One on One with Cody Lusk, AIADA's New President
By Marty Bernstein AIADA Contributing Editor
The 2005 annual report of the UnitedAuto Group, a major retailer of imported luxury automobiles, had an interesting headline responding to the SEC’s legal requirements for statements of potential negative or adverse affects on a company’s profitability. It read:
“Our business may be adversely affected by import product restrictions and foreign trade risks that may impair our ability to sell foreign vehicles profitably.”
Think about what you just read. This is the most pertinent, relevant statement I’ve ever seen about the potentially disastrous impact of government legislation on the business of import automobile franchises. It is also the raison d’être for the value and importance of the American International Automobile Dealers Association (AIADA) to international nameplate auto dealers across this country.
In recent months, AIADA has been adjusting, changing, and modifying its operations to meet the dynamic climate of doing business as a trade association in our nation’s capital. The purpose and focus has not been forgotten. In fact, even with an acknowledged misstep, AIADA has more importance now than ever before.
There are businesses and organizations, who in response to the growing importance of international brands in the U.S. marketplace, have mounted subtle and not so subtle campaigns, programs and promotions that could adversely affect the members of AIADA.
To prevent this from happening, AIADA’s Board of Directors has aggressively moved to bring change to AIADA and among other steps has appointed a new President and CEO, Cody Lusk.
He is no stranger to the international automobile industry or the legislative process. After 10 years as an AIADA staffer, including 6 years as director of government relations, Lusk left to serve as an appointee to the current Administration under then Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, serving as an aide for international trade legislation. Prior to re-joining AIADA, Lusk was the Chief of Staff for Representative Sam Johnson of Texas, a member of the prestigious House Ways and Means Committee. He’s a pro – a man with an enviable record of success in working with and for the goals of AIADA with the federal government.
Here are a few of Mr. Lusk’s answers to questions I raised recently about the automobile industry, the government climate and the impacts to members of the American International Automobile Dealers Association.
MB: Congratulations on rejoining AIADA … you could not have come at a more propitious time with international brands surpassing the sales of the Detroit Three last month for the first time. What impact do you think this news will have with consumers?
CL: The immediate impact on consumers is difficult to ascertain. Right now most consumers are focused on gas prices, the world situation, and to some, back to school activities. That said – consumers want the ability to purchase vehicles that fit their needs, likes and lifestyles, all at competitive prices that represent value and quality. International brands’ success is well known, even during the traditional summer sales doldrums.
MB: What about the activities of certain groups and organizations who are waging extensive advertising and public relations campaigns to buy only vehicles built by UAW workers?
CL: Consumers want the ability to purchase a vehicle that fits their needs and likes – all at a competitive price. It is clear that there are campaigns under way, like the UAW sponsored Level Field Institute, to try to convince consumers that they need to buy only UAW built vehicles. I expect their pressure to intensify with this news and in the coming months.
MB: What does AIADA have planned to counteract or thwart these activities?
CL: Obviously, it is important to follow what these groups are doing in as much as what they’re doing poses a threat to the international auto industry and its ability to conduct business in the U.S. But we’ve fought these types of protectionist battles in the past and every time the American consumer has come out victorious. Plain and simple, international brand auto dealers are delivering products that consumers want to drive, and as long as that continues it will be hard for anyone to take the side of folks who aim to limit consumer choice.
MB: How do you feel members of Congress are responding to the growth of international brands in America?
CL: I’m sure a few select members of Congress – primarily those in Michigan – are aware of the change. On the flip side, those with international headquarters and manufacturing facilities in their states/districts are very encouraged by the growth of the international brand industry in the U.S., Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander and others have voiced their support of international brands, citing the tax revenues, increased payrolls and boom in interstate commerce as a result of international brands choosing to invest in operations here.
MB: You’ve had a successful, high-level career in public service, why the return to the private sector?
CL: I returned to AIADA for the people and the automobile industry because frankly … I missed it. Working with auto dealers who are the backbone of the car business is exciting and challenging; their entrepreneurial spirit and business orientation in engaging. The more I thought about returning to AIADA, the more excited I became about the industry, its needs, issues, and challenges.
MB: If you had the opportunity to speak to every member of AIADA individually, what would you tell them?
CL: I’d tell them that AIADA is here for them! We want to be a strong advocate on behalf of this vital industry before the federal government, the media, and the American consumer. The auto industry is so complex and the federal government has very little clue as to how it actually operates. Our job is to educate and serve as a resource for Congress and the Administration on key issues important to international nameplate dealers.
MB: In politician-speak, what do you hope to have accomplished after your first 100 days as president?
CL: In my first 100 days, I hope to have spent a great deal of time reacquainting myself and AIADA with the industry, working with staff internally to ensure we are all on the same page, and spending a lot of time talking to my Directors and other dealers across the country. In July, the Board of Directors had an exceptional Future Planning meeting to assess and map out a game-plan for AIADA in the coming months and years. I hope to continue that momentum as we approach the Annual Meeting in Las Vegas. This is an important event and an opportunity for AIADA to officially unveil some of its plans for the future.
MB: What are your primary goals for AIADA?
CL: My job is to ensure that our members have the ability to compete in an open marketplace – free from government restrictions and barriers – in order to provide customers with a high quality product at a competitive price. If this occurs, I am confident that this segment of the industry will have a bright future for many years to come.
MB: What was your first car?
CL: A 1980 Ford Mustang turbo, my father bought it from a friend. It died 6 months later and to this day my father has never purchased another Ford.
MB: What is your dream car?
CL: I would love to have a 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser. A friend’s dad had one and I thought it was one of the coolest vehicles I had ever seen – and still do!
Lusk, an engaging, gregarious, yet focused Texan with exemplary experience in the industry, politics and government, has a big and important job in front of him. Together, with a Board of Directors made up of some of the nation’s most accomplished international brand dealers, I believe AIADA is on the right track and will continue to be a sought after ally for the auto industry.