It was the last quarterly earnings call in which Mike Jackson will be the sitting chief executive of AutoNation, but not one without the usual candid, opinionated and ultimately insightful commentary from the longtime CEO.
During the Q&A portion of the February call, an analyst encouraged Jackson to remain a “vocal” presence in the car business.
“Oh yeah, yeah. Call me up, and I’ll have an opinion or two,” Jackson said in response.
Later, his thoughts regarding the potential impact of tariffs on vehicles imported to the U.S., proposed by President Donald Trump, were similar in candor.
“Auto tariffs will make the steel and aluminum tariffs look like a picnic,” Jackson said.
“They will be very disruptive to the auto industry and probably knock the global economy off its stride significantly … they’re so disruptive, it’s almost unthinkable,” he said.
“I think it’s all about leverage and brinkmanship in a trade negotiation, and at the end of the day, it’s mutual destruction to implement tariffs of these levels on autos,” Jackson said. “Let alone the fact that there’s no underlying authority that’s justifiable to do it.
“That it’s a national security issue when the U.S. auto industry is healthier than it’s been in decades is a stretch. But, OK, let’s not let any facts or clear thinking get in the way,” he said.
“I think, at the end of the day, it’s all about a negotiation, but we also know (that) in negotiations, things can spiral out of control, and there can be unintended consequences,” Jackson said. “But I think that’s a very low percentage. At the end of the day, that will happen, but it will be very entertaining between now and the end of the negotiation.”
You can be sure Jackson will be paying attention to — perhaps offering entertaining commentary himself — the potential impact of auto tariffs and how other economic issues play out in the auto reail industry, albeit from a new role.
As reported previously in AuSM, AutoNation is set to usher in a new chief executive officer and president on Monday.
The retailer announced in February that current USAA chief operating officer Carl Liebert would replace Jackson as president and CEO; Jackson will take on the position of executive chairman of the board that same day.
“AutoNation has a clear strategy that sets it apart in the auto retail sector and diversifies the typical retail business model. The company’s brand extension strategy has given it an edge in what is a cyclical business,” Liebert said in a news release.
“The opportunities that lie ahead for AutoNation are massive, and the ability to lead this next chapter is deeply humbling and exciting,” he said. “I am focused on enhancing the customer experience, AutoNation’s industry-leading store operating model, the logistics strategy for brand extensions, and digital opportunities for retail and business to business customers. I am confident in the road ahead, and I am honored to lead this extraordinary company.”
The vote by the board to name Liebert president and CEO was unanimous, AutoNation said, and was “fully” supported by the two largest shareholders in the company, Cascade Investment and ESL Investments.
In addition to time as chief operating officer and executive vice president at USAA, Liebert’s experience also includes time as the executive vice president for stores at The Home Depot, and he is a former U.S. Navy Officer, as well.
During the earnings call, Jackson explained a bit about AutoNation’s process of finding his successor. The company, of course, had specific criteria for the new CEO.
“There was quite some discussion whether we would openly find it all in one individual,” Jackson said. “And I’m thrilled and excited that, in fact, we did.”
Liebert has shown that he can enter industries that are new to him, “and master them,” Jackson said.
The incoming CEO has experience in retail at scale, and “you really can’t reach that,” Jackson said.
“He’s an operator, and we are an operating business. That’s a strength we need. And he has a tremendous respect for operations,” Jackson said. “Then I look at our brand extension in parts. We need world-class skill in supply chain logistics.
“That is something that we’re currently building. I would say it’s not something I grew up doing. I’ve never done it in my life, in my career. And so, we very much wanted that as a core skill set of the next CEO,” he said. “So not only does Carl have that skill, but he looked at the opportunity and sees what it can mean to this company.”
Lastly, Jackson emphasized the digital platform savvy of USAA, which has nearly 13 million members utilizing the digital platform — one that is mostly mobile-based, he said.
“So we found it all in one individual, and then lo and behold, the icing on the cake is that he’s a car guy,” Jackson said of Liebert, who interestingly enough, was an announcer on the drag racing strip growing up.
“It doesn’t get better than that,” Jackson said. “He’s got a love and a passion for the cars, and we’ll teach him the ins-and-outs of the automobile business, but there is no question in my mind that he will master it and be a great leader for this company over the next decade.”