In the dynamic world of auto retail, Gary Gilchrist, the freshly appointed chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, emerges as a visionary leader with a commitment to family values and community.
As the third-generation dealer of Gilchrist Auto Center in Tacoma, Wash., he brings to his new role a legacy of transparency and trust, and a deep-rooted understanding of dealer operations.
Gilchrist Auto Center operates three stores and employs 120 people. Community and family values are at the heart of the company’s work. “I know all of our employees, and our customers are treated like family,” Gilchrist says.
Despite the company’s success, though, the journey that led Gilchrist to NADA was not without its share of challenges.
His story is intertwined with that of his late brother, John, who played a pivotal role in the family business. “The best gift my parents ever gave me was my brother John,” he says. “We did everything together, from playing high school football to taking over the family dealership.”
The brothers worked together for an impressive 44 years until 2015, when John was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. After undergoing conventional treatments without success, John's life was extended through three clinical trials arranged by South Sound Care Foundation.
John died in 2020, leaving behind a legacy of commitment to the industry. Gary honors his brother's memory by supporting South Sound’s work and in leading the auto retail industry.
John's daughter Stephanie and Gilchrist's son Nick are now at the helm of Gilchrist Auto Center, freeing Gilchrist to contribute more time to the community and the industry at large.
“There are always ways to get involved and help grow the industry,” says the industry veteran. “I was first involved in my state association, the Washington State Auto Dealers Association. Then about a decade ago, I got more involved in NADA. When the director for Washington stepped down in 2017, I jumped at the opportunity to run.”
Gilchrist recently spoke with Auto Dealer Today about challenges and opportunities in automotive retail and how NADA will support dealers in shaping the future. In the interview, Gilchrist highlighted three primary NADA goals for the year ahead:
- Work with NADA professional staff and OEMs to advocate for the franchise system.
- Engage dealers in NADA’s advocacy and education efforts.
- Strengthen NADA’s relationships with automotive trade association executives.
An Industry Leader
Gilchrist’s journey into the auto industry was not predetermined; he initially sought to be a veterinarian and pursued studies at Washington State University to that end. “My connection to family drew me back, and 47 years later, I have done nothing else,” he says.
Over nearly five decades, Gilchrist’s roles evolved within the family business, spanning from selling cars for seven years to managing various departments, including used cars, parts, and new cars.
For him, the automotive business embodies more than auto sales; it's about family and community. The key to building and strengthening those relationships, he says, is through transparency and trust. He says those principles have guided him throughout his career.
As the new NADA chairman, Gilchrist brings those and a wealth of experience and a deep understanding of dealer operations to the role.
His commitment to education and training has been a cornerstone of his dealership operations, and he has translated the principles into his early work at NADA. His strong interest in dealer operations, including NADA Academy and 20 Groups, has positioned him well for his new NADA role.
Navigating Challenges Ahead
With decades of experience, Gilchrist recognizes the challenges that lie ahead for dealerships.
“The biggest priority for franchised new car and truck dealers will always be the customer experience,” he says. “And we have two obstacles to that this year. The first is the [Federal Trade Commission] shopping rule, and the second are current [electric vehicle] mandates.”
NADA is currently challenging the FTC rule in court. Gilchrist says the rule, finalized on Dec. 12, threatens to make the vehicle-buying process longer and more confusing for consumers.
He says the Combating Auto Retail Scams Trade Regulation Rule, or CARS, has raised significant concerns among consumers. The rule, he says, introduces a substantial increase in time, complexity, paperwork, and expenses when it comes to purchasing cars.
Dealers must meet the new regulation requirements by July 20. In the meantime, NADA is challenging the rule through legal channels. NADA is also actively backing legislation to stop the FTC from implementing the new rule.
Meanwhile, EV requirements for dealers pose another challenge.
“Current EV mandates hinder consumer choice,” Gilchrist says. “Franchised dealers share the goals of lowering emissions and electrifying the fleet—believe me, we want to sell the cars. But the EV mandates went too far, too fast.”
He says infrastructure is lacking, EVs aren’t affordable for most Americans, and that NADA is actively advocating for a more balanced transition to electrification. “We hope that the Environmental Protection Agency considers plug-in hybrids as a way to transition to full electrification.”
