Motor Vehicle Dealers

SIC 5511

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

The world's car dealerships sell new and used cars and light trucks to the general public. They include manufacturer franchises and independent retailers. New car franchises also often perform repair services, including manufacturer-authorized repairs. For more details on trends affecting the broader automotive industry, see also SIC 5012: Automobiles and Other Motor Vehicles and SIC 3714: Motor Vehicle Parts and Accessories.

Industry Snapshot

The automotive industry as a whole faced overwhelming difficulties at the end of the first decade of the 2000s as the economy sank into a deep recession and gas prices were highly volatile. In addition, the banking industry was in crisis, creating a credit crunch that brought automotive sales to a grinding halt. Two of Detroit's Big Three manufacturers (Chrysler and General Motors) accepted billions of dollars in federal bail-out money to salvage the failing industry, but, by mid-2009, they had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As a result, car dealership profits were down to near 20-year record lows and thousands of dealership across the United States were shutting their doors in the face of ongoing slow sales. Fortunately for Chrysler and General Motors (GM), the government bailout allowed them to survive and begin a return to profitability. The third of the Big Three automakers, Ford, also survived, but without government assistance. As of early 2012 Ford was still paying off the $23.5 billion it had privately borrowed to survive, according to Joann Muller in the January 10, 2012, issue of Forbes. Although many dealerships had closed during the lean years during the global economic depression at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, by 2011 recovery was on the horizon. That year, total sales at U.S. car dealerships rose 12.3 percent, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), reaching $34.7 million.

Organization and Structure

While the central function of car dealerships is selling cars, dealerships often engage in two related business lines: financing and repairs. At the end of the first decade of the 2000s and in the early 2010s, the industry remained highly fragmented with 90 percent of market share controlled by small regional and independent dealers. Small dealerships usually do not have resources to offer financing, but large chains may grant car loans as a service to their customers and as a source of additional revenue and profit. Many more dealers also offer maintenance and repair services, typically to customers of the dealership or to owners of cars from the dealership's franchised line.

Pricing has long been a debated issue in auto retailing, and it is one that regained attention as the new superstores eschewed negotiable pricing in their outlets. As in many retail trades, new car retailers priced their products based in part on a manufacturer's suggested prices and in part on other factors, including current demand and incentive programs, which usually resulted in cars selling at less than the manufacturer's suggested level. Sometimes there could be a wide disparity between a car's list price and its usual selling price. In France, for example, auto dealers routinely sold Renault and Citroen models, which manufacturers marked up at a premium to comparable imported models.

A major determinant in traditional pricing was also buyer negotiation--more often termed haggling--based on what the buyer might know about the dealer's costs or prices of competitive products. By the early 2010s, consumers increasingly paid attention to, and had greater access to, information about dealers' costs, the value of various option packages, and the average mark-up on car prices to cover dealer costs and profit--information that is easily researched on the Internet. This information gave consumers considerable bargaining power and helped keep prices, and, consequently, dealer profits, low compared with earlier periods.

Traditional used car pricing usually involved a similar process of negotiation. However, with used cars, the cost and market value could be much more ambiguous. Factors like a used car's age, condition, and relative popularity figured into its valuation, and while published "book" values were available for comparison, the procedure might be cloaked in much greater subjectivity compared to new car pricing. The murkiness of used car valuation is, in part, what made the used car side of the business more profitable, as dealers often had flexibility to mark up trade-ins and other acquisitions at much higher rates than new cars. However, it also led to some abuses, particularly when consumers were unaware of the average market price for a car (or the exact condition of all of its components) and a dealer convinced him or her to pay much more than it was worth.

