The Benefits of Breaking With the Status Quo

By Warren Brown
Sunday, December 2, 2007

There are two things on my mind this week. The first concerns a matter of importance to the Washington area, where for the past 90 years men have ruled the automotive retail roost through the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association.

WANADA, a 225-member group, is a major force in terms of its political power and the nearly $12.25 billion its members contribute annually to the region's economy.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it also is a major advertiser on my Tuesday radio show, "On Wheels With Warren Brown" on WMET World Radio, co-hosted by the dulcet-toned Brian Armstead, who also co-hosts the Sunday "AutoSense" show on XM Satellite Radio. WANADA members are advertisers in The Washington Post and other regional newspapers.

But the story here is WANADA's new chairwoman: Tamara C. "Tammy" Darvish, 44, one of the most powerful women in the nation's auto retail business. She is vice president of the privately held, Maryland-based Darcars Automotive Group, the 18th largest dealership chain in America, with 26 stores selling 14 brands and annual sales of $1 billion.

Darvish runs Darcars' daily operations with firmness and political savvy, characteristics that have brought her praise, derision and the highest rung on the ladder of the largest regional dealers' association.

Critics, mostly men, call her "pushy." Supporters, men and women, call her a "can-do, will-do" person cut from the same cloth as her father, John R. Darvish, who opened the first Darcars dealership in 1977.

Tammy Darvish, who began working in her father's dealerships at 21, says she had no plans to become involved in industry politics until she represented her father at a 1994 WANADA meeting. "I liked working with other dealers, talking about issues," she said. "I decided to stay involved."

For 13 years, she was the squeaky wheel that got the oil, especially when it came to revamping the Washington Auto Show and boosting WANADA's contributions, via an annual auto show charity gala, to regional charities. Her successful management of Darcars' rapid growth over the last decade also won attention.

Some dealers, including Darcars rivals, thought Darvish should have risen to WANADA's top position several years ago. "But it's a traditional guys' club that changes slowly," one of those dealers told me privately at a McLean meeting of the group last year. "Things at WANADA don't change much," he said.

Clearly, that no longer applies to the association's top office. That's a good thing for Tammy Darvish, a good thing for WANADA and a good thing for the automobile industry.

Ford, in fact, could take a lesson from WANADA in breaking with the status quo. Consider the 2008 Ford Focus/North American version. From initial appearances, it looks like it will do well, especially now that small cars constitute 12 percent of new-auto sales in the United States. That compares with little more than 5 percent in the cheap-gas-happy days six years ago.

With features such as Microsoft's Sync infotainment system, soft ambient interior lighting, a choice of two four-cylinder engines (140 hp and 130 hp), and a highway mileage rating of 35 miles per gallon using regular unleaded gasoline, the 2008 Focus/North American seems like a good bet.

But a cash-strapped Ford could have saved a lot of development money had it just given American consumers what many of them have been begging for -- the best-selling European edition of the Focus that has been around since 2005.

Focus aficionados have praised the European Focus as being on par with the Mazda3 compact, with which it shares the same basic body structure and underpinnings.

Mazda has been struggling for two years to keep up with U.S. demand for the spiffy, spirited Mazda3. But Ford has not had the same supply-demand "problem" with its North American Focus. Here's betting that the 2008 North American Focus, with or without Microsoft's Sync, will sell just as slowly as the previous North American version.

So, I pose this question to Ford chief executive Alan Mulally: Kind sir, what's the deal? Why not just give us the Focus you are successfully selling all over Europe?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company