Glaser, far left, with World War II veteran and retired Elizabeth City, N.C. auto dealer Jewel Davenport, center, in Washington, D.C. for one of the group's Flight of Honor tributes.  -  IMAGE: North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association

Glaser, far left, with World War II veteran and retired Elizabeth City, N.C. auto dealer Jewel Davenport, center, in Washington, D.C. for one of the group's Flight of Honor tributes.

IMAGE: North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association

Bob Glaser plunged into the automotive industry 28 years ago, fresh from a gig as the No. 2 executive at a swimming pool and hot tub trade group, and he never got out of the water.

Until now. He’s retiring.

Part of the North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association’s leadership ever since and president and CEO since 1999, handed over leadership to the group’s legal counsel and executive vice president, John Policastro, on Jan. 1.

As many people observe as the decades pass, Glaser says, “It seems like it was yesterday” that he took the role. Now that it’s today, he’s doing some reflecting on a career he expected to be short but that reeled him in like a good car salesman.

The Cufflinks

An accountant by trade who got into association management when he went to work for a client of his firm, Glaser says he’s glad he got to know former longtime National Automobile Dealers Association president Frank McCarthy early in his career.

Both sat on the board of the American Society of Association Executives – the association of association people, as Glaser puts it – and the green executive “was afraid of the guy” due McCarthy’s stature.

“Everybody knew him,” he recalls.

Then in a board meeting one day, the industry veteran noticed Glaser’s Notre Dame cufflinks. He struck up a conversation with the young executive, and the two Notre Dame alumni hit it off.

About a year later, Glaser heard that NCADA was searching for a new staff head, and he mentioned it to McCarthy.

“That’s a job you might be interested in,” the older man told him.

Glaser, though happy with a good job in Washington, D.C., applied and was called in for further inspection, despite his short resume and being just 34. The NCADA board actually interviewed both him and his wife, Dawn, who was an trade groups event planner, thinking it might get two executives with one search.

Tobacco Road

They got the job. And the Ohio native moved in early 1996 to Raleigh, where Dawn did indeed plan association events. He was the first non-North Carolinian to lead the NCADA since it formed in 1935.

“I never thought I’d be there for more than five or six years,” Glaser admits. But it was actually at about that point of his tenure when McCarthy died after “keeping an eye” on the young executive in his new role, and Glaser had settled in by that time. In fact, he never seriously considered working for another organization.

The association had 725 auto dealers when he took over the leadership, many spread throughout North Carolina’s mostly rural acreage, serving tiny communities still anchored by small farms. Just as with dealerships, there were many more tobacco farms then than now, though it’s easily still the top tobacco-producing state, and that cash-crop wealth has helped drive auto sales.

His transition to both the industry and the South was helped along by chairmen who worked with the group’s board of directors to build members’ trust in him.

“I was so fortunate to have a few great leaders early in my career who gave me great leeway and their support in building my brand.”

One thing McCarthy had emphasized with Glaser, and he should’ve known what he was talking about with his decades at NADA, was that auto dealers “are good people who do good things” and aren’t villains trying rip people off, Glaser says.

He says that perspective proved to be true in his experience. “They’re committed to the customer and the community.”

The OEMs

When he took the job, Glaser maybe didn’t think about the heavy-hitting American brands he’d have to deal with, however indirectly, to lead a group of independent business owners with a highly competitive nature and not a few big egos among them.

With no hesitation, he named keeping ahead of changes between the automakers and the dealers as by far his biggest challenge, since the change is relentless and the changemakers powerful.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he recalls.

The earliest major change Glaser faced blindsided him. Five years into his tenure with the association, Ford unwrapped what it called the Blue Oval certified dealer program that introduced dealer incentives to the industry. The automaker cut the dealer’s margin on sold vehicles, then offered the percentage back, plus more, if the dealer, as Glaser puts it, jumped “through all these hoops.” The North Carolina dealers balked.

“We said at the time, and we’ve been proven to be correct, if you let the factory control the customers and the money, they as good as control the dealership,” he says.

The association, behind Freeman Ford in tiny Liberty, N.C., sued the automaker “because the incentive program was against the (state) law,” Glaser says. It won the case, though it ultimately lost the fight to stop incentives, which became industry standard and the way dealers now make their money.

It decided in the end not to respond to Ford’s appeal of the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles decision. That’s because, in light of the ruling, Ford told its dealers afterward that it wouldn’t send them the checks of up to $200,000 it had promised for meeting incentive requirements. The association, seeing it couldn’t win, decided it had made its point and would play Ford’s game after all.

“We were ahead of the curve but probably a little too far ahead,” Glaser says. “I think they saw the economics of it and that if Ford dealers don’t get it and everybody else does, they would be at a competitive disadvantage.”

Today, brand incentive programs keep dealerships’ look consistent across the country, from the size of the store to the furniture and carpet design.