New Car Franchises.
Compared to other retail businesses, car dealerships were unusually dependent on manufacturers since new cars in Japan, Western Europe, and North America were sold almost exclusively by companies that had been granted one or more dealership franchises by manufacturers. All of the world's leading automakers thus regulated the number and type of retailers that sold their products with increasing scrutiny. Some manufacturers watched with discomfort as consolidators purchased the businesses to which they had granted franchises. A notable dispute erupted in 1997 between Republic Industries Inc., parent company of AutoNation, and automakers Honda and Toyota. The manufacturers attempted to ban Republic from acquiring more than a certain number of their franchise holders within certain markets and over a specific time frame. Toyota, for example, mandated a nine-month waiting period between acquisitions of its franchises and imposed maximum limits of seven separate Toyota franchises and three Lexus franchises per retailer.

New car dealership franchises were usually granted along the lines of the manufacturers' different marketing divisions. This means, for instance, that General Motors issued separate licenses to market different lines, such as Chevrolet and Buick, so a Chevrolet-brand dealer did not automatically have rights to sell Buick models.

Used Car Dealers.
While car dealers often marketed used as well as new cars, including many that were traded in during the purchase of new cars, used car dealers exclusively dealt in previously owned vehicles. These cars were obtained from wholesalers, auctions, or private individuals. As a result, used car dealers were considered to be independent, required no license from manufacturers, and were able to sell any make and any model.

Background and Development

Automotive retailing worldwide underwent rapid transformation in the 1990s. In major markets, such as Japan, Western Europe, and the United States, widely fragmented retail structures began to give way to larger, consolidated dealerships. Although demand for new cars was relatively flat during the mid-1990s, squeezing already tight profit margins at dealerships, North American dealerships were posting higher levels of sales and earnings than ever before by the end of the decade. Fueled by these sales, the number of dealerships in the United States grew to 22,007 in 2000, compared to 22,004 in 1999. Although the addition of three dealerships may appear insignificant at first glance, the increase was important as it marked the first such upswing in the United States since 1986. Between 1992 and 1997, the total number of car dealers in the United States had declined about 4 percent.

Drawing the most attention at the end of the twentieth century, perhaps, was the rise of dealership consolidators and so-called superstore chains, which assembled an extensive line of new or, more often, used cars in a customer-friendly sales environment. The superstores, which originated in the United States with such chains as AutoNation USA and CarMax, were based on mass merchandising's category-killer concept, first pioneered in the United States by the likes of Toys 'R' Us and later refined by such chains as Home Depot and Office Depot. The goal of these chains was to combine in one place a wide selection of popular merchandise that theoretically had everything falling under a particular retail category in one store that might otherwise be sold by several separate traditional retailers. CarMax, which was launched by the Circuit City electronics category chain, and its counterparts sought to bring economies of scale to the traditionally local and decentralized automotive retail sector. Dealer consolidators had the same goal as they acquired a large number of dealerships in targeted markets instead of creating a unified brand image for all of their outlets. They then merged back-office administrative operations, including ordering and advertising, while usually keeping the local name and image of the dealerships.

Critics of these chains pointed out that the revenue growth of many consolidators and superstores resulted solely from the rapid accumulation of new sales outlets, such as AutoNation's acquisition of nearly 400 stores in less than 16 years. Skeptics disagreed about the impact these dealer groups would have on the industry. Despite the publicized frequency of dealer buyouts by consolidators, consolidators controlled less than 5 percent of the market in 1997. Consolidation did appear to pay off for the largest industry players, however. According to Automotive News, the 100 largest dealership groups sold 2.1 million units in 1999, which accounted for 12.3 percent of sales in the United States, and 2.4 million units or 13.6 percent of sales in 2000.

Profitability proved to be a key issue for car dealers in the late 1990s. After the value of manufacturing was subtracted, about one-fourth of the average new car's retail price was left to cover dealer costs and profit. In 1998 the average U.S. new car sold for $22,000, leaving $5,500 for the dealer. On the slim margins typical of the late 1990s, profits averaged just 1 to 2 percent of a car's sales price. Between 1999 and 2000, the average price of a new automobile grew only 1.8 percent, the lowest increase since 1991. Many industry watchers, including manufacturers and the emerging consolidators, speculated that room for considerable efficiency gains existed in car distribution that would allow a much higher share of the dealer mark-up to go toward profits. This belief underpinned the business philosophy of the consolidators.

