Mike Stanton has taken the lead as CEO of the National Automobile Dealers Association as the COVID-19 pandemic transforms the way auto retailers do business and the nation’s lawmakers wrangle over policies that affect the industry.
But for Stanton — the trade group’s former COO who became its chief executive on Jan. 1, following the retirement of Peter Welch — politics, autos and the great unknowns facing both are familiar topics to the Washington, D.C., native.
Stanton, who comes from a family of lobbyists, has politics running through his veins. Early in his career, he gained experience on Capitol Hill, witnessing firsthand how various groups including automakers and the nation’s policymakers influence the industry at large.
“I’ve had the benefit over my career of seeing the industry from a variety of perspectives,” Stanton, 52, told Automotive News. “I worked for a couple of car companies, and I’ve also worked for some vendors selling to dealers and OEMs.”
Those perspectives and opportunities to strengthen key relationships in Washington and across the industry surely will guide Stanton as he leads the organization through whatever challenges lie ahead — including this week’s first virtual NADA Show.
Stanton spoke with Staff Reporter Audrey LaForest about the experience he brings to his new role and what he’s expecting this year. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: NADA ended its search for a successor to Peter Welch in October after five months and at least 100 applicants. You were still the association’s COO at the time. How did that process play out?
A: I just applied for the job like everyone else and submitted a resume and cover letter and hoped I would make the dealers’ shortlist of candidates to interview. I’ve been with NADA for almost 20 years now, and this was a dream opportunity for me. I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I certainly had hoped I would get the job. It’ll be an honor to work with dealers to lead the organization into the future.
What is your first priority as CEO?
We’ve got to be very cognizant and careful not to get ahead of our dealer leadership. [Incoming NADA Chairman] Paul Walser starts his term at the virtual show, and Paul and I have been in regular communication to make sure that we’re aligned because this is a dealer-led organization. Overall, I just want to continue to build on the success that NADA has had over the decades and work collaboratively on the issues that dealers face and expand on initiatives that have been established by our dealer leadership.
What about your agenda?
One of the things I’ve learned — and that we’ve all learned — is that none of us can predict the future. We’ll need to be flexible on our agenda. Certainly, it’s important to have one, but things change and we need to be ready to adapt to the business environment and the challenges at hand.
How is NADA going to approach its agenda with a new Congress and presidential administration?
Paul has put together his leadership team. We’re structured as an executive committee and each of the committees has a dealer chairperson. This executive committee sets NADA’s agenda and works closely with the staff, and we will soon all be on the same page with our marching orders. Then we will line up as an organization to support that. That’s been our typical process.
When Peter Welch stepped in as CEO in 2013, he made some pretty big strategic changes that streamlined and modernized the organization. What changes will you be making at NADA?
I had the benefit of being part of some of those strategic changes that Peter and our dealers made — and I think all made for the better. We are a more focused organization now than we’ve ever been. Of course, I have ideas, but it’s way too early to lay these out. I’ll need to work with our dealer leadership to see if they agree, but also to prioritize and to set priorities. But the gist is, it has always been a philosophy of mine that we just need to keep getting better at what we do every day. There’s always room for improvement for all of us here.
Our two main areas are education and advocacy. We need to keep getting better in those areas and helping educate our dealers to make sure they’re ready to meet the evolving needs of consumers. We’re relentless in our advocacy for dealers, with the government and with the car companies. But again, we can always be better.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m a big believer in leading by example. I’ve never asked someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. I mean, to me, speaking the truth is essential. We need the facts. We need the opinions. Integrity and respect are nonnegotiables for me. That has to be there, and I think the foundation of making change and growing is trust.
Like Paul, I’m a collaborator. I reached out and listened to a variety of people — even the most critical people of NADA at times. I want to hear from them. I want their input before making decisions. And as you well know, I am fortunate. I have access to tremendous talent here on our board and with our employees, and I’m going to use that. That approach has worked well for me in the past, and I think it’ll lead us to good decisions and the best outcome for dealers.
What unique skill sets do you bring to the position of CEO?
I started at NADA in 2000, and so I’ve seen the organization led by Frank McCarthy, Phil Brady and Peter Welch, and we get a new dealer chairman leader every year. I think this insider perspective is kind of unique. I also think it’s important because I feel we can hit the ground running. The team is intact here, and I feel very good about that. But it’s also important for me to mention that just because I’ve been here so long doesn’t mean that I’m happy with the status quo. I’m never happy with the status quo. It’s just not my nature, and I look forward to finding new ways to enhance NADA’s primary goal of promoting and enhancing the franchise system.
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