Keeping the taxman at bay and promoting careers in automotive retailing are among the top priorities of Ontario dealer Cliff Lafreniere, the new president of the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association (TADA).
“The government’s always trying to [pressure dealers] because it’s easiest to go after the car industry,” said Lafreniere, 55, who in 2012 joined the organization that represents about 1,100 new-vehicle dealers in Ontario.
“If they can find a way to tax you, that’s where they are normally going to hit first — on the automobiles or something related to automobiles.
“At the end of the day, dealerships are all trying to do the same thing: Keep the customer happy and make a buck.”
The outgoing president said the industry has to head off any attempts by government to impose new taxes.
“We get hit coming and going. They are always looking for more,” said Susan Gubasta, who is also CEO of Mississauga Toyota. “We have our government relations liaison, Frank Notte, and he is really good at what he does. He’s well connected. But it’s a challenge to get in front of the right people to have those conversations.”
Government, she said, views the auto industry as low-hanging fruit.
“They come after us because there’s so many of us and they think it’s a bit of a cash grab.”
For 31 years, Lafreniere, who will head up TADA for a year, has been dealer principal of Ford Pinewood Park Motors in Kirkland Lake, Ont., located about 600 kilometres north of Toronto.
He is — literally and figuratively — driven to succeed.
BE ‘FACE TO FACE’ IN MEETINGS
Since joining TADA’s board in 2014 — he became an executive committee member in 2016 — he has attended all its meetings. And rather than fly to Toronto, he drives the nearly 12-hour round trip because he finds it faster. At eight to 12 meetings a year, that’s 9,600 to 14,400 kilometres.
“I feel you have to be face to face whenever you are in a meeting,” Lafreniere said.
“When you see the expression of somebody’s face across the table, sometimes it prompts you to ask the question if you feel there is something wrong or you have a suggestion. “And I enjoy driving.” Lafreniere said TADA is an effective voice for dealers. The group, for example, successfully lobbied the province to cancel its Drive Clean vehicle-emissions testing program, which ended April 1. TADA’s operations are run by Todd Bourgon, who has been executive director since 2008.
“I think [TADA] is very important. If nobody wants to help run it, it’s not going to succeed. They do a lot of lobbying insofar as when it comes to government,” said Lafreniere.
One of his objectives is to promote the opportunities in the industry, which is facing a chronic shortage of workers in the skilled trades.
“A lot of people think [it’s only about] a salesperson or a technician, but there’s a lot of different roles that transpire in a dealership,” he said.
“If we can get that out there and get more people interested in our industry... that’s basically what I want to do.”
Lafreniere becomes only the third president in the organization’s 108year history from outside the Greater Toronto Area.
“I think it’s great to have people from all parts of the province,” said Lafreniere, who took over in April. “I think we have a pretty good mix now of big dealers and small dealers, which is really nice.”
Lafreniere’s time and commitment to TADA will compete with his job operating a business that is expanding to eight service bays from five in the next few months.
Ford Pinewood Park Motors total about 10,000 square feet (950 square metres) and has 18 staff.
His 34-year-old son, Matthew, joined him as a partner last fall.
“We’re a small operation and I’m hands-on,” Lafreniere said. “I’m involved in everything; that’s just the way I am. I am a first-generation dealer, so I have trouble letting go of things.”