L. Wilson Howes never set out to sell cars for a living; it just happened.
As a young man, Mr. Howes wanted to be the guy who came to your home to install your telephone. This was back in the early 1950s, when few, if anyone, even dreamed about satellite transmissions; area codes were still decades away.
In 1950, Wilson Howes was working for the Western Electric Co. plant in Washington, making telephones. "I wanted to work for Bell Telephone Co," he says, looking back on his career, "but in those days, because of the closeness of the two companies, you had to quit one and wait six months before joining the other."
While waiting, Mr. Howes, then a fast-talking 22-year-old Rockville resident, took a job with Wilson Pontiac in Silver Spring; life was never the same.
"I started as a gofer," he says with a laugh. "I'd go for this, and I'd go for that. Basically, I was an errand boy."
It didn't take long for him to realize that he had a knack for
selling cars. In his first 60 days on the job, he says, he became the dealership's top salesman. He was promoted to sales manager in 1952, general manager in 1955 and became a part owner two years later.
Over the ensuing years, he took on the Honda line but sold the Pontiac franchise last year to a Volkswagen dealer in Silver Spring. Today, he heads Honda outlets at the Montgomery Auto Park, off Route 29, and Hagerstown Honda.
Mr. Howes, now 64, is nearing the end of a two-year term as president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association. He took time from a hectic schedule last week to sit down and talk about the changes he's seen in the industry over the past 40 years and to offer his insights into what's ahead.
* Car sales
Like a typical salesperson, Mr. Howes views his industry through rose-colored lenses. He is more optimistic about new-car sales than are industry analysts, who predict only modest growth over the next few years.
"The auto market has a lot of pent-up demand," he says, leaning on the hood of a shiny red Honda sedan. "You know the average car on the road is 7 1/2 years old, and 10 percent of the cars on the road, the older ones, create 80 percent of the pollution."
"The floodgates are going to burst open," he says. "I'm not sure just when, but it will happen."
Rising interest rates?
Mr. Howes worries that, with Bill Clinton in the White House, interest rates will rise and hurt car buying.
He sees better trained salespeople and dealerships that may have two, three or four showrooms, supported by one centrally located service department.
"Customers today want the salesman to be more knowledgeable," he says. They want them to understand anti-lock brakes, what a longer wheel base means to a car's ride and to be up-to-date on financing procedures and state regulations.
To upgrade the skills of salespeople, he says, the National Automobile Dealers Association has launched a certification program and is holding training seminars.
How cars are sold
Mr. Howe doesn't expect other dealers to follow the sales approach of General Motors' Saturn division, where cars are offered for a fixed price without horse-trading.
Referring to the Saturn sales approach, Mr. Howes said: "I don't think that people really believe they are getting their best buy. It just gives them a point to start from."
He compared it to buying a refrigerator. "When the buying public looks at the refrigerator and says to the salesman, 'What's the best price you'll give me?' the price goes down immediately."
As dealers seek new ways to cut costs and become more competitive, Mr. Howes sees a move toward an owner's having three or four new-car showrooms supported by a single service center. He says Honda is experimenting with the concept.
He also thinks that giant auto malls -- such as the one in Silver Spring off Route 29 that clusters seven dealers offering 16 model lines in a half-mile radius -- are the way of the future.
Mr. Howes insists that service has come a long way since the days when "they would put you on your feet by taking your car and keeping it all day and then hitting you with a high bill."
"I think it's an old wives' tale that service departments are a necessary evil," he says. "It's an old wives' tale that a service department is more expensive than the neighborhood garage or the gas station. Their hourly rates are the same as ours."
If you're thinking about replacing that old jalopy in the driveway, Mr. Howes says, now's the time to do it.
"It's a buyer's market," he says. "There's no doubt about that. My salesmen say, 'These customers are really tough today.' I say, 'Yes, they remember when [in better times] you were tough. What goes around, comes around.' That's what I always say."