In late February, just before the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic and stay-at-home orders throughout the nation hindered most in-person business dealings, Myra Dandridge was settling into a newly created role at the National Automobile Dealers Association.

As the association’s first executive director of external affairs and public policy — and a newcomer to the auto industry — Dandridge is tasked with fostering relationships with professional associations, government agencies and third-party groups and educating those groups on the impact franchised dealers have on their communities and nationwide.

“I want to hear the thoughts on the intersection of issues that impact the automobile retailing industry and the organizations that I will be engaging with and to find ways to successfully collaborate with those groups,” she told Automotive News.

Dandridge has worked in media relations and politics for more than 20 years and has held key roles at organizations such as the National Association of Broadcasters and the Congressional Black Caucus. She said her primary focus at NADA will be “to initiate or cultivate relationships, maintain strategic partnerships and build bridges where none may have existed before.”

Staff Reporter Audrey LaForest spoke with Dandridge, 55, about how she’s tackling those goals with video conferencing and a strong, dependable Internet connection. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: Can you share what you’ve been doing in this role?

A: I’ve done a few targeted meet-and-greets to

develop relationships and to kick-start the education process between NADA and these groups.

For example, groups like NAACP, [the League of United Latin American Citizens] and the National Urban League care about issues facing the Black and Hispanic communities, but as it relates to the automotive industry, they may not have a full understanding of how important dealer-assisted financing is for their constituents and their ability to save money on vehicle purchases.

If all that existed was direct auto lending, it would be harder for many Americans in general, but particularly people of color and those Americans that are economically disadvantaged to obtain affordable auto loans. Unfortunately, these groups may not be fully aware of this fact because our industry hasn’t properly educated them.

So I have a lot of work to do in this space, but we absolutely have areas of common interest, and my job is to help connect those dots.

How have you approached this job since there wasn’t a road map?

I am in the process of creating my own road map. I’ve approached the position as a student. This is a huge, complex, multifaceted industry with many touch points. I realized that I needed to do a lot of listening — listening to my colleagues and listening to dealership owners and those on the front line.

Additionally, I’ve had many conversations with friends, with family and people that are outside of the industry to get their opinion on how they view car dealers and car dealerships.

How has the COVID-19 crisis changed your approach?

I have two words for you: Microsoft Teams. Clearly, the pandemic has changed the way we interact with others, both professionally and personally. And, not unlike most people, everything I do including meetings and conferences is done using my computer.

Additionally, I think the biggest and most obvious change brought on by the pandemic is the lack of human contact and not being able to do the things I would normally do if we were not all under a mandatory quarantine — small, simple things like taking a face-to-face meeting.

What has surprised you about the franchised dealers represented by NADA?

The familial aspect of the industry. I was surprised by the large number of dealers who are either running or working in their family-owned dealerships. These people are legacy workers, which I think is awesome from a stability and continuity standpoint.

The word “localism” is key here. The families are in the local community. The local community knows the family, and there’s a special commitment and relationship that dealers have with those local communities.

What’s on your to-do list for the remainder of 2020?

I want to continue to build out a robust coalition, one that’s deep and wide. We usually hear that statement when we’re talking about baseball, but I’m going to apply it here.

So, to build out this coalition that’s deep and wide, and one that’s composed of groups that represent a mosaic of constituencies including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, women, those from the LGBTQ community and those working for social justice concerns, and Caucasians.

The makeup of these groups is not so dissimilar to the people who work in our local franchised car dealerships or who live in those communities or who purchase cars at those dealerships.

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