An Interview with Jim Ganther
An Interview with Jim Ganther

James S. Ganther Esq. is the cofounder and president of Mosaic Compliance Services and, in partnership with Gil Van Over, one of the driving forces behind Automotive Compliance Education (ACE) and its certification program, which was offered to attendees of Agent Summit in May.

Agent Entrepreneur sat down with Ganther to discuss the need for compliance education, his scotch-soaked application to Notre Dame Law School, and the inspiration behind the wave of nationalist movements in the U.S. and Europe.

AE: Jim, you’re everywhere these days. You’re writing for Agent Entrepreneur and Auto Dealer Today. You and Gil Van Over are offering ACE certification at Industry Summit, Agent Summit and Compliance Summit. Are you busier now than ever?

Ganther: That is a fair statement. Throughout much of 2016, I had the sense that, the harder I worked, the further behind I fell. That has been cured by the recent hiring of well-known compliance attorney Randy Henrick, late of Dealertrack. That was an incredible blessing for us. Finding a guy that well-qualified is difficult. There aren’t that many out there. He joined us this month and I have been pushing projects onto his plate.

AE: In fact, Randy wrote the cover story for this issue, and it’s terrific.

Ganther: He did a better job than I could have. We are delighted to have him on board. He is one of the three best-known compliance attorneys, up there with Tom Hudson and Terry O’Loughlin. He wrote Dealertrack’s compliance handbook, which has over 200,000 copies in print. I don’t know that 200,000 people have necessarily read it …

AE: It’s a reference.

Ganther: It’s a reference, yes. I’m not waiting for the movie. Having said that, he is very, very accomplished in the dealership compliance space.

AE: You have mentioned that Tom Hudson has been a major influence. How long have you known Tom?

Ganther: I remember taking him and his wife and Michael Benoit out to dinner during one NADA convention, and that was probably 10 years ago. But his influence is hard to miss, and that extends back at least another five years. I credit Tom with creating the term “car law.” He made that a thing. If car law wasn’t a thing, we wouldn’t have the National Association of Dealer Counsel. Car law is now a recognized subspecialty. He is a prolific writer, and that extends his influence. He has great knowledge and experience and a folksy way of conveying it.

AE: Would you say he has influenced your writing as well as your work?

Ganther: I aspire to write that way. I emulate his style. And I aspire to his impact.

AE: How did ACE come about, and why should agents get certified?

Ganther: We wanted to create a certification that would be easily accessible and would keep you current. We also felt it was important to tailor the content to specific job functions within the very broad dealer space. We wanted to reach automotive professionals who work outside the F&I box.

The average store has two or three F&I managers and runs through 48 salespeople a year. Shouldn’t you have compliance training for salespeople? Federal law says you have to have a compliance officer — referred to as a “program coordinator” — so we offer compliance officer certification as well. In addition, ACE offers, or will offer, certifications for sales managers, general managers and automotive compliance specialists. That last certification is tailored to those who support the retail automobile industry from outside the dealership, such as F&I product provider personnel.

And we have updates. You have to recertify every year. The cost for recertification is 10% of the original course. So if you spend $495 to achieve F&I specialist certification, it will cost you $49.50 to recertify. Sales certification costs $95 and recertification costs $9.50. We will reach out in the 11th month and ask you to log in to take the annual update module as well as any modules we have added since you took the test. This year, for example, the used-car buyer’s guide has been changed. The change went into effect in January, meaning it has changed since you were certified at Industry Summit in August.

AE: Why bring it to Agent Summit?

Ganther: I believe everyone in this industry should have a basic working knowledge of the legal framework in which we operate. That includes agents and F&I product providers. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. If you want to get to compliance, training is the surest route.

AE: What was your route to the legal profession?

Ganther: Well, my father said he always knew I was going to be a lawyer.

AE: Was he a lawyer?

Ganther: No, my father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all builders. I worked in the family business for years, every summer. If you want inspiration to stay in school, spend a few summers pouring concrete.

AE: How did your father know you would be a lawyer?

Ganther: He said my nose was always in a book. As a kid, I would rather read than do almost anything, including going outside and playing like normal, well-adjusted children. Law school favors strong writers, and the way to become a good writer is to read good writers.

AE: Stephen King once said you can’t call yourself a writer unless you read four hours a day and write four hours a day.

