Commentary

Search Begins As AutoNation's Jackson Says He'll Step Down As CEO

Mike Jackson, a former Mercedes mechanic turned marketing executive, announced yesterday that he will step down as AutoNation CEO next year after a 19-year run, but will stay on as its executive chairman through 2021.

“Mr. Jackson is an industry disruptor and innovator,” the news release announcing his new role and the launch of a search for his successor as CEO and president, states.

Indeed, he has been that.

“For decades, car dealerships were mostly family-owned local businesses with little hope of pushing back against manufacturers,” writes Neal E. Boudette for the New York Times. “In his nearly two decades as the chief executive and chairman of AutoNation, Mike Jackson is credited with changing that -- and showing that a large, publicly traded company can make it in the business of selling cars.” 

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Auto Nation was founded in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. in 1996 by billionaire  H. Wayne Huizenga, a college dropout who also created Waste Management and Blockbuster. He died in March. 

At the time he was recruited and hired by Huizenga in 1999, Jackson was head of Mercedes-Benz of America.

“Jackson is credited with being a transformative leader, who formed a single brand and strategy around a collection of dealerships across the country. At the time, the idea of rolling up auto dealerships into a large network was unconventional and there were some doubts as to whether it could be accomplished,” writes CNBC’s Robert Ferris.

“I like a challenge,” Jackson said yesterday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

And he has proven pretty good at meeting them. AutoNation has generated about a 340% return for shareholders since Jackson has run it, according to the company.  In all, it owns and operates more than 325 locations coast to coast and has sold more than 11 million vehicles.

“Although AutoNation has run into headwinds as the auto market has softened after its 2016 peak, it is the country’s largest chain of car dealerships and the leading seller of brands including Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota,” the NYT’s Boudette continues.

“AutoNation doesn’t have an obvious successor. In 2017, Jackson added the title of president, when William Berman resigned after only three months in the position. Berman also had been a 20-year executive at AutoNation and chief operating officer since 2015,” writes Marcia Heroux Pounds for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

“Jackson said he never named a new president because he was already talking with his mentor and AutoNation founder, H. Wayne Huizenga, about making the transition to executive chairman,” Heroux continues.  

“Wayne taught me life is a series of chapters that need to be thought about and acted on. I took that to heart,” Jackson tells Heroux Pounds, while also revealing that both internal and external candidates will be considered for the CEO and president position.

“A New Jersey native who got his start fixing cars at a Mercedes dealership, Mr. Jackson is known in the industry for his bluntness. A frequent commentator on CNBC, his outspokenness has served as a contrast to most auto executives, who tend to steer clear of controversy,” writes Adrienne Roberts for the Wall Street Journal.

“You call, I come and I’ve got a point of view,” he told the hosts of “Squawk Box” yesterday while declaring that “we’re past the inflection point on electrification.” He also predicted “a day of reckoning” for Tesla while opining that “auto sales will remain healthy, unless the Fed keeps hiking rates.”

He was also tough on Tesla in an interview with Bloomberg Radio yesterday.

“For a boutique-y model, what he’s [CEO Elon Musk] doing is fine,” Jackson said, suggesting that Tesla would have been better off not handling its own retailing, reportBloomberg’s Craig Trudell and Lisa Abramowicz. “As soon as he wants to do volume, it’s gonna be an issue. Well, here we are, we’re now at the issue. It is hell.”

Huizenga hired Jackson in 1999 to revive the company’s stock price and boost its credibility with Wall Street, the WSJ’s Roberts says. 

“Jackson, who grew up in a large Irish-American family, quickly rose through the auto retailing ranks, eventually owning his own Mercedes dealership and later joining the German luxury brand to run sales and marketing in the U.S. By 1992, he was president of Mercedes’s U.S. operations,” she writes.

“Although Mr. Jackson said he had no specific plans for retirement, he said he would remain active in AutoNation’s Drive Pink breast cancer research campaign, to which the company has donated $15 million since 2014 and promotes with the pink license plate frames that franchises affix to every new vehicle they sell,” the NYT’s Boudette reports.

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