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Bill Virgin: Wheels of progress roll on in car sales

Manufacturer consolidation has driven consolidation in the dealership business as well, although to a much less extensive degree.
Manufacturer consolidation has driven consolidation in the dealership business as well, although to a much less extensive degree. AP file, 2015

Tacoma has a rich business history, but it’s churning out so much of it these days that there’s little time to ponder how we got where we are, and who got us here, unless or until a bit of it goes away.

Such “stop and think about what it all means” opportunities come along with postings in the obituaries pages of notices of the passing of notable names in the business community — names like James Weller Will, who died Aug. 7.

Will’s life story is worth contemplating not just for its longevity — he made it to 98 years old — but for the changes he witnessed, and in some cases helped drive, in the business of auto retailing.

Will’s name is half of the Titus-Will brand that today can be found on dealerships in Pierce, Thurston and Lewis counties, a collection that makes the company, according to its website, the state’s largest dealer group by volume.

In that paragraph alone is considerable material for rumination. Auto dealers often carry an individual’s name because they’ve long been entrepreneurial enterprises (much as auto manufacturers were in the earliest days, hence the names like Ford or Dodge or Olds on the nameplate). Titus Motor Co. started in 1938. James Will joined Leon Titus Sr., the husband of a cousin, at the latter’s Ford dealership in Tacoma after World War II.

Consolidation and churn have been features of the auto manufacturing business from the earliest days of the industry — General Motors is itself an aggregation of brands — as can be verified by a walk through any of the region’s many outdoor old-car shows during the summer, or through the corridors of the LeMay museum. You don’t need Packard or American Motors dealers if no one is making those cars.

Manufacturer consolidation has driven consolidation in the dealership business as well, although to a much less extensive degree. There still are plenty of one-location independents in the business, but also some local and regional companies assembling portfolios of brands. Lithia Motors, based in Medford, Oregon, is a publicly traded company that operates 139 stores in 15 states selling 31 new car brands. While there have been efforts to build national car-retailing brands, it’s still a mostly local business.

Speaking of brands, the Titus-Will portfolio now includes the original Ford dealership as well as another, plus three Chevy dealerships and Toyota, Buick/GMC, Hyundai and Cadillac locations. Some of those names are as old as American automobile manufacturing. Some would have drawn quizzical stares in 1938 at their mention.

Or, for that matter, in 1969, when Titus-Will bought (according to the notice) property near the recently opened Tacoma Mall and built a dealership, and there’s another trend worth noting. Titus-Will had been housed in a building in the 600 block of Broadway, built in 1919. Modern auto dealerships need a lot of room to spread out to display new and used-car inventories and to accommodate a service department.

The original dealerships were built in city business districts. But when customers moved to the suburbs, where there was plenty of available and developable land, it was inevitable for auto dealers to follow. (Those older dealership buildings, by the way, often make great redevelopment projects. The original Titus-Will building still stands. For some years, it housed Titus-Will Enterprises, a leasing company.)

That’s a lot of change to cram into one business career, even one as long as Will’s, and that doesn’t even touch on the influence of the internet on car sales. It’s not been as massively disruptive as it has in other forms of retailing — for a purchase that big, people still want to put their hands on what they’re buying — but online research is a now-standard part of the routine for buyers, and dealers have had to adapt

More change is coming. For years dealers have fought attempts by manufacturers to sell directly to consumers with state franchise laws. Tesla, a new entrant into the business, has been challenging those laws and has won a few limited victories. If established and new car manufacturers increase the pressure for dropping the direct-sales ban — and succeed in doing so through court decisions and legislation — dealers will have to rethink their operating models.

Then there’s the matter of what kind of cars people will be buying. Ford, the brand that launched the Titus-Will saga, announced this past week plans “to have a high-volume, fully autonomous (Society of Automotive Engineers) Level 4-capable vehicle in commercial operation in 2021 in a ride-hailing or ride-sharing service.” Level 4, defined by the Engineers, means no steering wheel or gas and brake pedals.

Those of James W. Will’s era managed to build long careers by handling change, such as figuring out what a Hyundai is and how to sell it. There’s likely to be some smart people among his successors in the industry who can move merchandise, even when the merchandise can move itself.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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