In October, Minnesota dealer Paul Walser was elected 2021 chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association after serving as vice chairman in 2020. Walser, 65, is the CEO of Walser Automotive Group in Bloomington, Minnesota, and has represented the state’s dealers on NADA’s board for the past seven years. He will succeed Rhett Ricart, president of Ricart Automotive Group in Columbus, Ohio, as chairman.
"Dealers have great relationships, and it is vital to leverage their expertise to protect and preserve our franchise system." – Paul Walser
F&I and Showroom had the opportunity to speak with Walser leading up to the first-ever virtual NADA Show to learn about the road that led him to NADA, the importance of family and community values, and what’s on the horizon for his term as chairman.
Can you tell us about Walser Automotive Group and the path that led you to NADA?
Walser Automotive Group is a partnership between myself and my brother Andrew. In 1996, we began the purchasing process from our father who started the dealership roughly 60 years ago. At present, we have 29 rooftops primarily located in Minnesota, with some stores in Kansas, Illinois, and California.
My path to NADA was not a traditional one. In 2014, Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association, asked if I would be willing to serve as the NADA Director for Minnesota after the existing director became ill and was unable to complete his three-year term. At that point, I had served as Chairman of the metro and state dealer associations — the Greater Metropolitan Automobile Dealers Association of Minnesota and the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association — and thought it would be a good opportunity that would simultaneously allow my brother, who is 13 years my junior, the chance to serve as CEO of our company, something he was more than ready to handle.
Was there a defining moment when you realized you wanted to take the step from your own Automotive Group to working with dealers nationally?
No, not really. I wasn’t aspiring to be an NADA director, but it was a progression of events that led me down that path.
You also represent Minnesota’s automobile dealers specifically, why is dealer representation important to you?
No one understands the challenges of running an auto dealership better than dealers themselves. We need dealers to share the impacts of their businesses on local communities and offer first-hand insight into the challenges facing dealers across the country. Dealers have great relationships, and it is vital to leverage their expertise to protect and preserve our franchise system. That is something we really need to encourage. I would love it if every dealer across the country knew their legislators, both at the local and federal levels, especially to help support the NADA ground game.
As we move into a new year, what lessons will you carry with you following a challenging 2020?
No one could have anticipated or prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. However, despite the challenges it brought to our country and our industry, it has also helped to accelerate change that was coming for auto retail. As dealers, we have had to sharpen our tools, particularly with digital retailing, and our ability to connect and transact with customers outside of the physical dealership. And in my view, there is nothing that has come from COVID-19 that shouldn't be part of our permanent playbook.
What’s on your agenda for 2021?
I took some time to really think about what I wanted to accomplish during my time as NADA Chairman, and I came up with four main priorities.
One is ensuring that we have a smooth shift from Peter Welch as NADA President and CEO to Mike Stanton.
Secondly, I want to amplify the number of dealers engaged with NADA, as well as enhance the level of engagement from dealers who are already involved with the organization.
NADA is vitally important to protecting dealers’ interest and preserving the franchise system. I think there are many dealers who are laser-focused on their own businesses, and I want to help educate them on the important work that NADA does. If NADA is going to be really great at doing the work of this industry, we need engagement.
My third priority is offering dealers robust solutions related to the challenges that dealers face with diversity. Despite strong efforts by OEMs, dealers and other industry stakeholders, racial and gender diversity remain relatively stagnant. I want to offer dealers tools to ensure a more diverse population into our businesses and enhance our mentoring and training so when folks are given the opportunity to become dealers, they will be successful. This is not only a moral priority, but it is good for our industry and our entire franchise system.
My final priority is improving our dealer-OEM relations. I want to look at the relationship through a different lens, through the lens of the customer. I want dealers and OEMs to collaborate and create the experience customers want, and that is the best way to strengthen the franchise system.
I see Walser Auto Group was recognized as one of the Top 25 Family Owned Business – What does this award mean to you and your family?
We are very honored. I love this industry more now than the day I got involved, and to be able to do this alongside my family and our team members is an incredible blessing.
What is your role within the Walser Foundation and what does the organization do for local communities?
I currently serve on the Walser Foundation board of directors alongside my brother and some of our employees. My sister, Nancy, serves as the head of the Foundation and she is great in this role.
The Walser Foundation has been around for a long time — going back to when my father was still involved in the organization 20-plus years ago — and focuses primarily on enhancing education and workforce development. We donate 5% of all pre-tax earnings to organizations focused on those areas.
Can you tell us about Drive with Pride and Project Halo?
Both of these are relatively new initiatives that were started by Walser Automotive's Chief Human Resources Officer Sherry Schultz, who is not only head of our HR team, but is also a senior leader in the company.
Drive with Pride is an LGBT employee resource group that aims to extend diversity and inclusion across Walser Automotive and ensure that our team members feel connected and belonging across our company.
Project Halo is part of our Women of Walser employee resource group. The program creates outreach and volunteer opportunities for our employees in the local community. Project Halo participants have been involved in a number of philanthropic events and volunteer initiatives ranging from work at hospitals and with schools, as well as providing donations of supplies and food.