How Dealers can Better Engage with their Local Legislators – Don Hall, President of VADA


On today’s show, we welcome back Don Hall, President and CEO of VADA, the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association. In this segment, Don and Jim discuss some things that today’s dealer needs to consider in this era of electronic communications, how dealers should engage with their legislators, and the importance of influence.

Related: How Retail Auto Needs to Change in Order to Attract Top Tier Talent – Don Hall, VADA


Jim Fitzpatrick: Hi everyone. Jim Fitzpatrick with CBT News. Thanks so much for joining me today. We’ve got with us today a special guest, a good friend of mine, Mr. Don Hall, who’s president and CEO of VADA, Virginia Automobile Dealers Association. If you have been in the auto industry any longer than a week, you know this face, you know this man, because he is one of the good guys in the industry fighting the good fight every day, not just for the Virginia auto dealers association, but I think everybody that owns a new car franchise. Thanks very much Don for joining us on the show.

Don Hall: Jim, thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you and your viewers today, and hopefully, I’ll give you a message that might resonate and make a little difference in their lives.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Don, talk to us a little bit about your retail background. I mean, you’re one of the few association presidents out there that spent some time on the showroom floor and ran dealerships. Talk to us about that.

Don Hall: Jim, I really appreciate the question, and I’m blessed to have spent 40 years of my life working for auto dealers throughout the Southeast. I’ve been at my current position here at the Virginia Auto Dealers Association for the last 32 years, and eight years in the retail car business, I was an FNI manager, a sales manager, a new car manager. I was a general manager. You name it, I’ve done it and seen it. Today, I want to give a message that I hope will resonate with those individuals who are committed professionals, like yourself and myself, to this auto industry that might help us do a better job.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Sure. And so let’s kind of drill right down on that. What … I know that you’re passionate about getting fellow dealers involved, to get them up off sitting on the hands and to kind of get involved with events and things that are happening. Talk to us about that.

Don Hall: Jim, I’m reminded as a young man, years ago I had my mentor in the business, Carter Myers, make a comment to me, “You can’t make a difference in life unless you’re on the field of battle, the field of play,” and so my message today is to all of your listeners, in order to make a difference, you’ve got to get engaged in the fight. And the fact of the matter is, our industry is under attack. There’s lots going on. I recently had a, what we call the dealer day on the Hill here in Richmond, Virginia, and I’m sure all state association do this nationwide. The reality is, we ought to have, as I see the credit unions and the bankers and others, busloads of people come in. This day and age, it’s hard to engage people from dealerships. Owners are oftentimes absentees. Managers are too busy. They don’t want to send somebody out of the store. Our industry is under attack. Our way of life is changing, and part of the reason it’s changing is because we’re not engaged in the fight. Your associations alone cannot do this. It requires dealer, senior management involvement in what’s going on around you.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Absolutely. When you talk about change that we’ve seen and we have, and I agree with you, I think we are under attack and we’ve got to protect what is ours. Talk to us about some of those. What … Some of those disruptors out there and some of the things that you see on the landscape that threaten a dealer’s way of life so to speak.

Don Hall: Well, the big question I get so often is how are we going to … Don, how are we going to stop these disruptors? How are we going to stop Tesla from doing what it’s doing or Carvana or whomever it might be, for whatever they’re doing, and the reality is, we, your association staff, are not going to stop anybody. Oh, we’ve got great intent, we’ve got great staff, we work our tails off. This last week, I can tell you that me and my two lawyers here at the association have worked on average 12 and a half to 13 hour days every single day, but you can’t accomplish the mission without dealer involvement. And we’ve gotten lazy, we’ve gotten comfortable, and the truth of matter is, we just letting the other guys and gals handle it instead of being engaged in the process. Long ago, the parents, grandparents, grandmothers, fathers, brothers, were involved. Today’s generation, not so much, too busy, too much going on, don’t like politics, don’t like this, don’t like that. And the reality is, legislatures across the nation, including in Washington D.C., are changing, dramatically. If we’re not a force to be reckoned with, that I will tell you, every disruptor that you may not like today, there’ll be even more, because the laws of our country, the laws of our states will not protect us unless you are engaged as senior managers committed as professionals and as owner operators of these stores.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Yeah, that’s for sure, because these companies aren’t going anywhere, right? They’re here for the long haul. And I remember 25 years ago when CarMax came into the scene and everyone … All the dealers that surrounded CarMax location said, “I’ll give it six months or a year and they’ll be out of here. You can’t sell cars based on one price from people that are inexperienced in the industry.” And here we are 25 plus years later and they’re the number one used car retailer in the country and have been. What are some of the takeaways that you think that we can learn from some of these companies that are out there, like Carvana, delivering vehicles directly to consumers front doors?

