Every now and then you meet someone who simply stands out as an impressive individual who radiates confidence, intelligence, charm, respectfulness and ties it all together with an infectious genuine personality. Don Hall, the CEO of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, for the last 30 years is one of those rare individuals.
I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Don in gathering his response to several automobile related questions and came away with enough detailed information to fill this entire magazine. In the spirit of limiting this piece to a few pages I chose the following interview questions to highlight as Part I of a two-part piece (Part II will be published in an upcoming issue of Dealer magazine). Don’s perspective should hopefully enlighten dealers to encourage their respective State Associations to play a much larger part towards their mission in assisting their dealership community.
Don, walk me through your history, what brought you to VADA, and what benefits VADA renders to the Virginia dealership community.
Right out of the Marine Corp I worked for a bank while attending college. I clearly recognized that I was not well suited for a large corporate environment. I needed an area where I could flourish, and utilize leadership and initiative. The automobile industry provided that opportunity. I went to work with Carter Myers in Richmond, learned the business and did a pretty good job.
We all have a calling in life to do something. Most of us never find it. I found my calling was to work with car dealers. It’s an industry that needs representation and gets painted with a very broad brush about its negatives. It’s a growth industry still affording opportunities to lots of people. In Virginia, there are approximately 30,000 people working in the car business with thousands more indirectly involved. It’s a big business. So, what better way for me to serve the industry? Like being called to the ministry if you will, for me, this is like doing the Lord’s work. It’s a calling I felt. The calling involves smart decision-making and very difficult maneuvering with boards of directors, legislators, lawyers and coming up with the right answers to benefit our dealer community.
The fact is…dealers deserve to have people who care about them representing them. The Associations, if they have the right staffing in place, become the dealers’ lifeline in this business. It’s the one entity that really cares about whether you succeed or fail. It’s the one entity that is going to help dealers in any way possible as long as it is legal, ethical and moral to do what you need done. The Association is a place where you can truly be open because we are here to serve you and never take advantage of the relationship.
Every dealer in America has a responsibility to work with and help grow his or her State Association. As I said earlier, in working together we are a stronger industry. Be a leader because if you don’t then you will end up with whatever happens.
What does the recent presidential election mean to the automobile industry?
Whether you are a Democrat or Republican the lesson that should be acknowledged regarding this past election is that when a group pulls together great things can occur. The facts are that everyone said Trump could never happen and he did happen. Our lesson is if all Dealer Associations across the nation pull together as a team and develop structural changes that will make dealer business better and make for a better consumer experience it will make a difference.
“The reality of our job is not to sit back and tell you what you want to hear to make you feel good or because you can’t handle the truth.”
Congress works for us, the American citizens. Many have lost sight of that and have adopted a “Let me keep my job in government” versus a Warrior Spirit representing the people. They often make decisions that make no sense at all and set regulations way beyond what was originally intended.
It is time for serious leadership not followership. They and we have to bargain from a position of strength. From our standpoint and the dealer community, to protect our business lives as well as all aspects of our lives we have to be emboldened that our voices do matter and it is a time to standup. Better than ever this can happen with a pro business administration coming in.
We have a unique opportunity with this new administration to right the ship and make some major changes to things that are so ridiculous and make no sense. My favorite quote from a fellow marine, General James Mattis, which is tattooed on my arm, is “There is no better friend no worse enemy.” I am willing to risk everything for the people I work for and our government should feel the same.
What would you consider VADA’s biggest challenges to be?
Of course battling Tesla has been consuming a lot of our energy and continues to do so. But I feel another challenge we have is getting mega dealers who are coming into Virginia to understand how beneficial we can be when it comes to VADA’s services we render. We have worked very hard over the years to develop relationships with groups who help us provide the very best offerings. Unlike large brokerage conventional companies who provide similar services, we roll profits back into programs the dealers are not going to have to pay for. I can give dealers things for free that other companies are going to charge you for. We have no shareholder pressure or exorbitant bonuses requiring increasing profits. We cover our overhead to keep things running and pass on the savings to our dealer community through various programs. Recently we had a large dealer tell us he felt we were too small to handle his needs. After some discussion he agreed to at least look at what we could do for him so we submitted a proposal. After a few days he called and said “Oh my gosh, I had no idea of the services you provide and the things you can do.” Needless to say, we got his business. I have dealers all the time tell me they are so impressed by the services we can provide.
Some out of state large dealer groups have told me they don’t see the benefit of joining their association. Here is the problem, the mistake people make is assuming that all associations are alike. We are not all alike. And, I don’t want to be like everyone else. Often times we suffer as an association because of a culture that exists elsewhere. We are different because our mission and culture are well developed and designed to benefit our dealers.
What would you recommend Dealers across the country expect from their State Dealers’ Associations?
