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Northwood to Award Marketing Leaders with Automobile Dealer Education Awards

January 15, 2015

Northwood University will recognize seven leading supporters of educational initiatives and learning within the automotive marketing industry with its prestigious Automobile Dealer Education Award during the annual National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) convention in San Francisco. The list of honorees includes dealers from the United States, Germany and the Netherlands.These professionals will receive their honors during a special awards breakfast on Saturday, Jan. 24, 8 a.m., in the Metropolitan Ballroom at the Park Central Hotel San Francisco (formerly The Westin San Francisco Market Street). The dealers are recognized for their individual contributions and efforts to improve education at all levels.

Since 1972, Northwood has recognized individuals in the automotive marketing field who have made noteworthy contributions to public or private education inside or outside of the industry.

“Northwood University established this award to offer a singular mark of recognition for the dealer who makes a worthwhile contribution to education, his or her community, and his or her nation,” notes Keith A. Pretty, president and CEO of Northwood University. “These honorees have devoted immense energy and time to promoting and supporting education in the automotive marketing sector and beyond.”

Auto Dealer Awards

This year’s winners, tapped for their “substantial dedication” over a number of years to the educational process and the field of automotive marketing, include:

  • Sylvia Gerl, Principal, BFC Northeim , Northeim, Niedersachsen, Germany – Gerl began her professional career with BFC (Bundesfachschule), a Federal College of Business, as a professor of economics and marketing. BFC is one of Germany’s premier automotive management schools and is a partner school to Northwood University. Gerl became the director of BFC in 1999, traveling extensively to visit training schools, institutions, dealerships and automotive manufacturers throughout Germany to market the attributes of BFC to potential students. BFC’s partnership with Northwood has resulted in more than 400 students graduating from the Automotive Marketing or International Business Programs on the Michigan and Florida campuses. In 2013, Gerl and the BFC board implement a two-year, distance-study program for an “Automobile Economist” degree. This flexible program allows young people in dealerships who want to advance their education and training but are not able to forgo employment to complete their degree via the distance learning model.
  • Robert M. Kisselback, President, Kisselback Ford, St. Butt, Florida – As president and owner of Kisselback Ford, Kisselback has distinguished himself as one of Ford’s prized dealers. He’s been the recipient of Ford Motor Company’s prestigious President’s Award and Ford’s Salute to Dealers Award, recognizing him as a consecutive-year nominee for outstanding commitment to the community.  His commitment and dedication to education is notable and includes a host of activities supporting a variety of educational programs in his community.  Through the Education Foundation of Osceola County, he established the Kisselback Ford College Scholarship Fund to support local youth who are intent on attending college. Kisselback is also a past member of the foundation board.  In partnership with the Technical Education Center Osceola, Universal Technical Institute and Seminole State College, Kisselback Ford has provided paid part-time on-the-job technician training while the students are enrolled in school.  Four of his current full-time technicians joined the dealership at the conclusion of their schooling. Kisselback also encourages his dealership staff to become active in local schools through the Bookmark Buddy program, which pairs dealership staff with students to serve as mentors; he has committed to make sure his employees receive their normal compensation for their time away from work when volunteering. Additionally, in the past three years, his Drive-4 UR Community program has helped to raise more than $34,000 for two local high schools, for St. Butt youth football and the Education Foundation of Osceola County.
  • James S. O’Connell, President, Jim Koons Automotive Company, Vienna, Virginia – As president of the Koons Automotive Group, O’Connell oversees operations for 17 dealerships in the Mid-Atlantic region representing 25 franchises with 1,700 employees.  Continually striving for perfection, he understands that his staff must receive state of the art information for improving product knowledge, skills training, legal compliance and customer satisfaction strategies. He has entrusted his operations team of senior dealer organization executives to execute in areas of vehicle sales, fixed operations, finance and insurance, business management, technology, and workplace safety. These executives regularly meet at the dealerships with dealer departmental managers for training and update sessions that sometimes involve outside contractor input from such recognized professionals as AutoTrader, Compli, and Kip Prahl Associates. During his tenure serving as a leader on the Washington Area New Car Dealers Association Board of Directors, O’Connell helped launch the Auto Technician Development Program through the Automobile Dealer Education Institute.  The ADEI Technician Development Program recruits, employs and educates aspiring technicians, successfully transforming them into line technicians over the two and a half years of prescribed college training.
