Ron Smith decided to roll the dice in 2001.
It wasn’t long after 9/11, and the aftermath of the attacks was having a big impact on the business travel industry.
Hotels were facing cancellations, and many companies were averse to business travel at that point, Smith said.
So, Smith, the founder of Auto Remarketing and its parent company, S&A Cherokee, talked it over with his lieutenant, Bill Zadeits.
They decided to take a chance and bring the company’s then upstart event, now known as the National Remarketing Conference, to the Bellagio in Las Vegas later that upcoming winter.
Smith and Zadeits booked a keynote speaker, Jeff Heichel, who led used-car activities at General Motors, and began planning for a conference in February 2002, which was just six months away.
Having personally guaranteed the finances, it was a gamble, for sure, but one that ultimately paid off, Smith said.
“We would be losing money and lose our houses and everything if only 50 people showed up,” he said. “We ended up with over 400. And that changed the whole paradigm of the NRC … it changed it a lot, and we never looked back from there.”
The event is now celebrating its 20th anniversary with the 2019 installment of the conference, which is part of Used Car Week, being held Nov. 11-15 at Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa in Las Vegas.
Smith, who is retired but remains part of the company’s management team, has passed the NRC reigns to Zadeits, president of Cherokee Media Group (CMG) and group publisher of Auto Remarketing, and Marilu McQuilkin, CMG’s senior director of events and marketing.
Zadeits was at the first installment of what is now NRC, which took place in 1999 at a resort on Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz. At that time, the term “certification” was a major theme and new buzzword in the used-car industry.
Of course, many knew the term from the retail standpoint, referring to the certified pre-owned car programs that had emerged and gained steam in the 1990s.
“But there was a lot of interest on certification and standards in the wholesale marketplace,” Zadeits said. “And so that group in Scottsdale back in 1999 was really focused on (answering), ‘What kind of certification standards do we need in the wholesale market? How does that translate to retail? What are those standards? How do we measure them? Is there an independent source that creates these certification standards? Is it done by company, within the auction lanes?’”
There were roughly 100 people at the inaugural event, Zadeits estimates.
He said it was a “great start” that “really set the tone for what we would be able to build on as we moved forward.”
To put it in football parlance often used by Zadeits, it was a team scoring a touchdown on an opening drive. Of a four-quarter game. In a season that keeps going and going.
Digitalization changes industry, NRC
And if Zadeits is the coach of that team, then McQuilkin is the tenured quarterback, having led event-planning at the company a dozen years.
Both she and Zadeits have seen the wholesale used-car industry go increasingly digital in recent years, and that impacts the topics that are discussed at NRC.
McQuilkin recalls a recent interview on the Golic & Wingo radio show with the founder of the Alliance of American Football, which just began play, that touched on how the new league and the NFL can complement each other, rather than competing.
“And to me, throughout that interview I heard a lot of similarities and a lot of parallels to the digital and physical auction (markets) and that transformation that they’re experiencing right now,” she said.
The radio interview looked at how the two leagues can utilize resources, “so that the two can work off of each other as opposed to compete with each other,” McQuilkin said.
“And that’s the nice thing, I think, about the live events is that at an event like the NRC, we have all of that content in one place, from both sides. So that those two different groups, those two different families, can meet; they can interact with each other; they can sit and talk about ways that they can work through the evolution, revolution ... of this digital transformation,” she said.
“At the end of the day, a car itself is a physical piece of inventory. A car is never going to be sent up into a cloud and then sent to a person. It needs a place to live. It needs a place to stay, to be transported from point A to point B regardless of how the sale is done,” McQuilkin said. “A lot of the physical auctions are also looking at different ways that they can evolve with it and how they can restructure themselves so that they are still part of that whole process, because they need to be. that’s the goal that they bring to the table.”
That overall digital transformation in auto, be it finance, retail or wholesale, is coming fast, Zadeits said. And that has impacted the NRC, too.
“It’s almost exponential in terms of how quickly it’s changing,” Zadeits said. “And so our job, I think in many ways, is to be sure that our audiences from the remarketing side, from the auto finance side, from the retail side, are getting great information from us, great content from us in whatever platform they need. Content that prepares them, that helps them learn more, that opens their eyes, that gives them insight into how they grow their companies, and how they prepare their companies to not just survive, but to excel, in this new environment.”
Speaking of transformations, the NRC has certainly had its own over the past 20 years.
The linking with CMG’s auto retail and finance events to form Used Car Week earlier this decade. The combined event with the National Auto Association’s annual convention from 2016 through 2018.
And an early one: moving the conference to the fall instead of the spring, where many other auto industry events take place.
Moving NRC to November several years ago, “gave us a window to say, ‘Let’s look ahead into this next year,’” Zadeits said.
“And by positioning it that way, it really has generated a lot of content that has really been, in many ways, clarifying of what’s happened in the year leading up to it,” he said, “and also in many ways, visionary as to what will or what could happen — or what we might expect as an industry — as we move into the new year.”
Over the years, another change has been that content and that conversation at NRC.
Pierre Pons, chief executive officer ServNet Auctions and president of TPC Management Company, is a longtime NRC attendee and has been a panelist at the event, as well.
