Each domestic automaker faces sensitive dealer concerns An "issues-oriented" convention affecting each of the Big Three automakers could stimulate a record attendance of dealers and their managers at the 84th annual NADA powwow in Las Vegas this month.

Each U.S.-based automaker is grappling with sensitive problems deeply concerning their dealers - a rare coincidence for the mid-winter NADA convention and exposition.

Moreover, the economy is retreating from the long boom cycle, another concern.

If indeed misery loves company, that could insure higher turnouts than ever before for GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler dealers and their managers.

Last year, a record 5,300 dealer principals and 4,600 general managers helped swell total attendance to about 27,500 persons in Orlando, FL.

This year, for the Feb. 3-6 event, at least 28,000 are expected to travel to Nevada to discuss business issues and tour the record 440 exhibits at the Exposition in the 313,000-square-foot Las Vegas Convention Center.

Convention Chairman Buzz Braley, a Buick-Pontiac-GMC-Isuzu dealer in Portland, OR, says early registrations were spurred by such late-breaking developments as GM's knockout of the 103-year-old Oldsmobile line; Ford's Blue Oval controversy and wave of product recalls; and DaimlerChrysler's profit slump and subsequent management shakeup of the U.S. Chrysler Group.

G. Richard Wagoner, Jr., GM president and CEO, is in a choice position to try to mollify dealers about the fateful decision to terminate Olds - both during his keynote address Feb. 3 and at an all-brand GM make meeting the next day. Mr. Wagoner also has scheduled a press conference immediately following the keynote address.

Ford also planned a press conference preceding the first general session of the convention on the opening Saturday, Feb. 3. Ford dealers have been restive throughout 2000 over the Blue Oval program's award bonus feature, with five Ford dealers having sued in federal court to torpedo the plan.

In addition, the Ford National Dealers Council held a special meeting with company executives on the frequency of recalls in December. They are crossing their fingers about sales prospects for the new 2002 Explorer after the Firestone/Explorer tire-blowout controversy that has hurt sales of 2000 and 2001 Explorers thereafter.

New Chrysler Group President Dieter Zetsche is expected to address Dodge and Chrysler-Jeep dealer franchise meetings.

Mr. Zetsche was named by DC Chairman and CEO Juergen E. Schrempp last fall to replace the ousted James P. Holden after sales plummeted and costly incentives drowned the automaker in about $1.76 billion in red ink during the second half of 2000.

A sore point among DC dealers remains the future of incentives and subsidized leases in the midst of an inventory pileup. Mr. Zetsche is cool towards rebates - and has told dealers as much.

DC hung a $1,000 rebate on its restyled minivans late in December but dealers are wary as to whether 2001 sales would turn around rapidly with the economic climate so cloudy.

On the positive side, Mr. Braley and his convention committee, are encouraged by Exposition interest. About 80 exhibitor companies are new this year.

The dot-com display list has shrunk since last year's convention, due to a shakeout in the direct-sales contingent. But a number of Internet-based companies remain players and one of the web's pioneers, Autobytel.com, plans a "major new initiative for dealers" as a convention rollout.

That the sales decline should preoccupy dealers is something of an irony in ever-booming Las Vegas.

A major convention speaker on Feb. 5 will be Steve Wynn, a Vegas tycoon whose hotel and casino developments helped make the city one of the top tourist and business-meeting destinations in the world.

Incoming NADA Chairman Robert Maguire, a Chevrolet and Saturn dealer from New Jersey, says his inaugural remarks Feb. 5 will focus on "the upbeat future for the franchise system in the 21st century" and "the need to protect dealer equities at all costs."

Mr. Maguire is married to an active dealer principal, Marcy Hnath Maguire, who runs the Saturn store. The number of women dealers is rising and also is expected to set a record at the Las Vegas convention.

Outgoing Chairman Harold B. Wells of Whiteville, NC, lists Oldsmobile among his nine franchises. He says he'll comment on the Olds phase-out in his farewell address. Olds was Mr. Wells' first line when he entered the auto business in the mid-1950s.

NADA's "general manager" for more than 30 years, President Frank E. McCarthy, is observing his last convention. He'll retire Dec. 31. A convention ceremony for him is in the works for the final convention session Feb. 5.