Other smaller industry changes followed over the decades. Then came one that not only affected car dealerships but virtually all businesses across the world: Covid-19. Glaser says the association’s handling of the life-changer made it more valuable to dealers because it was “at the top of our game,” producing 70 dealer alerts on pandemic updates vital to their business. It also successfully lobbied in four metro areas to have dealers designated essential businesses so they could stay open.

Still not fully recovered from that road bump, dealers then faced automakers’ newly introduced electric-vehicle requirements, which have mandated store upgrades, charger installations and even added electrical utility infrastructure in some cases as brands make plans to switch to all-EV lineups by next decade, though many are now showing signs of slowing the timeline due to flat demand.

The association itself, on board with the transition early on with an “All In” campaign designed to paint the industry as progressive, has also recently repositioned itself as a consumer advocate. Glaser says it’s decided government regulators are trying to push EVs against some people’s will. Meanwhile, the state’s EV sales have gone from half a percent of new-car sales in 2018 to about 5% today, partly because many more models are available.

“The whole EV thing has gone too far too fast,” Glaser says. “We have dealerships in North Carolina that haven’t sold a handful of EVs. We’re all for EVs if the consumer wants them – God bless them, we’ll sell them all day long.”

Overall, Glaser is proud of a group of dealers who don’t swallow whatever their brands deem to feed them or whatever ways regulators try to limit them. And, of course, he’s a fan of the franchise model, which some fret is destined to become obsolete. He says the state has one of the most comprehensive pro-dealer laws in the U.S.

“I think the car dealers do such a good job in state houses across the country,” he says. “They’re all involved legislatively. I think the industry will continue to evolve, but I still see the local car dealer being essential to transportation in this country.”

The Community

Glaser also doesn’t hesitate when asked about the best part of his time in the job.

“This is an easy one,” he says.

Around the turn of the century, when public education was a major state issue, the association started organizing statewide programs to honor segments of its communities, starting with a teacher-of-the-year program that included all the dealers contributing money toward a new car for the winner.

Then it added military programs that had the dealers donating $100 for each car they sold to military branches and the National Guard.

Perhaps its most noteworthy outreach, at least in Glaser’s eyes, was a 2009 program called Flight of Honor that paid to fly more than 800 war veterans to Washington, D.C. for memorial ceremonies and back to Raleigh, the state capitol, with marching bands and other fanfare.

“When you stand in front of the Iwo Jima memorial with a World War II veteran who fought and saw the flag being raised, and he’s telling you about it, you can’t buy that.”

It’s since added a Hometown Heroes program to honor public safety professionals at an awards ceremony led by the state governor.

Change? Yep.

The dealers themselves, despite their differences and competitiveness with each other, have tended to band together as a group and are “very close friends,” Glaser says.

When he took the job, dealer principals, all men at the time, would meet each year to drink and play golf. Over time, women started to lead dealerships, and the annual get-togethers became family affairs, with children and grandchildren getting acquainted before entering the business.

Four women have since chaired the association, including current Chairwoman Alycia Kellum of Don Williamson Nissan in Jacksonville, a city that’s produced five association chairs, plus one NADA chair and two TIME dealers of the year. In fact, he said North Carolina has had more NADA chairs than any other state throughout most of the national organization’s history.

Also, despite the stereotype of a business owner loathe to change, auto dealers are highly adaptable, Glaser says.

“They don’t change their bank account, their computer, their F&I provider, but as far as changing business practice to meet consumer demand, they’ll change in a heartbeat.”

Tomorrow

When interviewed about his career, Glaser dropped the words lucky and fortunate multiple times to illustrate how many turns he ended up in the right place at the right time. His longevity alone would seem to make a strong statement about his experience.

Nevertheless, life affords more than work, and nearing the traditional U.S. retirement age, he decided to invest in other things. The youngest of seven children, the others already retired, he asked one brother if he would’ve retired two years earlier if he could go back in time. The answer was an unequivocal yes.

“My wife and I have got a lot of places we want to go together,” he says. And there are in-laws they’re caring for and grandchildren they’re spoiling.

Glaser expresses confidence in his successor, who he says has been his right hand for 18 years.

“The dealers as a whole have the upmost respect and confidence he’ll do fine,” he says. And Kellum says Policastro will build on the “strong foundation that Bob has built.”

Today, the group has about 580 dealer members, down 20% since he came on board due to industry consolidation, especially during the 2007-09 recession, and younger generations of dealership families choosing other paths. Today’s cohesive membership gives Glaser confidence in a bright industry future.

“I’ve had the privilege to work with the greatest businesspeople in America.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Mitchell is executive editor of Auto Dealer Today. A former daily newspaper journalist, her first car was a hand-me-down Chevrolet Nova.

 

 

Originally posted on Auto Dealer Today

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