  • Paul A. Sabatini, Owner, Lincoln of Troy, Troy, Michigan – Sabatini has been in the auto industry for nearly four decades and has owned Lincoln of Troy for 16 years. His dedication to the industry is evidenced by his leadership as the 2014 president of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association (DADA); vice chairman of the 2015 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS); and past treasurer-secretary and vice president of the association. Sabatini is a member of the Lincoln Dealer Council and the Ford and Lincoln Product Committee and is a recipient of the President’s Award from Ford Motor Company for superior sales and outstanding customer satisfaction. As DADA president, Paul was involved in the Courageous Persuaders Program, a scholarship competition for high school students. The program aims to reduce the statistics related to underage drinking and the tragic accidents they cause.  The competition allows and encourages high school students to create video commercials with messages about the dangers of underage drinking, geared toward middle school students. New this year, the program is inviting students to create videos about the dangers of texting and driving. The commercials are judged by middle school students who select the winner based on the message that is most impactful to them. Winners are awarded scholarship money for classes and/or other amenities.
  • Joseph A. Thelen, Dealer Principal/General Manager, Thelen Auto Group, Bay City, Michigan – A Northwood University alumni, Thelen always has made education a top priority. He actively serves as the Thelen Auto Group representative on the Bay City Schools Automotive Program Body Repair Program, and as a member of the Delta College Automotive Program curriculum committee. In these roles, Thelen helps to keep the curriculums relevant and provides insight on trends that will affect the industry and its future leaders. Under his leadership, Thelen Auto Group also assists the National Automotive Technician Education Foundation (NATEF) teaching accreditation certification for Delta College and the Bay City Schools. Over a period of many years, Thelen Auto Group has provided invaluable experiential learning opportunities for Northwood, Bay City Schools and Delta College students through its internship programs. Thelen Auto Group also has been involved in the Northwood University International Auto Show, a student-organized, three-day, outdoor show displaying more than 600 new vehicles for public viewing on the Northwood University grounds. The company provides guidance and mentorship to countless students as they undertake the production of the show. Each year Thelen Auto Group has generously provided vehicles from its Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Honda, Subaru, Audi and Volkswagen franchises to be displayed throughout the weekend. As a continued commitment to the next generation of leaders, Thelen Auto Group generously provides scholarships to all six local high schools and to Saginaw Valley State University, Delta College and Northwood University. Thelen’s father, Tom Thelen, received the Automobile Dealer Education Award in 2007.
  • Gregory Timmons, President, Timmons Volkswagen Subaru of Long Beach, Long Beach, California – Timmons is a community minded employer who has been actively engaged in developing young talent for a future in the auto industry. He constantly hires technician apprentices through the Cerritos College Automotive Technician Program, where students are partnered with master techs for a hands-on approach to learning the trade. After students complete the rigorous two-year apprentice program, where they alternate between working at the dealership and attending Cerritos College every nine weeks, they earn their associate degrees and are often offered full-time employment working at Timmons family dealership. During his tenure on the board of the Southland Motor Car Dealers Association, the association was instrumental in developing a three-acre automotive training center at Cerritos Community College, where the association now houses its offices. Timmons also was a driving force in VW’s and Subaru’s utilization of the center by both manufacturers to conduct new product training for sales teams and to communicate technical updates to technicians from dealerships across Southern California.  Not only is the center a unique partnership between education and industry, it is home to Northwood University’s Program Center where Timmons’ daughter Natalie is currently earning her Bachelor of Business Administration.
  • Pieter Zeeuw, Managing Director/Owner, Autohaag Zeeuw Group, Delfgauw, The Netherlands – Overseeing 17 locations, Zeeuw leads one of Holland’s largest dealer networks, which consistently been named one of the Top 20 Dealerships in the Netherlands.  Autohaag Zeeuw Group is a family business with an open culture and a transparent structure, allowing management and employees to interact in an atmosphere of learning, collaboration and improvement for all areas of the organization. Zeeuw firmly believes in the power of people to help the organization maintain its outstanding image of customer service and satisfaction. Recently, the organization has undertaken an initiative to train more than 100 members of its staff in the areas of management skills and improvements in commercial clout.  The project, named “AHZ Academy,” is an 18-month program providing employees with a number of workshops and guest speakers designed to qualify employees with the latest techniques utilized in the industry.  Those successfully completing the program receive an EVC Certificate indicating their competency through both formal and experiential learning.

For more information relating to this event, please contact program coordinator Warren Mault, or 989.837.4349. For more information relating to Northwood University, visit, or call 800.622.9000.

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