Myrtle Beach, SC.

"But my bottom line is, 'Who's going to take care of people the best...and who has the professional ability to serve?'

"My answer remains that we the franchised dealers and the individual relationships we have built up over many, many years with customers and employees."

Employee longevity is a trademark of many small-town dealerships. Wells' stores are no exception. Gralyn Buffkin joined the downtown dealership as cashier while a senior in Whiteville High School in 1968. She's now the controller.

"The pace has gotten faster, and it's all computers now," she says. "But this job is great and I've never regretted a minute of it."

Mr. Wells' business career includes being a two-term treasurer of NADA and past president of the North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association, which, he notes, joined nine other states in securing passage this past year of franchise law amendments forbidding permanent ownership of dealerships by automakers.

He says, "Once the legislature saw the reasons for our position," he declares, "the North Carolina law went though almost without dissent, as did most of the others. That's quite a message to the automakers."

Mr. Wells also has served as president of the Southeastern Community College Foundation and the Whiteville Chamber of Commerce.

Married in 1963, Harold and Elizabeth (Betty) Wells reside in a Colonial style-house he designed on four-acres "five minutes from the dealerships."

A married daughter, Anna Moore, has a pharmacy degree and lives in Raleigh, NC.