Fueled by low unemployment and high consumer confidence, auto markets in Western Europe and North America reached near record levels in both sales and production in the late 1990s and the early years of the first decade of the 2000s. Although many dealers expected that new car sales would soften in 2001 as economic conditions weakened, just the opposite proved to be true. The catalyst for this turnaround was the decision by General Motors to launch a zero-interest financing campaign for new car buyers. The success of the "Keep America Rolling" program, which was put in place to boost sales after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, prompted other automakers to follow suit. As a result, what had been predicted to be a bleak year for dealers emerged as the second-best sales year in industry history. Dealers found themselves in the unique position of being able to reap the benefits of the expensive marketing campaign, while not having to eat the associated costs, which undercut earnings for most major car manufacturers in 2001.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Internet had become an important marketing tool for car dealers. According to J.D. Power and Associates, a growing number of car dealer Web sites attracted a total of more than 8 million visitors a month in 2001. Research Web sites, such as those operated by Kelley Blue Book, secured roughly 20 million monthly visitors that year. These numbers reflected the fact that although only 5 percent of new vehicle purchasers actually completed transactions online, nearly 60 percent of new car buyers used the Internet to research their purchases before contacting a dealer. Predictions in the late 1990s that the Internet would replace traditional dealers proved false, even as businesses like began to sell directly to consumers via the Internet. Instead, most of the online players who survived the dot-com meltdown of 2000 worked directly with traditional dealers. For example, in 2001 Autobytel generated about 4 percent of all new vehicle sales in the United States by directing online shoppers either to dealer Web sites or to dealer showrooms.

Globally, the retail industry for automobiles remained highly fragmented, although consolidation began to occur due to increased capital requirements of dealerships, the limited options open to dealers to exit the business, and the strategy of some manufacturers to strengthen their brand identity by consolidating their franchised dealerships.

In the United States, the automotive industry remained the largest sector of the retail industry in 2004, with total sales of approximately $1 trillion, equal to about one-quarter of all U.S. retail sales. According to a 2005 study by the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), franchised new car dealers sold 16.86 million new vehicles in 2004, worth $714 billion, and 20 million used vehicles, 11.8 million of which were retailed and 7.9 million of which were wholesaled.

Industry consolidation slowed in the United States during 2004. The number of dealerships dropped marginally, but continued on a downward trend, dropping from a high of 25,150 in 1987 to 21,640. However, dealerships in 2004 were larger and sold greater volumes. In that year, 6,490 dealerships sold more than 750 new vehicles each per year, whereas in 1985, there were only 3,850 dealerships with sales that high.

The trend for hybrid model vehicles, which use both gas and electric power, was a significant development in the industry in the second half of the first decade of the 2000s. While the high sticker price of hybrids was still a factor, prices were expected to drop as the technology developed. Nevertheless, hybrids were in demand from both environmentally aware consumers and high mileage drivers.

By 2007 there the number of import dealerships was increasing in some of the strongest U.S. domestic markets. According to The Dallas Morning News, import dealers were "getting bigger and better" while becoming the largest group of area auto retailers. Many of the import dealerships were determined to improve their service departments and offered heightened levels of customer service, including vehicle delivery and concierge services.

Automotive News' "2007 Market Data, Dealer Data" reported that in 2006, the average U.S. dealership's net pretax profit amounted to 1.5 percent of total sales. The number of import-exclusive U.S. dealerships rose by 223 in 2006 to 6,127. There were 21,761 new vehicle dealerships at the beginning of 2007, which was down from 328 for the same time in 2006.

In 2007 the NADA asked the U.S. Senate to bring more transparency to the used car buying process by requiring insurance companies to provide consumers more access to data on their vehicles. Information about severely damaged, stolen, and flooded vehicles was of particular interest. Concerns grew after it was discovered that many vehicles that had been totaled or flood-damaged by Hurricane Katrina were rebuilt and back on the road. A vehicle with a salvage title could be easily "cleaned" or "washed" in a state with weak title disclosure rules. The NADA made an appeal for insurance companies to do more to prevent title fraud.

