Australia’s retail automotive Dealers must get on the front foot and remind politicians and the general public that they are significant contributors to both the economy and the community. That was the lesson from the Chairman’s Dinner at the 2017 AADA National Dealer Convention, held at the ICC Sydney, on Monday night.

Nearly 200 Dealer Principals, VIPs, heads of OEMs and motor trades associations, and other delegates attended the dinner, at which AADA Chairman, Terry Keating, honoured industry legends Michael Tynan, Peter Warren, George Altomonte and Laurie Sutton for their outstanding contributions to the industry and society over many years.

AADA Chairman, Terry Keating

Guest speaker Bruce Billson, the Executive Chairman of the Franchise Council of Australia and former federal Minister for Small Business, told those present that Dealers had to battle against an environment in which there was a seeming opposition to the notions of entrepreneurship and profit.

He said Dealers were often seen as arms of big business, as ‘Ford’ or ‘Holden’ rather than as the individual franchisees that they are.

“We need to join together in a collegiate effort to celebrate what entrepreneurship does, not only for the nation generally but right across the communities where all of your businesses and those that I represent are present,” he said.

“You have in you the optimism and positivity that a businessperson carries every day. Surely we should be celebrating that.”

Mr Billson compared the plight of Dealers to that of other franchises his organisation has recently gone into bat for, namely 7-Eleven and Caltex.

“We’ve had to go and explain – not only to the regulators and to the lawmakers, but the broader public – what it is to operate a franchise business,” he said.

He quoted a recent survey that showed that three quarters of franchise employees nominated the corporation as their employer rather than the individual franchisee, highlighting the struggle of franchisees to be recognised not as multinationals but as small and often family businesses.

“I think that’s something that the AADA needs to turn its mind to. When we celebrate Terry’s Tamworth business in its 80 years of history, do we think about the public’s perception about Terry’s business, a local, family operation embedded in the community, or is that Ford?,” Mr Billson said.

“And if we’re thinking that it’s Ford, is our reaction and our response to issues that might not meet our expectations likely to be as empathetic, as engaged, or is that some behemoth multinational who we can all have a crack at?

“Part of what we’re having to deal with right now is an educative process: to explain that amongst two and a half thousand franchise brands in Australia, there is about 80,000 locally owned, often family businesses providing the local market knowledge, the horsepower, the capital, the know-how, to grow opportunities and employment in their communities.”

Mr Billson highlighted the massive role franchises play in Australia, accounting for 11 per cent of the economy compared with less than 4 per cent in the USA. Three out of four standalone start-up businesses die within five years, while three out of four franchises are going strong.

Mr Billson urged Dealers to speak up, to advocate for their own cause, rather than ‘whaling’: going deep under the surface in a bid to avoid the harpooners, only to have them waiting when the whalers surface for air.

“While you’ve been whaling, who’s been telling your story? Who’s been engaging in that public discourse? Who’s been putting forward a different narrative than perhaps an aggrieved person who has had an isolated bad experience that now dominates social media?,” he asked.

“When you’re whaling, you’re not turning up. And if you remember nothing from what I’ve said tonight, please take home one simple truth: the world is run by people who turn up. And if you or your industry choose to hope that things will sort themselves out, that they’ll find a reasonable place that you can live with, who’s putting your voice into that debate?

“Now it’s more important than ever to have the vibrancy of your industry understood. There’s the story of your industry and its contribution to the economy that someone has to tell, and if it’s not the people in this room, just who is it going to be?”

Bruce Billson spoke with great humour and understanding of Dealers’ situation

Mr Billson echoed the call of Mr Keating, for Dealers to ‘turn up’ in every corner of the continent, and get their message before lawmakers and regulators before issues arise, because “you can’t fatten a pig on market day”.

“If you want lawmakers and regulators to be receptive to your story, you have to have that conversation beginning long before the issue is before them,” he said.

“You need to find industry-led solutions, work collaboratively with those that share your interest in the success and vitality of the industry. You know the industry better than anyone else – who better to navigate what a right-sized, appropriate response is to a problem.”

Mr Billson said Dealers should also not be afraid to highlight the good work they do in the community.

“Who do the sporting clubs turn to for sponsors? Who puts in on cancer awareness days? Who organises the walks and gets involved in the chamber of commerce? It’s the membership that’s represented by many of you in this room. Tell that story as well. Let people know that there is a dimension and depth to all that you do, that adds great value not only to our economy but to our nation.”

Industry greats honoured

Mr Keating presented awards recognising the lifetime contributions to the retail automotive industry of Michael Tynan, Peter Warren, George Altomonte and Laurie Sutton.

Mr Tynan’s daughter Madeline spoke of her pride in her late father’s achievement in building himself up from humble beginnings, while never forgetting where he came from.

“Dad always truly believed that where you get your money, you’ve got to put money back,” she said.

“We’ll try and emulate a lot of the things that he taught us, and that is community, and business, and believing in who we are. The franchises that we represent are amazing, but they also have to realise that we’re pretty amazing too.”

The sons of the other three recipients, Paul Warren, Craig Sutton and Anthony Altomonte, expressed similar sentiments regarding the pride of continuing a family business, of building strong reputations, encouraging loyal staff, and making positive contributions in their communities.

Entertainers ‘Maske’

Convention host Tracey Spicer