Glenwood’s Carlson riding auto industry’s high
June 26, 2016
Ask Jeff Carlson if Americans still have a love affair with the automobile, and, walking through his Glenwood Springs Ford lot, he says, "Wait'll you see this."
Amid the SUVs and F-series pickups — the country's longtime bestselling vehicle — he locates a gleaming yellow Mustang Shelby GT 350. With black racing stripes.
He hops inside, turns the key and enjoys the throaty, all-American rumble, and you imagine flying down the open road or turning heads on an urban boulevard.
It's an indirect answer, but it also leaves little doubt.
It also makes clear that Carlson found the right line of work after coming to Glenwood Springs in 1979 as sales manager at the Ford dealership. He had been working for Ford Motor Co. and faced the prospect of frequent relocations. As a Coloradan (from Greeley with a degree from the University of Northern Colorado), settling on the Western Slope had great appeal.
Now, as president of Glenwood Springs Ford, Glenwood Springs Subaru and Summit Ford in Silverthorne, he's halfway through his year as chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association. NADA represents new-car dealers before Congress, federal agencies, the media and the public. It provides education and support for its 16,000 member dealerships, which have 1.3 million employees.
Carlson is traveling a great deal this year, speaking with dealer associations and home and abroad, including a recent appearance in Italy.
"It's a lot of fun," he said in a recent interview in his West Glenwood office.
His chairmanship comes at a great time for auto dealers, with 2015 sales of new light vehicles hitting a record 17.47 million just six years after the recession sent General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy. Ford avoided joining its domestic peers in bankruptcy court by mortgaging most of its assets to borrow $20 billion in 2006, as the industry started a tailspin.
Carlson said he believes the auto manufacturers, who have a history of riding economic cycles and periodic complacency, learned their lesson through the 2008-09 crisis. "They became serious and remain serious" about being disciplined, Carlson said.
The rebound in sales doesn't make this a great time just for dealers, he noted.
"Between historically low interest rates and low gas prices it's awesome for the consumer," he said. "There's never been a better time for the consumer."
Part of that has to do with the quality of vehicles today, which last longer and have fewer defects than ever.
"Safety performance has never been better," Carlson said, "and it improves every year."
In fact, consumers are hanging onto their vehicles on average for more than 11 years — two years longer than just a decade ago, according to IHS Automotive.
"Cars today have more features and break down less often than ever before," said Mark Phelan, auto reviewer for the Detroit Free Press. "Mechanical failings that used to be common, like oil leaks, overheating and failure to start have become quite rare.
"Today, customers are most likely to report difficulties tuning the radio or pairing their phone to the car's voice recognition system," Phelan said. "That's a far cry from when most people woke up on cold mornings wondering if their car would start."
Still, noted Free Press auto writer Brent Snavely, high-profile recalls in recent years — GM's ignition switch scandal, dangerous Takata airbags and more — have put the industry in the spotlight, spurred congressional hearings and ushered in a tougher regulatory environment that led record numbers of vehicles recalled.
Regarding recalls, Carlson said, "dealers are the solution" when consumers need a defect fixed.
"We are the face of the brand," he said. Consumers ask "who can I trust? Who is this guy in the community?" He said NADA data show that 90 percent of people who come to dealerships report a positive experience and 6 percent were neutral, so he feels auto dealers are doing well in terms of image.
It actually helps, Carlson said, that prospective buyers can research autos on the internet before coming to a dealership, creating a "transparency of the market."
FUTURE OF AUTOS
Much was written in recent years about young people shunning cars, shifting to urban life, mass transit, bicycles and the sharing economy with services such as ZipCar and Uber.
But "kids are coming back with a vengeance," Carlson said. The numbers back him up; during 2015's record sales, Millennials bought 4 million new vehicles, second only to baby boomers. In Glenwood Springs, Carlson said, they are behaving like traditional buyers, choosing pickup trucks and SUVs.
What about electric cars?
"We'd love to sell people electric cars," Carlson said, putting an EV education guide on his desk that NADA prepared for dealerships. "They were popular when gas was $4 a gallon. Today, not so much.
"The consumer will tell us" the future of EVs, he said, as manufacturers work on easing "range anxiety" and improving battery charging times.
This year's leader of the nation's auto dealers won't make a prediction about what vehicles will be tooling down Interstate 70 outside his dealerships in 20 years.
"Twenty years ago, the smartphone was science fiction," he said. The day of the interview, he read that Nissan had developed an ethanol fuel cell to generate electricity for vehicles' drivetrain.
"The black swan is hydrogen," Carlson said.
He joked that he hopes autonomous vehicles are deployed "by the time my kids come to take my keys, so I can go to my smartphone and say, 'pick me up'" through a self-driving car's app.
Back to the present.
When a guy runs car dealerships with a few million dollars worth of vehicles on the lots, what does he drive?
Carlson has many options, including a Subaru hybrid that would be the ride of choice for, say, a trip to the Denver airport. His 2005 Ford Excursion diesel is perfect for kicking around with his dogs, one of which has been his office partner for 12 years.
Then there's that yellow Shelby GT.
"I couldn't resist," Carlson said. He bought it for himself before a customer could snatch it up. "Want to go for a ride?" he asks.