Gilchrist says NADA members are also committing $10 billion in EV infrastructure, inventory and training to support the transition to EVs.
However, he maintains challenges remain in aligning consumer demand with government goals, pointing to events of the past year as an example.
Despite record-breaking sales of 300,000 EVs in the U.S. during the third quarter of 2023, dealers reported adoption rates had fallen and expressed concerns about meeting the government's ambitious EV sales targets. Despite price reductions and tax rebates, dealers also reported having a surplus of EVs this past fall.
OEMs responded to the red flags in the latter half of the year. Ford postponed $12 billion of its originally planned $50 billion investment in EV manufacturing capacity; General Motors abandoned a $5 billion partnership with Honda aimed at creating more affordable EVs; and Tesla announced delays in its plans for a new factory in Mexico.
“The last year has shown consumer demand for EVs does not match the government’s goals,” Gilchrist says. “NADA continues to provide on-the-ground perspectives to the [Biden] administration about the realities of this rapid transition to electrification, specifically due to lagging infrastructure and affordability concerns.”
High interest rates are also having a big impact by significantly affecting affordability and creating barriers to new-vehicle purchases. Gilchrist underlines the importance of the franchise system in addressing that challenge. “We can work with our customers to find vehicles and prices that match their needs.”
The automotive industry also faces complex compliance challenges, including the FTC Safeguards Rule amendments, according to Gilchrist.
“Compliance with this rule is complicated and time-consuming,” he says. “The amended rule requires dealers to implement technical changes to their IT systems and their related partners and vendors and make policy changes to a dealership’s data security processes, including adding a written information security program and an incident report plan—just to name a few requirements.”
NADA has helped dealers comply with the amendments by providing resources, guides, templates, webinars and workshops. “As with all regulatory issues, NADA is continuously monitoring compliance requirements and providing dealers with guidance and updates as needed,” Gilchrist says. “NADA is working to address data security every day as we continue to work with the Alliance for Automotive Innovation and OEMs on this issue. Our goal is to keep the customer at the center of these discussions. Our industry does not exist without them.”
Committed to Advocacy and Education
In the year ahead, Gilchrist said he plans to keep NADA focused on its primary goals: advocacy and education.
He says the association remains committed to advocating for franchised dealers and their customers, actively engaging with the administration and Congress to represent their perspective. The organization also offers an extensive range of educational and training resources to ensure compliance with laws and regulations and provide the best customer experience.
“We want to ensure dealers are aware of and following all the laws and regulations as well as providing the best customer experience.”
Fostering Gender Equity
Though women comprise half the U.S. population, their numbers in automotive retail are far less than that, according to Gilchrist. For that reason, promoting gender equity in the industry is a cause close to his heart.
“My parts and service departments are all female, and our leadership team has taken diversifying our staff very seriously. I believe creating a culture and workplace where everyone feels valued starts at the top.”
Gilchrist says NADA will continue contributing to the effort through its Women Driving Auto Retail initiative, which aims to amplify the voices of women working in the industry, as well as increase female employment in dealerships. The initiative promotes strategies to improve gender equity and showcases women in the industry as role models.
The Future of Dealerships
Looking ahead, Gilchrist envisions a future where advancing technology continues to drive new products and services. “However, taking care of people will always be at the heart of the car business,” he says. “We are measured and valued by our customers’ experiences.”
However, the way customers purchase a car may shift based on preferences, he says, be it online, in-person or a hybrid. “But when it comes to service, that has not changed. It’s all about convenience and customer service. From repair after an accident to the failure of a part, there are all kinds of personal experiences that credit the franchise system because of how we treat customers.”
As Gilchrist takes the helm at NADA, his commitment to family, community and transparency will undoubtedly shape the association's efforts to support dealerships and address the challenges and opportunities presented by an ever-changing sector.
“NADA will continue to advocate for the franchise system, enabling dealers to do their job and customers to have the best possible experience when purchasing and servicing their vehicles.”
Ronnie Wendt is an editor at F&I and Showroom.
Originally posted on Auto Dealer Today