Don Hall: Well, as an example, let me talk about CarMax for a brief moment. They actually started here in Richmond, Virginia a long time ago and I remember very well dealing with them and dealers being not really concerned about their business model. Frankly today, they’re incredible partners in the auto industry. They’re very good at what they do.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Yeah.

Don Hall: We work with them hand in glove. They are a wonderful organization. We’re very happy about that and for them. I think the bigger message that I want to convey is this, it’s not so much about stopping disruptors. They’re here and they’re here to stay and they’re going to be here. The problem is that you as dealers and senior managers are not telling your story. We can say whatever we want to legislators about your life and what you do in the communities, but the reality is, you, the individual by giving up your time and traveling to your state capitals and to Washington D.C., where NADA calls you, you’re the ones that give great credibility, you put a face on the story and you have the lives at stake at work within your organizations.

Don Hall: My concern is after having been in this role for 32 plus years now, is that dealers are getting less and less engaged, not involved, and always saying, “Let the other guy or gal handle that. I’m not.” We’ve all heard the rule of 80/20, 20% of the people do everything for the other 80%. In the auto industry, Jim, I’m sad to say, the rule now is become 90 and 10. 10% carry the weight and 90% don’t. And I’m telling you, ladies and gentlemen, with 40 years experience, I’m telling you that if you don’t get engaged in the process, then you deserve whatever you get from Washington D.C., from Richmond, Virginia, or any other state Capitol in this great nation.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Yeah, it’s all about getting involved, right? I mean, these dealers and nationwide that have these franchises, the industry is changing at a very fast pace, and if they don’t, not only keep up with it, but also claim their turf and be there and be present, they’re going to be in trouble.

Don Hall: Jim, look … I, as you do, we’re both from a retail background. That’s who we are as human beings. We love this industry with all our heart. We know that there’s a lot of pressure on profitability, there’s a lot of pressure on your time constraints and everything else. This is a part of your business that you cannot afford to delegate to your association staffs.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Right.

Don Hall: You need to direct them and guide them, but then you’ve got to be involved with them in order to carry that message. And again, when I dealt with many of the mothers and fathers of today’s dealers, they were engaged. They knew their politicians. They were well known in their communities. Today, I’ve got dealers who text, they email, things of that sort, but they’re not engaged. Nobody knows who they are. And they tend not to be involved in things in the way their parents or grandparents were, and this is a negative for our industry and it hurts when we tell our story about the wonderful things that we do for people throughout the country.

Jim Fitzpatrick: That’s right. That’s right. And I think in large part, dealers had a lot to do, and helped the USMCA getting finished, right?

Don Hall: Absolutely. And that’s an example, when we pull together, we can prevail. I will tell you, as a young marine longer ago, I learned a lot of things about tactics and battlefield tactics and so forth, and it’s about that team pulling together and everyone carrying out the responsibility. Ladies and gentlemen, as committed professionals in this industry, you have a responsibility to pull together with your associations. If you don’t like the leadership of your association, then get elected to serve on those boards.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Right.

Don Hall: If the people running your associations aren’t competent or qualified, then replace them and get people that are competent and qualified. But this is your mechanism and you’ve got to be engaged in this fight. We had a gentleman who worked here for 30 years. I had the privilege of working with them as a young man here long ago, David Paul Hurdle. David was a World War II veteran, shot down in World War II, was in a Nazi prison of war camp as a young man.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Wow.

