AutoNation Inc. said this week that its longtime Chief Executive Mike Jacksonis stepping down after leading the U.S.’s largest dealership chain for nearly 20 years. Since 1999, Mr. Jackson, 69, has transformed the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based company into a more focused and profitable auto retailer, selling cars at more than 325 U.S. locations under one national brand.
Mr. Jackson’s outspoken personality has also stood out in a tight-lipped industry. He has chided auto makers for overproducing cars and pushing dealers to take the inventory. He has also been vocal in his criticism of President Trump.
He spoke to The Wall Street Journal about his management style and the importance of speaking up on behalf of consumers and dealers. Here are edited excerpts:
Were you always outspoken or did you become comfortable with speaking bluntly at a certain point?
As far as having a compass that points true north, that came from my father who said, ‘Mike, always do the right thing. Just ignore your short term critics. If you always do the right thing at the end of the day they will respect you and respect is more important than likability.’ I’ve gotten this speech from my father 1,000 times. When I arrived at AutoNation, I observed that it was this huge industry for which there was no voice for the customer, no voice of the retailer and the manufacturer completely dominated the decision-making. I said, ’The world is upside down.’ I might not be the most liked individual by the manufacturers but I certainly am respected.
How do you make decisions?
I could probably write a book. I call it a participatory management system. That is you have outstanding executives around the table. No bell curve— eight, nine and 10s. They must be very skilled in their assigned discipline, but they also must have a broader perspective. We have an understanding that no major decisions are made without the executive committee. There are nine of us today and we meet every Monday religiously. Our travel schedules revolve around it. I’m responsible for the quality of the debate and to drive it to a decision. This is not a consensus process at all. It’s a participatory process.
Do you have meetings at a particular time of day?
Yes, 1 p.m. Monday. Here’s the deal. We’re a retail business. Everybody has to figure out what happened over the weekend, what decisions need to be made Monday morning and get the week moving. Everybody is free to get lunch. I don’t like running meetings when people are hungry. Everybody knows the meeting is over when it’s over. We’ve done them in an hour, and we’ve done them in five hours.
What is your daily schedule like?
I’m up between 3:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. I read 10 newspapers from around the world on my iPad. I have a couple cups of coffee. I do my workout and get ready. My lovely wife Alice comes down and I make her a cup of coffee. We have breakfast together, and I’m off and running. Then, I come home and have dinner. I always close the day with Alice. We read every night. No TV. Now, I do look at my phone one last time before bed. At the moment, I’m reading “Fear” by Bob Woodward, and I’m reading it slowly because I want to take in every page.
What lessons have you learned running the largest U.S. dealership group?
I’ve always tried to stay humble and be a listener. I have a profound understanding—because I did it myself—of what it takes to sell something. I’ve never really disconnected from the showroom floor or the shop floor on the technical side. That has served me well. At the same time, I’m convinced you have to take risks, manage the risks and that’s allowed me to do things such as branding AutoNation from coast to coast and walking away from [dealership] names that are 100 years old. Take risks, manage the risks, stay humble, listen and speak up when you need to.
How do you think about the stock price?
When I arrived at AutoNation, I said the following: ‘Automotive is a cyclical business.’ I will never change that. It’s going to have its ups and downs. We’re going to be in favor and out of favor. Therefore, I’m going to develop a business model that has operating profit, no matter what happens. In 20 years, we’ve never had an operating loss. When the stock is out of favor, for whatever reason, I will buy it aggressively. I don’t buy the stock every day or on sunny days. I buy it when I know I’m making money, and I have a strong balance sheet. That’s created a lot of shareholder value over the two decades.