One, first and foremost is make sure you hire the right people. Give that executive the opportunity to hire his or her staff and pay them properly. At the end of the day this is what you should expect; A tenacious fighter who is willing to take on any and all issues to protect you and your right to sell and service cars in your respective states. To fight against bureaucrats and others who might try to stand in the way of you having a good experience selling consumers.
Dealers should also expect total honesty from their Association… meaning there will be times where they may tell you things you don’t want to hear. The reality of our job is not to sit back and tell you what you want to hear to make you feel good or because you can’t handle the truth. What dealers expect from me is the truth. What you are paying for is leadership and an Association whose mandate is to protect the consumer and the relationship with the dealer. And, that relationship continues to be strengthened and continues to grow, and to make sure dealers are not left by the wayside as technologies are enhanced so we don’t become dinosaurs. Make sure they remember to keep consumers first.
Over the years I have had many dealers tell me they are just too busy to be involved. I don’t have time. My comment to them is you take time to do many other things because there is much more social attention given to those things or your friends think it’s cool to be on this board or that board. All those things are great but there is only one entity that can impact your life and if you don’t get that then you haven’t been paying attention. I can tell you right now that every state in this country have passed so many laws to make a difference in balancing the manufactures’ and your business to a level playing field. It’s a fact and if you don’t know it you haven’t been paying attention. Dealers have to be an active player in the Association world. If you don’t see the value then get involved and create the value because the many things you take for granted are the direct result of many other people across the Nation working for you behind the scenes. There has never been a more critical time to become involved.
In your opinion, what do dealers feel is their biggest challenge?
People, people and people.
How do you think dealers should target, attract, hire and retain solid employees to head off the roughly 70% industry attrition rate?
The reality is this. Dealers are always looking for people they can hire and retain. And, in my view what better place to look than the veterans who are getting out of the military service? I don’t care what branch of service or what their job was but these are the people you want to seek out. Individuals with a military background are used to a sense of discipline, they understand protocol and loyalty, follow processes, have a work ethic and appreciate an opportunity to provide for their families.
They understand leadership by example. They have seen it in action. When given the chance, they want to give their best. Military people are wired to stay with you for the long-term commitment and fit into a dealer’s culture. They may not have the educational background you are looking for but they can learn anything. These young men and women who served in the military whether or not they served in harm’s way is immaterial need to be looked at. The fact is, they all had responsibilities beyond whatever you can imagine involving people, team work, money, detail, equipment, strategies and danger all at a young age. They have been given responsibilities beyond what normally would be given to a twenty year old. So, they are already ahead of the game. Having said that, they will not work for you unless they know you treat your people well, have a mission statement, a solid culture and have a leadership style in place that’s worthy of following. Dealers also should be considering retiring vets as well due to their tremendous leadership experience.
Our industry should be the number one hallmark place our veterans look to when coming out of the military.
Lack of true leadership principles appears to be a huge roadblock for small to medium size dealerships. What would you recommend as an offset to this staggering problem?
Certainly not all dealers subscribe to this but we see a lot of dealers have a tendency to do this, and it’s a weakness not strength but has been a fact for a long time that dealers hire people who agree with them. I have watched management teams do this year after year and then cover for that owner (i.e. making comments such as Well, that’s not what he meant, this is what he meant). Most managers were 20+ cars a month sales people but when they get promoted into management we all forgot to give them the “leadership” skills, training and tools to become leaders so you end up with a bunch of ‘yes folks’ and nothing gets done properly. The team members don’t grow and as a consequence, the store doesn’t grow.
Chuck, I do like your approach to developing dealerships by introducing them to the principles of leadership first because that is what is really needed in our industry. But this can only happen when you have a dealer who is open to new things, takes in suggestions and is not stuck in 1991.
Thank you Don for sharing your background, and perspective on how dealers can overcome challenges, and can play an active role alongside state associations in creating positive change for their own store as well as the dealership community as a whole.
Stay tuned for Part II of this interview, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Dealer magazine. I’ll share how Don envisions the future developing for the automotive industry, as well as what he believes you can do to differentiate yourself from your competitors (while still adhering to OEM mandates), and much more. In the meantime, both Don and myself welcome your comments and/or questions so please take the time to email me and we will team up to get back with you.
Author: Chuck Barker
CHUCK BARKER is President & Founder of Impact Marketing & Consulting Group, located in Virginia. He has assisted Dealers & Corporations across the country in Sales & Service Development training programs, Management Leadership Workshops and Business Improvement/Analysis Consulting. He is a pioneer in BDC, CRM, Best Processes and Team Member Development since the early ‘90’s. Chuck has held Automobile, Corporate and International Executive positions for over 27 years. Chuck has been a monthly author/contributor for Dealer Magazine for over 11 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.