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Taking the law into their own hands

The aftermarket's grassroots advocates sound off on the importance of political action
Wednesday, July 23, 2008 - 00:00
Can you name your local lawmakers? The state representatives who are charged with protecting your interests in Washington, D.C.? When was the last time you wrote a legislator to explain how a piece of impending legislation would affect your business bottom line?

If these questions have you stumped, chances are it's time for a refresher course on the importance of governmental processes as they relate to independent businesses, as well as the necessity of getting involved in these processes yourself. 

"The thing is, many people feel that they are small, but as an industry we are quite sizable," says Aaron Lowe, vice president of government affairs for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). "The automotive aftermarket employs approximately 4.5 million people and runs up $3 billion in sales a year. Those are strong numbers. If we flex our muscles together, we can have considerable sway in Washington."

Eddie Ehlert, owner of Mazdonly, LTD. in Chamblee, Ga., has been active in local and national politics at a grassroots level since he was a teenager. He's 52 now, and a representative for the Automotive Service Association's (ASA) Government Affairs Committee. As an affiliate representative, Ehlert is responsible for boiling down the concerns and priorities of various state affiliates and bringing them to ASA's Government Affairs Committee, where he helps the members develop policy directions that are presented to the organization’s board of directors.

"Part of our mission is to determine what legislation is in progress or what legislation is needed to correct a problem before bad legislation happens," says Ehlert. "The most effective thing to do is pay attention to what is going on in Congress now and prevent the passage of bad legislation. After a bill becomes law, it's very expensive to reverse it at the state or national level."

Robert L. Redding, Jr., ASA's representative in Washington, D.C., says the organization has always encouraged members to participate in legislative initiatives. In fact, several years ago the association heightened its level of communication through an aggressive direct mail campaign and the launch of an interactive Web site, www.takingthehill.com, which allows members to participate in the political process and band together to speak with one voice.

"Our association, by definition, encourages grassroots activism," Redding says. "Our leaders are democratically elected volunteers, voted in by our shop-owner members. That's a critical piece to our mission and enables us to reach out with opinions and policy messages to the individual repair members and non-members who speak as our representatives."

Although cyberspace is host to a myriad of political action Web sites, ASA's site differentiates itself by focusing on the issues that affect the repair side of the automotive aftermarket. The site features a listing of state and national legislators, searchable by zip code, as well as simple, clear instructions for shop owners to use when e-mailing, writing or calling their representatives. Legislative information is broken down within the site by state and then again by issue, and is easily searchable. And for those who want to participate (but are nervous about contacting a politician), the site includes downloadable form letters and e-mail action alerts that send a well-authored letter citing the organization's position on particular issues directly to the appropriate legislator with the click of a mouse.

ASA's user-friendly site also allows repair shop owners to track current legislation and clearly explains pending bills without legalistic jargon. And, as a bonus, Redding says the site is open to both ASA members and non-members alike, so that all shop owners can find out about the legislative issues facing the automotive aftermarket industry, and particularly the independent repair sector.

The goal, says Redding, is to encourage independent repair shop owners to join ASA so that the group can speak up on issues "with one voice."

"The more members we have, the stronger our message will be at the state and national level," he adds. "Where other organizations in other industries fare well is when they have one organization, with a large percentage of people in that industry belonging to that organization. We're hoping the aftermarket industry will move in that direction."

Bob Constant, owner of Forest Hill Auto Service, Inc. in Pacific Grove, Calif., began paying more attention to the politics that affected his business shortly after he opened his shop — which was 20 years ago.

"I read someplace that the job of a company's CEO or president was to know what rocks were coming down the hill toward their business and to prepare the business for the impact of those rocks," he says. "And that made sense to me. Plus, I'm a retired military man and — to me — it doesn't make any sense to complain about what my government is doing to my business unless I get involved in the political process."

Constant sits on an advisory panel for the California Bureau of Automotive Repair, going to meetings at a state level and helping regulators understand how a particular piece of legislation will impact the industry and making suggestions for modifications, if necessary. He also was recently appointed to the Mechanical Operations Committee of ASA, which brings the voice of independent shop owners together at a national level to talk about trends and address issues within the industry.

In addition to associations within the aftermarket, Constant encourages shop owners to join the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), an association that promotes and protects the right of members to own, operate and grow their businesses. "The benefit for a small business owner is that I get to bring back to my business new knowledge ahead of the power curve," adds Constant. "It helps me help my company be of better service to our customers."

Getting others involved is key to business success

But Ehlert and Constant are the exception, not the rule, within the automotive aftermarket industry. Too many shop owners are not involved with local politics, not even to write letters to legislators when important issues within the industry take center stage and threaten their livelihood.

Amy Mattinat, co-owner of Auto Craftsman in Montpelier, Vt., says that many shop owners in her neck of the woods don't have time to get involved. Instead, they are busy running their businesses and choose to give their extra time over to community service activities like coaching Little League teams or participating in Rotary groups or activities sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce. But Mattinat also feels that these businessmen have another reason for keeping a low profile.

"Our industry is not a clean industry," she says. "I think many shops are trying to keep a low profile because of the environmental issues associated with the repair side of the industry. Sure, many of us are trying to clean up our shops by recycling tires, antifreeze and oil. But because the industry uses so many toxic chemicals as a whole, I think that many independent repairers like to lay low and stay out of the spotlight."

Ehlert agrees that not many of his employees are interested in getting involved.

"We involve everyone in the shop to the point that they are interested in being involved," he says. "But until extremely bad legislation occurs and has a negative effect on our business, people tend not to pay attention."

Like Ehlert, Constant says that it is very difficult to involve other members of his shop in political actions. Which he regrets because "political activism serves a dual purpose. It helps my state and helps my industry as a whole because I am a small business. If I can articulate the issues that face us and give voice to my peers that helps the entire industry."

According to Lowe, shop owners and employees have to be committed to political action; it can't be something they may, or may not, do in their spare time. In fact, it has to be part of a shop's business plan. The small investment in time that writing a letter or placing a phone call will take will have a big return later on, Lowe adds. And you don't have to worry about getting a large number of people together to influence a legislator — sometimes all it takes is a dozen letters on a certain topic to make a politician sit up and take notice.

"In the world we live in, the things that happen in Washington impact your bottom line," says Lowe. "There a lot of things that you can do to get a legislator's attention — most of which don't take a lot of time, but are guaranteed to have huge payoffs in the long run."

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