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Jared Hamilton
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Tuesday's MPG event at Proud Bird at LAX was another great session. While we're typically greeting marketers, OEM executives and industry suppliers, this was a great departure and informative (if not inspiring!). Charlie Vogelheim moderated the panel and the room finished the day with great questions. In between, it was all perspective, passion, personality and even a little bit of 'personal'.

Enter Jon Gray (Orange Coast Jeep Chrysler Dodge), Peter Hoffman (Sierra Automotive Group) and Beau Boeckmann (Galpin Motors). OK, there were three domestic dealerships on the panel so you could say the 'bend' was deserved. That being said, dealership owners I've met have all spoken the same way regardless if they were a domestic or import store owner. Fact is these guys know the business and definitely from a perspective rarely caught in the 'media' headlines after networks and publishers are done devouring the OEM stories.

The three principals were asked about everything from the cost to sell a car, how long they've been in business, how many employees they have, involvement with charities...to their take on government involvement in the automotive industry, specifically GM and Chrysler (with the two dealers speaking about being 'in the clear' of store terminations...for now).

One of the most interesting answers the panel gave was in regards to the impact of the Internet on car sales. All were in agreement that our favorite technology has added cost to dealership sales operations, not decreased, while acknowledging that the transparency has provided some significant advantages to their business.

As expected, the most pointed comments were about Washington's takeover of GM and Chrysler (let's say Fiasler since the Fiat purchase is complete as of this morning) and Ford's ability to stay out of the Cirque d' AutoBiz. They spoke of close friends and associates being on the short end of the decision stick.

Reflecting on how auto retail has changed, Boeckmann talked about how attrition in their local market area over the past years has taken the Ford dealership count from 9 to 3. Hoffman related the story of Oldsmobile's unwind a few years ago and how different it is this time around. Gray talked about how disconnected the factory reps are from the reality of dealership business. Both Hoffman and Boeckmann talked about Saturn's new life, albeit from polar opposites: Galpin still has their Saturn franchise while Sierra sold theirs. They both hope for the best with Penske's purchase of the brand.

Boeckmann provided a unique perspective in being a retailer that has a very close relationship with headquarters, even getting to have input on future cars. Mostly, the three businessmen related how hard it is to get both consumers and manufacturers to think of dealerships in a positive light.  All three are obviously passionate about what they do and provide to their communities, and very likely more so today. Even if most dealerships today are in defense mode, these three seem to have a forward-thinking perspective that is completely refreshing backed by the fact that none are throwing in the towel anytime soon.

These retailers don't have golden parachutes, multi-million (or billion) dollar bailout packages, rarely get to sell cars for the same price every time (as the factories do), and  are searching for the logic behind the banks over-reactive pull back (and well as the search for loans so consumers can buy cars). Having seen a handful of dealerships speaking on panels over the past four years, it is clear that it needs to happen much, much more. Kudos to the Motor Press Guild for having the three fine retailers in for a dose of reality (and even a little bit of business and political conjecture).

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