Florida business Hall of Famer Wayne Huizenga must be amused.
As founder of AutoNation, now the country's biggest retailer of vehicles, Huizenga envisioned taking the AutoNation name countrywide as a single dealership brand in an industry full of local dealership names. AutoNation executives, veterans Mike Jackson and Mike Maroone, were all set to execute that strategy.
Except it never happened.
In the late 1990s, automakers were still powerful and did not like the potential loss of industry clout to a retailer unified nationally under one name. Lawsuits followed and a settlement was reached.
AutoNation would pick one brand name per market. That's how Tampa Bay ended up with the AutoWay name on more than a dozen area dealerships, all representing the regional brand for parent company AutoNation.
AutoNation this week said it will now do what it could not do 13 years ago. It will adopt the AutoNation name at more than 210 stores that sell new and used vehicles in 15 states, including Florida, California, Colorado and Texas.
The AutoWay brand in Tampa Bay, stamped relentlessly into our minds for years with the ad jingle based on the Who you gonna call? theme of the Ghostbusters movies, will be swapped for AutoNation in May.
Other metro dealership brands in Florida, including the "Maroone" name in South Florida and "Mike Shad" used in Jacksonville, also will convert to AutoNation.
There will be some exceptions. AutoNation will not put the AutoNation name on about 40 stores in its premium luxury division, which include Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
No dealership in the country comes close to rivaling AutoNation's size. Tampa Bay brands like Ferman or Crown or Dimmitt or Lokey are well recognized here but are not represented in other markets.
After AutoNation, the next largest player is Hendrick Automotive of Charlotte, N.C., which boasts about three dozen stores. AutoNation is also publicly traded, with its shares near recent highs. The company's market value tops $5.7 billion — bigger than any public company based in the Tampa Bay area.
Eddie Lampert, who runs Sears and Kmart, is AutoNation's biggest shareholder.
AutoNation announced plans to go nationwide with its name brand on the same day that it unveiled all-time record quarterly and annual financial results.
Thirteen years ago, a smaller AutoNation bowed to the legal pressures from auto giants like GM and Ford. Since then, the industry balance of power has shifted, and AutoNation recognized the opportunity to do now what it wanted from the start.
"The launch of the AutoNation brand unifies us under one flag rather than as local market brands," AutoNation CEO Jackson stated. "This is an incredibly important moment for us as a company and has the full support of our manufacturer partners who approved the change to the AutoNation brand."
The move to one brand will save AutoNation on marketing costs and boost its presence online and in search results.
One CNN-Money magazine headline might say it best, if prematurely:
AutoNation to become McDonald's of car dealers.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]