Ganther: Wow. Well, I also have to work for a living. But law school is perfect for a bookworm with a big mouth. You spend three years reading, writing, thinking and arguing. That’s a really good skillset.

AE: You grew up in the Midwest, correct? Did you always want to go to Notre Dame?

Ganther: Correct, and yes. I grew up behind the Cheddar Curtain in Oshkosh, Wis. Despite now living in Tampa, Fla., I remain a diehard Packer fan. We got a new puppy just before Christmas and named him “Lambeau.”

As for Notre Dame roots, my dad and his brother both went there. I only applied to two schools as an undergrad: Notre Dame and Georgetown — as I tell my Hoya friends, everyone needs a backup school! I got into both and chose Notre Dame. I actually wanted to get into Notre Dame Law School more than I wanted to get into their undergraduate program. It was and remains a Catholic law school, and they take very seriously the moral aspects of the profession. That formed who I became as an attorney and a business owner.

AE: Do you have a moral foundation because you attended Notre Dame, or did you attend Notre Dame because you have a moral foundation?

Ganther: The answer is yes. Many people go to Notre Dame to go to Notre Dame, the prestige, the football games — last year excepted, of course! Others want the Christian tradition. But no matter their motivation, the people you’re surrounded by are very competitive, very sharp people. Iron sharpens iron. And the loyalty of the alumni — the Irish Mafia — is legendary. That loyalty never hurts.

True story: I graduated with a degree in finance in 1984. That was the year following the American intervention in Grenada. In June of 1984, I traveled to Grenada with three other guys to serve as a volunteer teacher. It was from Grenada that I applied to law school. Everything then was done by snail mail, so I asked my father to collect the law school application packets from Notre Dame, Georgetown and three others and mail them to Grenada.

Well, in addition to the applications, he threw in a fifth of Dewar’s White Label scotch. The bottle broke in transit and soaked the papers. They had dried completely, but they still reeked of scotch. I had to roll those pages through a typewriter, complete the forms, put them into envelopes, and send them to the schools.

AE: Did you include a note of explanation?

Ganther: I did not.

AE: As an attorney or as a Catholic, would you consider it improper for an agent to discuss religion with clients in the pursuit of common ground?

Ganther: That’s really up to the client. I would never lead with it. But we’re all made out of whole cloth, and you are who you are. Eventually, even clients will figure that out. I have met clients at church. But I have also been asked, on many occasions, “Jim, can you find me a good Catholic lawyer?” And I always reply, “Do you want a good Catholic or a good lawyer? It’s more important to me that I find you a good lawyer.”

I’m not saying that the Catholicism or the Christianity is not important, but I’m not marketing my faith. We market our technical competence and we operate in a moral fashion.

AE: As long as we’re talking religion, let’s talk politics. In your most recent article for ADT, you discuss President Trump’s Mexico policy and the realities of a border tax. It seems to me that, in the business world, we all used to keep our politics to ourselves, but those doors were blown open by the 2016 election.

Ganther: In that article, I write that people are saying this was the most acrimonious election ever. Not even close. Breathe into a paper bag, people. To quote Aaron Rodgers, “R-E-L-A-X.” But it was an important election cycle, and the significance of the choice we faced makes people want to talk about it.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the term “zeitgeist.” It refers to the spirt of the times. There is a zeitgeist all over the world. And it’s “fissiparous,” another fancy word that comes from “fission,” meaning “the action of breaking apart.” We are living in a fissiparous zeitgeist. Take a look at Brexit. The “Leave” camp won, shocking all the experts, the politicians and the pundits. “Remain” was five or 10 points ahead in the polls. The Remain camp should have won, but it lost. Politicians are always the last to know.

The British wanted their country back. Seventy percent of Britain’s laws were being passed in Brussels. Brexit was the common man’s last chance to vote and say, “I want my country back.” The elites of the European Union have more in common with one another than the people they claim to represent. The Five-Star movement in Italy. The National Front in France. Alternative für Deutschland. All of these nationalist movements are drawing from the same stream.

The average Joe does not believe that the media, the politicians or the corporations have their interests at heart. And, oh, by the way, they tend to be correct. When you are part of the elite, you want to maintain your power and your prerogatives. During primary season, I told anyone who would listen that, if Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, and if he was within five points of Hillary Clinton in the polls on the eve of the election, he would win. It was a repeat of Brexit — a reflection of our fissiparous zeitgeist.

