ST. LOUIS — St. Louis became the gateway to the nonprime auto financing industry earlier this month when executives working the gamut of the credit spectrum all descended on the city to share experiences and network. Their particular focus was the nonprime marketplace.

The recent National Auto Finance Association's 11th Annual Non-Prime Auto Finance Conference featured experts covering a variety of topics, such as the Hispanic market, underwriting, a rating perspective of the nonprime market, legal compliance and much more.

SubPrime Auto Finance News was on hand at the event to offer a look at the plethora of information shared at the conference.

During the opening remarks, Jack Tracey, executive director of the association, welcomed all conference attendees and touched on some trends he's seen impact the group's members and the industry over the past year.

One of the first topics he discussed was the bottom dropping out of the subprime mortgage sector and the view of some industry watchers that it could occur in the auto financing market.

"We went through improper underwriting about 10 years ago," he pointed out, noting that the auto industry has already corrected itself and learned from past mistakes.

However Tracey did point out his concern that as the cost of older inventory increases, nonprime lenders will continue extending loan terms to offset the higher cost.

"We fill the day and a half with presentations designed to appeal to our finance company and dealer members and the room stays full, which tells us we are on the right track," Tracey said.

"We had 22 new member (companies) join the association over the past year," he reported. Moreover, he said the number of survey responses for the 2007 Nonprime Automotive Financing Survey came in at a record level.

Discussing the nonprime industry survey later in the conference, George Halloran, of BenchMark Consulting International, which compiles the results, pointed out that 27 companies responded to questions.

Among the preliminary findings, he reinforced Tracey's concern regarding loan terms by reporting that trend toward longer contracts has continued.

Halloran also highlighted that the decision time on auto loans has lessened, with 25 percent of decisions made in less than 10 minutes. According to the NAF Association, the complete survey results will be released this summer.

Kicking off the nonprime conference with the keynote speech was the host of the weekly CBS radio show called "Auto Scoop."

Radio personality Adam Goldfein quickly pointed out to attendees that the Internet has "flipped the car-buying process on its head."

In past years, he noted that consumers generally would take months to decide on a vehicle; however, thanks to the Internet, consumers now have more resources than ever to research and get their credit scores.

Today, consumers are usually ready to purchase in about a month or two. When it comes to consumers with nonprime credit, Goldfein reiterated what many in the industry know: Purchasing a car is more a need than a want or desire to stay with current trends.

"The Web is not barred from people who are not prime," he told the audience. "And there is tremendous difference between finance companies who work in prime and nonprime."

Many consumers with subprime credit are falling into the trap of thinking what they've learned on the Internet works for them, he explained. However, many sites are more geared for folks with prime or near prime credit.

"I challenge finance companies to bring consumers more information on nonprime," he told conference attendees. "Think about focusing tools for the consumer. Why do banks not have the retail cache that insurance companies have? Brand yourself on the retail level as well as the wholesale level."

He went on to challenge financial institution representatives in the audience to think outside of the box to build their brand.

"Consumers tend to think they have a three-day right to return a car," he stated. "Why isn't there that right? Why is the credit union the choice? Why aren't you the choice? Who will do the deals in bankruptcy? Who will deal with repossessions (on a consumer's credit history)?

"Do you have rate limitations? Make people feel like they're getting a better rate," he stressed. "Think about creating a brand."

Later that day, when launching into his presentation on the Hispanic market, Juan Faura, president, chief executive officer and founder of Cultura, introduced himself by saying, "I am a marketing and advertising guy."

Faura asked attendees questions such as, "Do you accept non-traditional forms of identification? Are you willing to lend to Hispanics without a FICO score?"

He pointed out that a few of the cities with the biggest Latino populations include Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago and Houston.

Another important thing to keep in mind when marketing to Hispanics in various regions is their country of origin, or country their relatives are from, Faura noted.

For example, Latinos prevalent in the South West, such as California, are typically of Mexican descent. Whereas, in Chicago, Hispanics tend more likely to be of Mexican or Puerto Rican heritage, he explained. Miami, of course, is primarily a Cuban town.

Fuara also said that "Many Hispanics prefer to function in Spanish but will watch "Desperate Housewives" or "Dancing with the Stars." They do this because of content. There is nothing like it available in Spanish."

For the Latino population, trust is the key, he said. They prefer face to face interactions, he added.

"They want you to understand their situation is a little different, but that they will pay you back," Fuara said.

In the member meeting, the NAF Association also elected new officers and board members.

New NAF Association Officers:

Chairman: Paul Snider, CIQ/VOISYS

President: Dan Leonard, Triad Financial Corp.

President Elect: Bill Jones, Regional Acceptance

Secretary: Marguerite Watanabe, Connections Insights

Treasurer: Jim Bass, Driversselect

New Full Board Members:

Annette Girmus/Orford, Phoenix Capital Management

Todd Gunderson, Wells Fargo Auto

Bill Jones, Regional Acceptance

New Associate Member:

Stan Schwartz, PassTime

In the evening, executives and experts all gathered in the packed exhibit hall to share business cards and learn about new technology that can help their business and more.

A large number of conference participants even joined together to attend a Cardinals Game at the local Busch Stadium.

Editor's Note: To learn the complete results of the annual nonprime survey and hear more from the NAF Association, please stay tuned to SubPrime Auto Finance News.