In October, Texas dealer Charlie W. Gilchrist was elected 2019 chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, succeeding Wes Lutz of Michigan, after serving as vice chair in 2018. Gilchrist, 63, is the president of the five-rooftop, 10-marque Gilchrist Automotive group and represents Texas new-car dealers on NADA’s board.
F&I and Showroom caught up with Gilchrist on the eve of NADA Show 2019 to learn more about his career, his group, and the litany of challenges he faces as chairman.
F&I: Charlie, what led you to the purchase of the dealerships that laid the foundation for Gilchrist Automotive?
Gilchrist: Well, I originally went to college to become a lawyer, and instead majored in accounting and became a CPA. I worked for Coopers and Lybrand, a Big Eight CPA firm in Dallas — before I realized I really did not like accounting. In 1984, I went to work for a dealer named Kenneth Nichols and, in 1986, moved to Weatherford, Texas, to run his Ford dealership.
In 1986, I became general manager of Southwest Ford and became a partner with Ken. In 1990, Ken bought Nichols Ford and allowed me to run both stores, and in 1992, I negotiated a buyout of Southwest Ford. In 1993, I negotiated the purchase of the local Toyota-Jeep-Eagle dealership. And in 1995, I purchased the remaining shares from Ken and became 100% owner in both dealerships.
F&I: Did the Gilchrist Promise and the Gilchrist Difference evolve over time, or did you have a vision for the way you wanted to run your stores going in?
Gilchrist: Surely, they evolved over time. But when you first have an opportunity to run a store, I think you must have certain priorities. The No. 1 priority we’ve always had is we have to take care of the customer. We have to retain customers. The Gilchrist Promise really evolved from the Southwest Promise.
About 10 years ago, we decided that if you bought a vehicle from us, we would take care of your maintenance needs for the first two years — changing the oil, changing tires, washing and vacuuming the car. With that, the cost of those were built into our business model, and that’s what the Southwest Promise was, which evolved into the Gilchrist Promise as we bought more stores.
We believe in five core values: character, urgency, attention to detail, teamwork, and working on yourself and getting better every day. That is the difference between us and any other dealership. Our people are the difference. That’s the Gilchrist Difference. So, again, these things evolve naturally, because as you get bigger, then you have to not only show people and customers what you’re talking about, you’ve got to tell them and train them. The most important part of what we do is making sure our people have those five core values.
F&I: How has the North Texas market changed over the past 30 years?
Gilchrist: The North Texas market has really grown. It’s a booming area, but one of the single biggest impacts came when Toyota moved their U.S. headquarters to North Texas, and you can really see that put North Texas on the map. It’s a pickup-rich area, so we’re blessed to be able to sell pickups, and we have great pickups that we represent.
The car market, since I’ve been there, has really dwindled down. You hear nationally the market’s declined to 30%. North Texas is part of that trend, and that’s been a big eye-opening experience because I didn’t ever really believe that cars would decline that fast. Then again, I didn’t think that SUVs and pickups would improve in terms of gas mileage and other features as quickly as they have, but the manufacturers have done a phenomenal job closing the gap with cars on that front. But for us as dealers in North Texas, it’s really almost a blessing because it gives us the ability to sell the vehicles that people want to buy naturally.
F&I: We hosted Industry Summit in Dallas in 2017, and it proved to be an ideal location. Did you have anything to do with the NADA Show returning to Dallas in 2023 for the first time since 1995?
Gilchrist: No. I wish I could take credit for that, but that’s the work of the wonderful NADA team. They asked me about what I thought about Dallas, and obviously I was very encouraging. But the city of Dallas is really the one responsible for getting NADA there. They were so receptive of our team. And the new convention center that has been built there, which can handle a show our size, is wonderful. They’ve got plenty of hotels now in the downtown area, and they’ve revitalized downtown Dallas. So, I wish I could take credit! But there’s a lot of other people that deserve all the credit.
F&I: When did you first become active in NADA? Did you ever think you would become chairman?
