As the first chairwoman of a national dealer association, Barbara Vidmar figures she'll be watched more closely than were her male predecessors.

But Mrs. Vidmar, new head of the American Import Automobile Dealers Association, has passed many tests as co-owner with her husband William of Vidmar Motor Co., Pueblo, CO.

She declares with a smile, "I'm ready to lead AIADA in the new century as a strong and dedicated trade association."

The association hits its 30th anniversary this year. It was founded by a group of Volkswagen dealers two years after Barbara and Bill Vidmar were married and five years after Bill's father, Jake Vidmar, added Jeep to his Oldsmobile franchise in Pueblo, a southeast Colorado city with a population of 125,000.

The Vidmars met as students at Colorado State University. Both were gearing up to work at the then-called Vidmar-Mathis Motor Co. and raise a family while expanding the business.

"Jake was a tough boss who could care less about adding imports," Barbara recalls. "We picked up Chrysler-Plymouth and American Motors but then when Honda came along, Jake had a fit. It took all of our persuasive abilities to sell him on being the exclusive Honda dealer here.

"Of course, that got me interested in what was then called the Imported Car Dealers Association. Now Honda is the top seller of our seven brands, which include Mazda and Volkswagen."

Coincidentally, NADA's new chairman, Harold G. Wells, a five-brand GM and all-brand Chrysler dealer, also started with Olds in a relatively small town, Smithville, NC.

Fellow Colorado dealers in 1999 elected Bill Vidmar to the NADA board. He's poised to move into an NADA officership at a later date if he wishes.

"We believe in playing key roles in our community and our associations," says Barbara, 53. "Raising three kids while minding the store with Bill, and making sure one of us is here when the other is away at a meeting, hasn't always been easy.

"But we've managed to be very successful, with a good and loyal team of employees and customers who go back 55 years in a thriving and proud blue-collar and middle-class town."

In 1999 total new-car sales at their dealership were up 10%, to about 980 units. A used-car location sold 1,150 units.

Asked about speculation over an eventual AIADA-NADA merger, Ms. Vidmar indicates that it could lessen the AIADA's effectiveness as a voice of free trade.

She says, "AIADA stands up in Washington for global trade freedom, fighting to repeal the unfair 'chicken tax' that keeps VW and other foreign-based automakers from exporting their pickup trucks to the U.S.

"We were instrumental in getting the luxury-car tax phase-out through. It was a tax imposed only on cars and not on fur coats or diamonds. That's our focus, without other functions that would dilute our effectiveness."

Among Mrs. Vidmar's many curricular and extra-curricular tasks over the years have been membership chairperson of AIADA, whose board she joined in 1990, and chairperson of the Parkview Medical Center, one of Pueblo's two hospitals.

From a county with 10 dealerships - not many of them selling luxury brands - Ms. Vidmar is aware of the cyclical nature of the business and the need to maintain tight cost controls.

"We maintain a subprime office out at our used-car store and know we have to be ready for any softening in the market," she says. "Not having a luxury-car line isn't a big worry, because luxury lines are the first to fall off if things tighten up."

The Vidmars are not far from the Denver market where AutoNation Inc. runs a pilot program of 17 John Elway-named dealerships, including a Honda store that has cut new-car prices below cost, say competitors.

That's raised concerns with American Honda management in Torrance, CA.

"A good competitor makes me a better business person," says Ms. Vidmar. "But whether the AutoNation paradigm in Denver, without dealer names for each store, will succeed is uncertain as yet."

The Vidmars have three children. Shawn has a master's degree in English literature and oversees the website, www. vidmarmotor.com. Molly, newly married is an employee of the store's ad agency in California. Derek is assistant new-car sales manager.

But Ms. Vidmar adds, "We look at our employees as an extended family and there's nothing they like better during the year than when Bill and I cook hot dogs at a barbecue.