NEW ORLEANS — New ideas for dealers and their products have been a National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention trademark, but perhaps never more so than at this year's sessions held here Jan. 29-Feb. 2.

For the first time, even the sponsoring NADA and No.1 auto maker General Motors got into the new-ideas rollout scenario. The atmosphere for “fresh” concepts and programs was contagious on the exposition floor, in the flurry of news conferences and in the programming itself.

“That's one of the reasons I come to the convention — for ideas that can help my business,” says Mike Mangold, 41, a Ford-Mercury dealer for nearly half his life in Eureka, IL. “I've never seen as many ideas as on this show floor, and I've covered all of the aisles.”

Mangold's upbeat mood reflected that of most dealer attendees. The year 2004 had been profitable for most dealers generally, despite higher-than-usual inventories at GM and Ford stores and a leveling-off of purchase interest caused by lusty incentives.

Keynote speaker Carlos Ghosn, the high-flying Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. CEO who takes over as CEO of parent company Renault SA this month, told the convention that, although auto makers and dealers see things from different perspectives, “we both want to offer car buyers attractive products and services at prices they are willing to pay.”

He says that while most forecasters are predicting fewer sales in 2005 compared to 2004, that's not a belief shared by auto makers:

“We all are planning to sell more cars and trucks this year than we did last year, which could be interesting…For consumers, that could be good news. Competition is a healthy stimulus that forces all to put our best foot forward.”

The best-foot-forward spirit was evident on the convention floor. In some respects, it resembled a fair for new ideas.

Meanwhile, factory-dealer discontent, usually a hot topic at NADA conventions, was almost a non-issue this year for most participants.

Dealer Dan Hay, owner of Jim Burke Ford in Bakersfield, CA, and head of the nationwide Ford dealer council, says auto maker-dealer relations have improved in the last five years.

“We're all kind of using the same words these days,” he says.

But there were some controversies.

John F. Smith, General Motors Corp.'s group vice president-North American sales, service and marketing, was involved in one. Igniting another was Finbarr O'Neill, the new president and CEO of Reynolds & Reynolds Co., an information technology firm for dealership computer systems.

Asked about his reaction to AutoNation Chairman and CEO Mike Jackson's charge of auto maker over-production and over-stocking at dealerships, Smith responded, “AutoNation had let its GM dealers under-perform since acquiring them. UnitedAuto Group, under Roger Penske, has not.”

O'Neill, the former CEO of Hyundai Motor America and Mitsubishi Motors North America, spent much of his first NADA appearance at a news conference as head of Reynolds and Reynolds rapping competitor ADP's product offerings.

His presentation was replete with visuals comparing ADP unfavorably to Reynolds, spiced with comments such as, “ADP likes to say — and God bless them — that they are No.1…No.1 in CRM (customer relationship management)? Well, I don't think so. No.1 in training? Come on guys.”

It reminded some veteran NADA watchers of closing courtroom arguments by an attorney (which O'Neill is).

ADP executives responded coolly. One of them said, “We'll play out the game in the dealer marketplace, where we are beating them.”

All's fair in love, war — and the Big Easy, chuckled convention veteran, Chuck Parker, president of AutomotiveDigest.com.

Here are some convention and exposition firsts:

  • NADA introduced the first dealer-created survey to help resolve customer complaints. Dubbed NADA-24, it consists of systematic follow-up phone surveys of customers, with dealerships getting the results within 24 hours.
  • GM, responding to dealer urgings, said it will make the OnStar safety communications system and Stabili-Trak anti-rollover system standard on all vehicles within the next five years.
  • AmeriCredit announced the first lender-sponsored certification plan, called Advantage, on pre-owned vehicles.
  • The Cobalt Group rolled out the new Site Reporter measuring system for dealer applications.
  • Archrivals ADP and Reynolds & Reynolds each appealed to dealers to upgrade their management systems with ADP's Suite 2500 and R&R's ERA XTR, both designed to make the dealership operations process more profitable and productive.
  • With JM&A and Universal Underwriters as leaders, independent service-contract providers met the challenge of the National Warranty Insurance collapse in 2003 by stepping up their promotions of non-captive lender contracts. JM&A and VW Credit also teamed up in convention displays.
  • Queen Noor of Jordan was the first woman (and first member of royalty) to address the NADA's general session.
  • Time magazine's “dealer of the year” award went for the first time to an Alaskan, Ralph Seekins, a Ford-Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Fairbanks, former head of the Ford National Dealer Council and a state senator.
  • Women dealers staged their first-ever convention breakfast and their third annual workshop on the subject of running dealerships as women, mothers and wives.

Meanwhile, the buzz around the convention was that Marcy Maguire of East Windsor, NJ, the NADA board's eastern women's director, could be headed for the officers' list and ultimately the chairmanship of NADA in the near future.

Maguire is a Nissan and Saturn dealer. If she were to rise to the NADA chairmanship, would become the first woman to do so. Her husband, Robert, is a former chairman.

The NADA event is among New Orlean's top five conventions. Next year, NADA convenes in Orlando, the second time that Florida city has hosted the meeting.