The only group more frightened of Donald Trump than the Democratic Party was the Republican Party. The “Never Trump” movement was a Republican movement. Hillary Clinton was the candidate for the status quo. In the United States, as in Europe, the status quo is at risk. Trump came in as the man the Democrats couldn’t beat and the Republicans can’t control. He came in owing no one. So keep an eye on France’s elections in April and May of this year. If Marine Le Pen wins — and she currently leads in the polls — the European Union will fragment within 24 months. We live in interesting times!

AE: I understand the appeal of an anti-establishment candidate who promises to fight for the common man. But when I picture that person, they don’t look or sound like Donald Trump.

Ganther: Neither did Winston Churchill. Churchill understood the soul of the British population better than anyone. He was a brilliant man, and a scion of the aristocracy. But he had a nearly pitch perfect ear for the common man. For example, he spoke French, but always mispronounced it. That ticked off the French, but it delighted the working man at home.

AE: So Britain got Churchill and we elected Trump. What’s going to happen?

Ganther: A lot less than he promised. For the purposes of the article, I focused on one narrow thing: What can he do in regards to trade with Mexico? And the answer is not much. We haven’t backed out of a trade agreement since the Johnson administration — Andrew Johnson. So we don’t have a lot of jurisprudence or precedent to follow.

Trump arguably has that authority, and arguably does not. If he were to declare the North American Free Trade Agreement null and void, lawsuits would immediately follow. But as a practical matter — as opposed to a strictly legal matter — he can’t do that, nor can he put a 35% tariff on Mexican goods. And the president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, has a reelection coming up. He can’t afford to let it happen without a strong response. He can’t be seen to kowtow to the U.S. It’s a matter of national pride, and that can’t be trifled with.

So what Trump is doing is brilliant. He’s threatening a 35% tariff, which would be mutually assured destruction. But it’s a useful negotiation technique. Scare the crap out of people, and then the compromise seems great by comparison. And Peña Nieto will look like a hero. But Trump is already halfway home. He’s seen as the champion of the unemployed toolmaker. He has achieved his purpose.

The elites should know this. The New York Times shouldn’t be screeching. If I know this stuff, they should know it too. Their histrionics are why nobody believes the mainstream media. And they don’t deserve to be believed. They’ve blurred the lines between reporting and editorial.

AE: Is there an unbiased source out there? Where do you get your news?

Ganther: What I object to is authors who pretend to be unbiased. “All the news that’s fit to print”? That’s not true. They have an agenda. They spin everything. I don’t mind getting my news from people who are open about their bias. I understand where Fox News is coming from. I understand CNN.

Where do I get my news? Stratfor is an open-source intelligence service I subscribe to. Another one is Geopolitical Futures. They look at events from a geopolitical standpoint. How do all these things connect?

AE: How did you choose which type of law to practice?

Ganther: Sometimes the practice chooses you. I graduated law school in 1988. I received a job offer from DLA Piper, which is currently the largest firm in the world. It wasn’t at the time, but it was definitely Big Law. I was set to go into the corporate law department. However, in October 1987, we had what I will kindly refer to as a “market correction.” The stock market tanked, M&A work dried up, and everyone going into corporate had to find a different home.

I was offered a slot in the bonds department, because when stocks go down, bonds go up. I thought I would hate it, but I enjoyed it. I was in that department for a year. Working at that particular level of government financing requires one to be very detail-oriented, and you get to work with big numbers. It was a good way to cut my teeth on the law and it got me involved in the tax code as well.

But then I got engaged. I was in the Baltimore office and I got engaged to a girl from Northern Virginia. She had no desire to move to Baltimore. So I requested a transfer to the Washington, D.C., office, and that was granted. But, again, I had to take what was available, and the government contracts department sounded like the best fit for me. But I had no idea what that meant.

It turned out it’s a business litigation practice that focuses on companies like Boeing or Westinghouse that sell things to the government. It is pretty much entirely governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulation system. So understanding the relationship between federal regulations and companies trying to make a profit was incredibly useful for someone destined for car law.

AE: How did government contracts prepare you for car law?

Ganther: It was the perfect training for a budding car lawyer. It’s a litigation practice that derives heavily from federal regulations. That understanding of a regulatory scheme and how it impacts your clients’ behavior, how to counsel that behavior, and how to defend it when it’s challenged is a tremendous education for what I do now. I could hot have had better training than that.