According to The Dallas News, both domestic and import dealership employees received approximately the same levels of pay and benefits. The pay received by managers related to dealership size more than to brand. Sales increases at import dealerships meant salespersons there had the opportunity to earn more through their commissions. Developments in Dallas were believed to mirror occurrences throughout the United States.

One of the most successful dealership owner discoveries was that investing in employees benefited everyone. Detroit Auto Dealers Association President Joe Serra ran a profitable business that was ranked twenty-first by Automotive News, which earned more than $800 million, selling 20,715 new and 10,283 used vehicles in 2006. "I have partners in each of the stores. I'm an investor," Serra told the Detroit Free Press. Serra believed in helping employees and even sponsored a scholarship program for their children. AutoNation CEO Mike Maroone said, "His dad [Al] was one of the first mega-dealers, Joe's just taken it to the next level."

Beginning in late 2007, an economic recession hit the U.S. economy, the banking industry found itself in crisis, and the availability of credit disappeared. Consumer spending slowed significantly, unemployment rates rose, and good credit terms became harder to secure--if credit sources could be found at all. In addition, despite billions of dollars in bail-out money, both Chrysler and General Motors filed for protection under Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 30 and June 1, 2009, respectively. At the end of 2008, CNW Marketing Research, Inc. reported that the number of franchised automotive dealerships had fallen to 19,000.

According to the NADA, the workforce of the new auto dealership industry also dropped, with 50,000 jobs lost in 2008, as dealers sought ways to cut costs. Industry leader AutoNation, Inc., eliminated 3,650 positions in 2008. Employment numbers continued to fall in 2009 as more dealerships closed in the wake of General Motors' and Chrysler's bankruptcies. Chrysler announced that it would close approximately 790 of its nearly 3,200 dealerships as part of its bankruptcy proceedings.

In 2008 U.S. sales of new automobiles fell to 13.2 million, down from 16.1 million in 2007 and the lowest total since 1992. Dealerships found no relief in the first half of 2009. Year-to-date (YTD) sales of all light vehicles in May 2009 totaled 3.95 million units, compared with May 2008 YTD sales of 6.22 million. Although all makes reported declining numbers, General Motors and Chrysler fell dramatically. General Motors' May 2008 year-to-date (YTD) total sales volume was down 46 percent, and sales volume of domestic cars fell over 58 percent. Similarly, Chrysler's May 2008 YTD total sales volume was down 42 percent, while domestic car volume was down 44 percent and imported cars fell 63 percent.

Market research firm A.T. Kearney, suggested in the May 2009 edition of American Metal Market that light vehicle sales traditionally fall during recessions. However, because consumers delay major purchases like new cars during difficult economic times, pent up demand results. Eventually, as the economy begins to recover, that demand is unleashed. A.T. Kearney accurately projected that new car sales would continue to fall during 2009 but would rebound by 2012.

Current Conditions

In 2011 U.S. car dealerships sold only 12.8 million new cars, and by 2012, whether or not the U.S. auto industry was in a state of recovery was a matter of debate. However, most analysts predicted that auto sales would begin to improve, with one estimate expecting new car sales to top out at between 13.5 million to 14 million by the end of 2012. Much of the growth was a result of pent-up demand of Americans who had held off buying during the economic recession. According to online source Kicking Tires, by 2012 cars on U.S. roads were older than ever before, with a median age of 10.8 years. This created a demand for new and replacement vehicles, and U.S. dealerships were ready to meet that demand. Economist Paul Taylor of the NADA summed up the U.S. car sales situation in January 2012, saying "It's a better market. Cars are on the move, and we're guardedly optimistic."

Industry Leaders

AutoNation Inc.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based AutoNation, which has roots as a waste disposal company dating to the 1980s, rose quickly in the mid-1990s to become the world's largest, flashiest, and most controversial automotive retailer. Under the leadership of H. Wayne Huizenga, who was also the founder of market-leading Blockbuster Video and Waste Management, AutoNation embarked on a string of dealership acquisitions. Simultaneously, the firm bought up a number of the largest car rental firms in the United States and Europe.

