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Editor's Notebook

I Do. I Do.

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Birds do it. Bees do it. Tire companies and dealers do it. Let’s do. Let’s fall in love!

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And now dealer associations are doing it.

The most visible tire association nuptial, of course, is that of TANA and ITRA, now officially wed and the band’s ripping through "Daddy’s Little Girl" even as you read this.

Less apparent are recent unions between state dealer associations and non-tire automotive groups. Two mergers were recently completed, but there may be even more before long.

The Florida Independent Tire Dealers and Retreaders Association (FITDRA) merged with ASA-Florida. The "I dos" were completed Feb. 1.

Chesapeake Automotive Business Association (CABA) was formed Jan. 1 out of the union of the Maryland Tire Dealers Association (MTDA) and the Chesapeake Automotive Wholesalers Association (CAWA).

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Publicly, groups say such mergers "benefit" both parties and will provide "enhanced" services to members. We have no reason to dispute that.

But one reality is that shrinking memberships and disinterested prospects have rendered state dealer groups unfeasible. And unless you’re an Enron auditor, numbers don’t lie. Prior to the merger, the FITDRA had around 200 member companies, according to Jill Mondo, its executive director. At $175 per year, member dues were generating only $35,000. MTDA had about 100 members paying $200 per year in dues, according to Honey Eckardt, executive director, earning that group just $20,000.

At the same time, say both association execs, members wanted increased services, especially training and representation at the state capital.

Remember last year when the California Tire Dealers Association-South Executive Director Ed Cohn said the group would cease to exist if members didn’t pony up for fundrasier tickets?

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"Don’t think you’ll miss the association?" his facetious/serious letter to members said. "Who are you going to call when the Board of Equalization or California Integrated Waste Management Board comes calling?"

Who indeed.

In fairness, both Ms. Mondo and Ms. Eckardt claim their’s were not shotgun weddings. But both agree that the memberships they had – primarily one or two locations dealers – were not showing signs of increasing.

Time and apathy are the two big reasons dealers don’t join, said Ms. Mondo said. "Some say they don’t have the money, or don’t see the value."

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"What are you going to do for me?" is the reply Ms. Eckardt hears most often when prospecting.

Time was dealers joined associations because they felt obliged to give something back to the industry. Today, it appears to be "all about me."

Outside forces have also taken a toll on state memberships. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t hear about some dealer getting bought out by another. Some simply close without a trace.

Marketing/buying and tire company affinity groups have also had a role, say the directors. Not that they’re bad guys, but these groups now supply many of the services – insurance, uniforms, training, equipment, card processing, check guarantee programs – that state associations delivered and relied on for operating funds.

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The only things these groups can’t provide are legislation monitoring and lobbying.

Is this a new trend? Ms. Eckardt said she knows of two other state dealer groups that are considering mergers. Surely there are others.

For years, state associations have combined on trade shows, training and services, leveraging size for better attendance and exhibitor participation. Don’t be surprised if this courting doesn’t become more permanent.

Is there anything wrong with dealer groups merging with allied automotive organizations? Not really. You can’t argue with strength in numbers, and if the only way interested dealers can benefit is via such arranged marriages, then so be it. The only ones left standing at the alter are the pure commercial dealers, who may not feel a car-oriented group is in their best interest.

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These are marriages of practicality, not bonds of love. Like older couples who marry for companionship and security, not starry-eyed passion.

The combined Florida group now has some 500 members, and CABA is around 300 strong. More importantly, both now have larger prospect bases from which to build.

Sadly, though, is that unless there is a change in attitude, few of their new members will be tire dealers.

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