Asked how the conference has changed over the years, Pons said via email: “It’s really gone from concentration on a single platform/channel for wholesale remarketing — and by that, I mean brick-and-mortar traditional auto auctions — to multiple platforms/channels.
“Years ago, all the tactical discussions were about how best to utilize and develop the brick-and-mortar — sell over the auction block — channel,” he said. “Today remarketers have to evaluate what the ‘best’ channel is for their portfolio — upstream, mid-stream, downstream, direct-to-consumer, direct-to-dealer — and evaluate many different channel/platforms and how to mix and match what is the best strategy for their particular portfolio.”
Added Peter Kelly, who is president of KAR Auction Services: “It’s been interesting to see how the conversation has evolved over the past 20 years, but one thing has remained a constant: the impact of technology on our industry and its ability to improve outcomes for our customers. More than 20 years ago, I attended NRC as the founder of OPENLANE, an early digital disruptor. It was events like NRC that helped us to learn and grow as a company.
“Becoming part of the KAR family in 2011 increased my understanding of the broader industry, and our ability to lead innovation in remarketing. It’s a privilege to contribute to the conversation about the digital future of the industry and how technology can continue to transform it. Now, I often find myself looking at younger NRC attendees and wonder who among them will drive the most change in our industry going forward.”
NRC relies on longtime allies
McQuilkin, Smith and Zadeits aren’t the only familiar faces walking the conference halls. Another is Steve Kapusta, who heads up Ally’s SmartAuction, NRC’s longtime lead sponsor.
The CMG team and NRC, he said, has taken an “open perspective” to conversations about the remarketing industry, something that aligns with the values of his company.
“When I take a look at that and I take a look at the cultures of both of our teams, we’re there to create, and add and deliver value,” Kapusta said.
It’s about looking at “what’s the issue at hand in the industry?” he said. “How do we help people in this industry succeed and open up the door to potential relationships, opportunities and (other) things that will help each other succeed?
“That just aligns extremely well with us,” Kapusta said.
He said he enjoys the fact that NRC is not about any one particular approach to wholesale or any one particular product or viewpoint. It’s an open dialogue about industry trends.
This approach, Kapusta said, has “kept it in a perspective that allows the audience and allows the attendees to make their own informed decisions and/or dig in and get more information.”
Kapusta also pointed out the value of relationship-building that has come out of attending NRC.
Another familiar face around the conference is Nick Peluso of Cox Automotive, who has attended since the early days of NRC.
“Here’s how I would sum it up. In the late 90s or in the early years, it was a conference that was nice to be at,” said Peluso. “Today, it’s a ‘must-be-at.’”
Peluso, who is the president of Manheim Digital Marketplace and RMS Automotive at Cox, said one thing that he, his team and peers have found valuable about NRC is that served as a chance, given the timing, to develop plans for the year and talk strategy.
Additionally, the networking and relationship building is a plus. “I do think what the conference has done just well over the years is the way that you’ve allowed us to network.”
Beyond the presentations and sessions, the conference has included “networking knowledge collisions,” Peluso said.
“You guys have really spent time thinking through that and how you allow people to congregate and bump into people by accident, although you guys actually have choreographed it. I think it is something that makes your guys’ conference really special.”
That networking, which Peluso described as planned yet not forced — organic, if you will — is something that has stood out to Smith, the event’s founder.
He recalls a conversation with former Manheim leader Dean Eisner at the event years ago.
Eisner had approached him, saying how much he had enjoyed the conference. But Smith replied had not seen him in any of the sessions.
“’Well I came to one,’” Smith remembered him replying. “He said, ‘But this was a place where I could meet with a lot of different people.’ And I think I knew that, but also it reinforced the fact that there were three pillars that I wanted to have in a conference: a place that people like to go to, information sharing from experts and also ample time for networking.”
Asked what makes the event valuable from his perspective, Pons, the ServNet and TPC executive and longtime NRC supporter, said: “That’s simple: The participation and attendance from such a large array of participants in the remarketing process. It’s not ‘just’ an auto auction meeting. It brings out attendees from every facet of the process:
• Remarketers, from all segments
• Private equity and other institutional parties
“It’s this multi-faceted attendee pool that make NRC unique and a worthwhile investment — actually a must investment — in time and money,” Pons said. “And expanding the program to a full Used Car Week and only enhanced the crossover of participants, which is good for everyone.”
Over at KAR, Kelly said: “I attend NRC for the content and the people – primarily the people. Anytime I can be in the same room as others in our industry, I find it valuable. Events like the NRC are an opportunity to meet with our customers, industry partners, and our competitors. Through the back-and-forth of our discussions at NRC, we have developed solutions to industry challenges and continue to create opportunities for continued success. It’s a win-win for all involved.”
This story, plus a full photo spread of NRC through the years, can be found in the March 15 Auto Remarketing.
The events keep rolling along for Cherokee Media Group. The annual Auto Remarketing Canada Conference runs Tuesday and Wednesday at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto. That is followed up on Thursday with the Women & Automotive Canadian Leadership Forum, also at the Westin Harbour Castle.