AutoNation was reputed to buy franchise dealerships at substantially higher valuations than ever before paid in the industry, particularly during the initial years of operation from 1995 to 1997. When Ford Motor Company tried a small-scale experiment to buy a few of its dealers, it found that dealers were unwilling to accept Ford's conventional buyout offer because they apparently wanted deals on par with AutoNation's high-stakes payments. Although AutoNation was by no means the only aggressive consolidator in the United States, it came to symbolize the tumult facing the industry. In early 1998, a leading auto industry trade journal featured an issue with extensive coverage of how small dealers were responding to competitors like AutoNation. Most sentiments were against the consolidation trend, although some industry executives expressed the surprising view that nearby superstores were helping their conventional businesses because their heavy advertising and novelty attracted more car shoppers to a central area, and many of them also browsed traditional dealerships along the way.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, AutoNation had divested its car rental holdings and closed its 23 used car megastores. Believing that it had grown too quickly, the firm also decreased the number of its dealerships from 290 in 1999 to 282 in 2000. Franchises also were pared down from 395 to 375 over the same time, and dropped further to 358 by 2004. During 2004, the company retailed 650,000 new and used cars of 35 different brands. Sales that year increased slightly to reach approximately $19.4 billion, and net income continued to show signs of improvement.

AutoNation followed the entire auto industry's downward trend at the end of the first decade of the 2000s. Revenue was $19 billion in 2006 but fell to $17.7 billion in 2007 and dropped again in 2008 to $14.1 billion. More alarming was the sharp decline in the company's reported total net income, which dropped from a gain of $278.7 million in 2007 to a loss of $1.2 billion in 2008. The company reported diluted earnings per share--which were $1.39 and $1.38 in 2006 and 2007, respectively--as a loss of $6.99 per share in 2008. The company;rsquo;s common stock, traded on the New York Stock Exchange, took a serious hit, falling from a high per share price of $23.19 in the first quarter of 2007 to a low of $3.97 per share in the fourth quarter of 2008. By 2008, AutoNation's total assets had declined nearly $2.8 billion since 2005 and its long-term debt had nearly tripled to $1.2 billion over the same period.

By 2011 AutoNation reported owning 240 new car franchises with approximately 19,000 employees in 15 states. It also offered high-tech sales policies and online sales options through and individual dealer Web sites. Additional AutoNation offerings included maintenance and repair services, auto parts, vehicle financing, and insurance. The company reported sales of approximately $13.8 billion in 2011.

Penske Automotive Group.
Penske Automotive Group was the second-largest large automotive dealership in the United States. In 2011 the company operated approximately 325 dealerships in 15 states as well as more than 140 international franchises, primarily in the United Kingdom but also in Puerto Rico and Germany. Imports like Audi, BMW, and Honda account for all but about 5 percent of Penske's sales.

Reacting to the collapse of the retail automotive market during 2008, Penske cut about 1,400 jobs, representing approximately 10 percent of its workforce. Similar to AutoNation, Penske Automotive's stock also dropped dramatically, from a high of $24.62 per share in the first quarter of 2007 to a low of $5.04 in the fourth quarter of 2008. Total sales for 2008 were down also, from $12.8 billion in 2007 to $11.6 billion in 2008. The decline was due primarily to a 14 percent year-on-year decline in same-store sales. While the company posted a net income of $127 million in 2007, it reported a net loss of $411.9 million in 2008. Diluted earnings per share were $1.35 in 2007 and a loss of $4.45 in 2008. In June 2009, Penske Automotive agreed to take over the Saturn brand from the struggling General Motors. By 2011 annual sales for the company were $10.7 billion and it reported 14,800 employees.