Don Hall: David used to say to me all the time, he’d say, “Don, who pulls if we all ride?” Ladies and gentlemen, we have got to be pullers, not riders. It’s time to get up, it’s time to get engaged, it’s time to get involved. Take ownership on a national level what’s going on, take ownership on a state level, what’s going on. If you do not, then you deserve whatever you get, and I will tell you, as one who’s been in the political environment for over 30 years, what you’re going to get today, you’re not going to like. Get engaged and get involved.

Jim Fitzpatrick: That’s right. That’s right. That’s a very strong message and one that’s very timely. Let me switch gears a little bit and talk about the VADA. You guys are doing some great things. What were some of the wins for the association in 2019?

Don Hall: Well, we’ve had a number of things that we’ve done here. We’re unique in that we actually have a very large business as well. We provide a lot of insurance, things of that sort for our dealers. But I think the biggest thing we did is we continue to add to and protect the franchise laws, but again, as you and I have talked offline, that alone is not going to stop, nor should it stop today’s folks entering in our business, these disruptors.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Right.

Don Hall: At the end of the day, we’ve got to have a story that we can tell people about why we’re good at what we do and why, as dealers, you’ll want the franchise system intact and why it is the best place to buy a car, it is the safest place to buy a car, and you’ll have the best experience. And that’s a message we’ve got to really work on in 2020. I will tell you in Virginia, as an example, we have safety inspections in the states. Most states do not. We believe, as does the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as well as the Commonwealth of Virginia, that safety inspections are important. I’ve got legislators that are telling us why they’re not good for consumers, why they’re bad for consumers, and the reality is, the facts are the opposite of that. It takes dealers to get engaged to tell those stories. It takes fixed operations directors to get engaged and to tell those stories.

Don Hall: At the end of the day, the successes that this association has enjoyed is because we have a very active dealer group, because we don’t allow people to be inactive, not to be involved in our leadership and your state should do the same. Again, let’s elect people who care, both in our elected offices, but also on our boards that serve these associations, whether it be NADA or here. This is not a good old boy or good old girl network. It’s about getting things done and making sure that we have a user history that has been as good as they passed a hundred plus years in this history of the auto industry.

Jim Fitzpatrick: No question about it. Talk to us about what some of the big items are on your agenda for 2020.

Don Hall: Jim, one of my big items, if you will, for 2020, and you’re a partner with me in this, is talking about the future of our business and what we ought to be looking at and considering. Because we do a tremendous amount of insurance in our operations, we’ve had the opportunity to look at how we take care of employees and dealerships. And frankly, when you measure how we take care of our employees versus other industries, we do a very poor, poor job.

Jim Fitzpatrick: You think?

Don Hall: Ladies and gentlemen, if we’re going to be around for the next hundred years, if we’re going to compete with these disruptors who will never go away, no matter what laws you pass, then we’ve got to make sure that the customer has an incredible buying experience, and it has to start with how we treat our people and how we take care of them. And we’re going to be spending 2020 talking about that a lot. How do we take care of people? How do we make sure that young people want to be in our business, that this really is a career, that you and I have both enjoyed long careers as history for a reason? Because it’s a great place to be, and so our message in ’20 is it is indeed a great place. Let’s attract the best. Let’s make sure retain the best and make sure, most importantly, our customers have the most outstanding experience they could ever wish for, beyond any disruptor, pulling up with a rollback and a pair of cutoff shorts and tennis shoes, delivering a car at your home. We are a better place to buy cars. That has to be our message and that has to be our goal to make sure our staff are really taken care of in a very positive way.

Jim Fitzpatrick: And no one better to deliver that message than Don Hall, president and CEO of the VADA. I want to thank you so much for joining us on the show today. Your message is always very clear and to the point, and I appreciate that very much and I’m proud to be partnering with you guys to have these series and have these discussions to talk about some of the pain points in the dealership, some of the things that we need to change, some of the things that we need to hold a mirror up to ourselves to look at and say, “How can we be better in the industry to recruit, hire, and train better people and keep them longer?” And I’m really looking forward to that series here in 2020.

Don Hall: Jim, thank you. And once again, ladies and gentlemen, get up, get engaged, make a difference. Your life, your livelihood, and your families depend upon it.

Jim Fitzpatrick: There you go. I couldn’t have said it better. Don Hall. Thanks so much.

Don Hall: Thank you.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Thanks.