William Underriner calls dealers optimistic, so that’s the attitude he’s bringing with him as he becomes the new chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association.

Before Underriner officially rises to the position during the NADA Convention & Expo in Las Vegas, the Montana dealer spent time with Auto Remarketing, sharing his thoughts about becoming chairman, how 2011 unfolded and what he hopes to accomplish in the top leadership role this year.

If dealers have been involved in NADA events and programs, Underriner likely is a familiar face. He’s been on the association’s board for 11 years, holding posts as finance chairman, convention chairman and chairman of dealership operations.

“I’ve learned quite a bit about NADA. I think that has prepared me to take on the role of the leader of NADA,” Underriner told Auto Remarketing.

“I look forward to it. I’m very humbled that my peers elected me to this position. It’s something that is just fantastic that I have the opportunity to do work for the NADA and to lead the 17,000 members of our organization,” he continued.

“It’s going to be a great year,” Underriner insisted. “There’s going to be challenges ahead that we don’t even know about that’s going to be coming up. And there’s going to be challenges that we know about. I look forward to it very much.”

Reflections on 2011 and Industry Recovery

Underriner took a breath and collected his thoughts when asked to describe how dealers fared last year.

“It was a quite a roller-coaster ride, actually,” Underriner admitted.

“The first part of the year, the first quarter, things were going seemingly well. Car sales were up,” he recollected. “Then the tsunami hit, and it really threw a curve at all manufacturers. Even the Europeans, the Koreans, the Americans and the Japanese all were affected by the tsunami.”

Underriner also touched on how tornadoes and hurricanes in the South caused issues for automakers and dealers, too. Then just as OEMs began to ramp up production again, the rising NADA chairman mentioned how record flooding in Thailand curtailed manufacturing.

“But dealers are resilient. With all these natural and unnatural disasters; I think we did very well,” Underriner declared.

“Dealers are always optimistic,” he continued to Auto Remarketing. “I think in that respect we came through some very hard times this year —  not only this year, but the last couple of years. I think we’ve weathered the storms very well.

With new-vehicle sales landing slightly above 12.7 million units in 2011, the level continued a steady recovery from recession, automaker bankruptcies and more.

And Underriner contends it’s the bond NADA member dealers have that helped to push through difficult stretches.

“I think NADA has always been tight. But anytime there’s a challenge, we seem to rise to the occasion,” Underriner stated.

“Even after the difficulties we had with bankruptcies and CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) and things of that nature, I think we’re united. I think we’ve always been united, but I think we’ve come together even stronger because of what is happening in our industry. We have to be that way. It’s a better organization for that fact,” he went on to say.

A Dealer Veteran

Underriner started in the auto business back in 1984 and took over the family dealerships in 2001. He currently owns Honda, Hyundai, Buick and Volvo franchises in Billings, Mont.

Underriner admitted the dealer business is quite different than when he started, especially with the advent of the Internet, “which plays a big part in our business.”

He continued with, “It seemed like back when I started, we sold cars and we didn’t have all of these other pressures on us. Today we’re still trying to sell cars, but we’ve got a lot of other pressures on us that didn’t exist back then.”

Beyond what might be available to consumers online, what a dealer can leverage through technology also is more advanced, according to Underriner.

“There are more products out there to sell cars, finance cars, service cars, put parts on cars, all of these other things going on that you didn’t have back then,” he pointed out.

“But it’s a good situation. I think the car business has evolved into a very great business for the fact that we can be transparent and the fact we can do business over the Internet,” Underriner continued. “It’s probably been better for the customer than anyone else, and that’s who really drives our business. In that respect, it’s been great.”

While his NADA responsibilities might occupy a good portion of his time, Underriner still relishes the apex any dealer might enjoy — the point in the showroom when the customers say they will take delivery.

“That’s the most satisfying thing of all — to see the joy on their face whenever they decide to buy a car at our dealership,” Underriner emphasized. “I consider our store a very small store compared to other markets. But the customer is everything.

“I tell all of my employees all of the time, ‘If we don’t have our customers, we don’t have anything.’ We have a lot of repeat business, so I know a lot of our customers. But the sheer fact to be able to help them buy a new car is a great feeling,” he went on to share.

Chairman’s Goals for 2012

When Auto Remarketing asked Underriner about what he hopes to accomplish as NADA chairman, he quickly turned his attention to changing CAFE regulations.

“You know, 2025, you think that’s a long time away, but it really isn’t,” Underriner surmised. “We have to be at 54.5 mpg in 2025. It’s going to take a lot of money. It’s going to take a lot of technology to get to that point. I don’t know if the American public can swallow the increase in the price of a car to make that happen. I don’t think the cars that we’re going to have to build for 2025 are the cars the American public are going to want.”

Underriner based his comments on his own market activity.

“I live in Montana, where 60 percent of the vehicles we sell are trucks. I’m trying to figure out how we’re going to get to that point,” he stated.

“CAFE is really big on my mind,” Underriner added.

Another topic Underriner said will be part of his agenda as chairman is NADA’s ongoing facility study. As some dealers express their ire over factory image programs, the association is investigating how much bang for their buck dealerships actually get from these renovations.

NADA has turned to industry consultant Glenn Mercer to conduct a study, which will attempt to measure how cost-effective these programs are.

As Underriner put it to Auto Remarketing, “Does it make sense to build these new showrooms with a certain kind of tile and a certain kind of color and scheme? As a business sense, does it put more dollars in our pocket? In today’s tight markets, a dealer could have to go out and borrow say a $1 million, and the banker is going to say, ‘what’s the return on the investment?’

“When you say, ‘Well I can’t say it’s going to sell more cars.’ The banker is then going to say, ‘Why am I loaning you this money?’ That’s another big concern,” he acknowledged.

Finally, Underriner stressed he is looking to maintain NADA’s strategic planning initiatives, campaigns he oversaw last year as the association’s vice chairman. Though incoming vice chairman David Westcott will take the lead, it’s still on Underriner’s radar.

“We want to make sure we’re relevant, that we’re doing the type of business our dealers want. We want  to make sure we’re serving all of our dealers — no matter if they’re large or small — and getting the right programs and education to them,” Underriner concluded.