Gilchrist: What happened to me is, when I got involved with the NADA team, I saw the passion and the drive that this team has for its dealers, and it’s a very proactive group. They’re always thinking ahead and trying to solve potential problems down the road for all the dealers. And so that’s what inspired me to really get involved with NADA, and, to run for the vice chairman and the chairman position.
F&I: What did you learn in your year as vice chairman?
Gilchrist: The main thing that I learned is that you cannot predict the future. What I thought would be potential issues, and what ended up being the issues that monopolized our time and attention, were two very different things. And that’s where you really get to see the value of what our NADA team does for us, because while there are issues, they are always working. There are always even more and bigger issues that emerge, and they have to constantly react to different situations.
For instance, in 2017, tariffs weren’t even on the radar. And so, I guess it’s taught me that we have to be prepared for everything and anything, and we have to be nimble and agile, and certainly capable enough, to navigate everything and anything.
F&I: What are some of your big agenda items for 2019?
Gilchrist: First and foremost, I want to get every dealer member involved in NADA. That’s my first priority. I want you as dealers to be part of our NADA team. I want you to think of yourselves and NADA as one and the same. That’s the challenge I’m issuing to both our dealers and to NADA.
As far as the other issues, we’re facing a terrible problem of affordability, in trying to keep these vehicles affordable for our customers. And that permeates everything we do. Additionally, we’re facing a critical shortage of service technicians. We have to find the best people for every position in our dealerships. That is a huge challenge, and we’ll be talking much more about that at NADA Show 2019 and beyond. You know, our dealerships are aging, our workforce is aging, and we have to recruit and train and retain the best people.
We’re going to continue to be challenged to figure out the best way to embrace technology in the retail process. I think through technology we can speed up the sales process. I think that doing that will help us with transparency and trust with our customers. And then, we have to work on the sustainability of our new-vehicle departments. So, we have to work with each OEM to make sure that our new-vehicle departments can continue to thrive in the long term.
F&I: General Motors recently announced the discontinuation of six sedans several months after Ford announced plans to delete all but the Mustang from its North American car lineup. Does that concern you, or are the factories following the right track by focusing on hatchbacks, SUVs, CUVs, and trucks while investing in mobility and electrification?
Gilchrist: I think what we’re seeing is more of an evolution than the sudden, drastic change that many have made it out to be. And certainly, the manufacturers have to make decisions that have long-term effects because their lead time is so long. But I do believe there is a natural evolution away from cars to SUVs or crossover vehicles. And that’s happening because we’re getting better fuel mileage from these vehicles, and the performance and the ride characteristics are so good. So, I think the evolution of vehicles away from vehicles with trunks to vehicles with liftgates is a natural one.
Now, I think that by making announcements, for example that “We are going to quit making cars,” you are sort of setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy, because when that word got out, customers started asking us, “Why should I buy a sedan if they’re not making any more?” I think there’s a natural evolution because of the performance of SUVs and CUVs because the fuel mileage and the handling characteristics of these vehicles are so great that it gives you all the benefits of a car plus more.
F&I: Have you tested or adopted digital sales and F&I platforms at Gilchrist Automotive, and if so, have you been impressed?
Gilchrist: We have. You can buy a vehicle from us completely online. Are we successful at it? It is not a big part of our business. We are trying to make it a bigger part of our business, but I really think it’s limited because while some people want to do business that way, it appears to me that most people want to do both digital and traditional — they want parts of both. They want to research everything online, get as much information online, but then they want to come down and touch and feel the vehicles and make sure that’s the right vehicle for them.
I don’t think there is a completely seamless deal where you can buy a vehicle online, get it delivered to you, and you never have to set foot in a dealership, and get an experience that is as good as when you get some information online and then you come into a dealership and really get the information that you need. There is so much technology on these vehicles, I don’t know how you ever learn about all of it unless you have a sales consultant, or a product specialist, show you everything that these vehicles have to offer.
We’re certainly trying to cater to the customer that wants to do everything online. If you want to buy a vehicle online, we will certainly let you finance it, deliver it to you, try to explain all the features and benefits at your house, but right now it’s just not a big part of our business.