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Times Great for Auto Students

February 9, 2015

Most of the exhibitors at the National Automobile Dealers Association’s annual convention and expo offer dealer services and products, ranging from computer software to vehicle hoists.

But at a modest booth on the convention floor, Northwood University touts something else: dealer educational programs. It’s been doing that for a while. Many convention attendees are Northwood alumni.

The school founded the nation’s first college program for dealership management, part of the university’s extensive automotive curriculum.

Keith Pretty has been president of the business school for eight years. He oversees a main campus in Midland, MI, a campus in West Palm Beach, FL, and satellite operations nationwide.

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WardsAuto spoke with him on the NADA convention floor in San Francisco.

WardsAuto: A lot of your students are in dealer programs. What trends are you seeing that affect them?

Pretty: Dealerships are growing, and many of them are going through a period where the Baby Boomer leadership is moving towards retirement and actively looking to recruit new leadership.

There are a lot of opportunities. Unlike five years ago, most of our automotive students are graduating with one, two, three, sometimes five job offers.

WardsAuto: During the recession, when the industry saw sales drop and dealership ranks reduced, were students in the automotive programs concerned?

Pretty: Absolutely. Their parents were, too. Parents of students in 2008 and 2009 were telling me, “I still want my child to get a good business education, but I’m afraid of them going into the auto industry.”

With two major auto makers in bankruptcy and dealerships being eliminated, there was a fear back then the auto industry was going to shrink away. And of course, just a few short years later things are rolling. A lot of positives are happening in the industry. Consequently, the job needs are huge.

WardsAuto: So what is the mood of automotive students today?

Pretty: They’re very positive. A few years ago, students would be hearing, “Maybe we can talk down the road; times are tight.” It’s a very different attitude today.

WardsAuto: Northwood students seem particularly poised and polished. Do they come to you like that?

Pretty: That’s a part of all of our students, automotive and non-automotive. We’re a business school. A lot of classes in our curriculum cover how you present yourself and the soft skills you need to succeed in business.

Our students understand that and also that good personal chemistry in a workplace is a job skill.

WardsAuto: Your automotive program has lots of dealer kids who want to join the family business, right?

Pretty: Historically, the program was built around that. It’s different now. We have about 30% or 35% of students from families in the business. But two-thirds are not.

For instance, my two daughters are in the automotive program. One is just a car nut. She’s known since she was a child she wanted to work in the auto industry. She interned last summer with General Motors.

Her twin sister will intern this summer at a large dealership chain in Cleveland. I think both will end up in the auto industry, whether working for a manufacturer or a dealership.

WardsAuto: What do you make of the trend of people like Warren Buffett buying dealerships?

Pretty: Warren doesn’t make many bad investments. He obviously believes franchised dealers will be around for a while and he can make that work well.

We’ll see more of the large dealer groups and fewer small dealers, particularly in urban markets. That trend was under way before Mr. Buffett got into the business.

You’ll see consolidation across the industry, across the board.

WardsAuto: Is that good?

Pretty: Well, you see it in many different industries. I don’t know that it’s bad. I don’t think it will fully replace independent dealers who do their job well with one franchise or one location. Those people can be very effective. It’s not all or nothing.

WardsAuto: What’s the future of the franchise-dealer system?

Pretty: Manufacturers still very much need the franchise system. I wouldn’t be surprised if certain companies try to do things with direct sales, but I don’t know that will overtake what has been a very successful practice for all the parties involved, including the consumer.

WardsAuto: Would you think the franchise system is the way to go for a big automaker like GM but not for a small company like Tesla?

Pretty: There may be a point when part of the industry can operate effectively with direct sales. But I don’t see that as the prevalent sales model in our lifetime.

WardsAuto: Do Northwood kids today differ much from their predecessors?

Pretty: They’re different in that they’ve grown up with technology. It’s been part of their lives from the start. You have to understand that. Dealers need to understand their young customers are like that. That will be the marketplace going forward.

But our students today are every bit as competitive, motivated, prepared and dedicated as earlier generations.

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Are you interested in an automotive education? Northwood University overs business degree programs in many fields, including the automotive and automotive aftermarket fields as well as the North America’s largest outdoor new car show (100% student run)  with over 65 manufacturers and 500 vehicles on display.

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