Now, at this point, I’m still in D.C. I’m a beltway bandit. I was doing well with the law firm, and I loved the work, but I hated the career. I was working seven days a week. I was afraid it was going to cost me my marriage and my relationship with my children. So I announced I was going to leave the firm, and I ultimately moved the family to Tampa.

I had accepted a job in Tampa that looked good, but when I got down here, I quickly discovered the managing partner was unethical. He actually counseled us to double-bill. Uh-uh. So I quit that job and hung my own shingle. That was 1994. I went a year without a paycheck.

AE: With a family? How did you get by?

Ganther: That is a really good question. You get the second mortgage, you drain your savings, you do what you have to do. I was convinced we were doing the right thing, but it also happened to be the hard thing.

AE: Were you successful?

Ganther: We were. At its peak, Ganther & Fee employed five lawyers.

AE: Hold on. You worked with a lawyer named Fee?

Ganther: That’s right. Attorney Fee. We were trying to find another partner named “Outrageous.”

AE: Amazing. And wasn’t that the office that was hit by an airplane?

Ganther: It was, in 2002. It was a Saturday, and I was on a retreat at the St. Leo Monastery, about an hour north of Tampa. Our IT guy was with me. He owned a pager that displayed a headline scroll. I noticed him staring at it. His jaw dropped and his eyes got big, and he read the headline aloud: “Downtown Tampa High-Rise Hit by Aircraft.”

We knew it had to be our building. It was the tallest building in downtown Tampa and thus the biggest target. A troubled teenage boy had stolen a Cessna 172 in St. Petersburg, overflown MacDill Air Force Base — where the U.S. Central Command and Special Operations are headquartered, which had to be incredibly embarrassing for them — and then plowed his aircraft into our building. He was killed instantly.

Now, we took our computer data security very seriously. We didn’t have a cloud or secure server farms back then. We had a series of cassettes. At the end of every day, it was my job to pull out that day’s cassette and put in the next one, so if there were a fire, all our data would be preserved.

The aircraft was fully fueled and the gas went everywhere. And even though it broke through the ceiling grid, even with all those sparks, it didn’t ignite, and the sprinkler system didn’t go off. So our computers weren’t damaged, but I felt extremely virtuous knowing all our firm’s data was in my briefcase.

AE: Indeed. Were you practicing car law at that time?

Ganther: By then, we were doing work for a local F&I agency. One of the things they wanted me to do was help their dealership clients develop compliance programs. I billed the agency for my time, and when that became too expensive, they hired me full-time.

AE: Had something happened to one of their dealers?

Ganther: Yes, but I’m not at liberty to talk about it. I will say that, at that time, we were much more concerned about plaintiffs’ lawyers than regulators. There was no CFPB. Elizabeth Warren was still teaching law at Harvard. The challenge in that environment was, “How do we protect our dealers from becoming low-hanging fruit?”

AE: How long were you with that agency as in-house counsel?

Ganther: About three years. When I left, we wanted to make the transition as smooth as possible. We started telling clients a couple months ahead of time. One client asked if he could refer me to Robert Shimberg, an attorney who had a robust dealership practice. I knew Robert, and he also happened to be a neighbor of mine.

We had lunch. Mosaic was his idea, not mine. We are the cofounders. He needed someone willing to quit his day job to run the thing. He wanted to create a compliance program for which 100% of the content was written by NADC attorneys. We wrote everything and it has been rewritten several times since. Eventually, three years into Mosaic, Robert had to sever ties to devote himself to his law firm; he saw some potential conflicts ahead.

AE: And you kept it going, and now we have ACE certification.

Ganther: Exactly right. And Agent Summit is just around the corner, and I would encourage all agents to take advantage of the certification component. You should never stop learning. I’m 55 years old. I love to read. I love to think. I love to learn. That article I wrote about geopolitics and the car business? I couldn’t have written it 10 years ago. I didn’t understand the topic 10 years ago.

But I kept reading, and now I know how international politics and geography impacts what Trump can do and how what he does will affect the industry I serve. You want to be better for yourself and for your clients. F&I agents get questions. “Whom should I hire? Should I do reinsurance?” If you’re looked to for advice, it might be wise to know something.