Sonic Automotive Inc.
One of the fastest growing dealership groups at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Sonic Automotive was founded by O. Bruton Smith in 1997 with five dealerships. By 2009 the company operated 135 new and used car dealerships and 33 collision repair centers in 15 states, posted revenues of approximately $6 billion, and had 10,400 employees. Sonic sold more than 35 brands of cars and light trucks and offered vehicle-financing plans. At the end of 2008, Sonic found itself with a debt of $1.9 billion and on shaky ground with its creditors. The company wavered on the edge of bankruptcy before rebounding by 2011 when it recorded sales of $6.8 billion and 9,200 employees.

CarMax Inc.
A publicly traded spin-off of the U.S.-based Circuit City Stores Inc., CarMax was credited with introducing the no-haggling, wide-selection, customer-friendly superstore concept to the auto retail industry. By 2004 it was the United States' largest used car dealer. Founded in 1993, the used car chain grew much more slowly and attracted less media attention than groups like AutoNation, but during the 1990s it forged a solid position in a number of U.S. regional markets, primarily in the Southeast. Among the amenities it offered were fixed pricing, somewhat akin to grocery stores' so-called everyday low pricing, snacks, and recreation areas for children. The group doubled its outlets from 20 to more than 40 between 1998 and 2001, with the number growing to about 100 by 2009. CarMax specialized in used cars that were less than six years old with fewer than 60,000 miles. It also sold older cars with more miles under its ValuMax program. For fiscal year 2008, CarMax posted $7 billion in revenues. Also impacted by the auto industry's weakened state at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, CarMax's net income fell from $182 million in 2007 to $59.2 million in 2008. Its new car sales declined in 2008 nearly 29 percent, and used car sales fell 8 percent. By 2011 sales had rebounded to $8.9 billion, and the company retained its status as the largest used-car dealer in the country, with 100 superstores in 25 states. The company maintained a payroll of 15,565 workers.

Group 1 Automotive Group.
At the end of the first decade of the 2000s, Group 1 Automotive Group continued to move ahead as one of the largest Ford Motor Company dealerships in the United States. By 2011 it owned and operated more than 125 franchises at 95 dealerships. In addition, it was responsible for approximately 20 collision service centers in more than 15 states. These dealerships offered new and used cars along with light trucks through about 30 different brands. Along with AutoNation and Penske, Group 1 Automotive strove to consolidate U.S. auto sales. It acquired 12 dealerships in 2006, and by 2011 had sales of $6 billion. Group 1 also offered financing plans and maintenance and repair services, in addition to selling replacement parts.

America and the World

The United States has traditionally been the world's largest retail auto market. However, China, which had already surpassed Japan to become the world's second-largest market, outpaced the United States in monthly sales for the first time in 2009. In the wake of an economic stimulus package by the Chinese government, auto sales, which had slowed somewhat after extremely rapid growth, once again surged in China in mid-2009. Consumers were faced with up to a three-month wait to drive home a new car as suppliers worked overtime to meet demand. By 2010 China had become the world's largest retail auto market, with growth predicted to continue into the mid-2010s.

One of the United Kingdom's largest dealer groups, European Motor Holdings operated 50 franchises throughout the United Kingdom in 2009, all of European-make cars. The company was founded in 1991 when a group of nine motor retail businesses joined forces. The following year, the group purchased Casemount Holdings Ltd., which evolved into its motor services arm. Eight more dealerships were added that year as well. Normand Motor Group Ltd., which included 16 dealer franchises throughout southeastern and northwestern England, was acquired in 1994. Two years later, European Motor bought Telford Motor Auctions. In 2007 the company was purchased by Inchcape plc, a $12 billion organization in the UK auto industry, which also operated the online auto retailer Autobytel UK.

European Motor Holdings' key franchises included Volkswagen, Rover, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW. Just over half of European Motor Holdings' unit sales came from used cars. It served as the sole distributor for Perodua economy cars, a compact vehicle manufactured in Malaysia. The company also operated motor auctions and international automotive imports, a vehicle washing equipment unit, an electrical parts reconditioning unit, and a timber/plywood packing business.

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