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Fort Lauderdale’s famed auto company chief steps down. He’s not done speaking his mind.

Outgoing AutoNation chairman, president and CEO Mike Jackson, right, with Carl Liebert, incoming CEO.
Outgoing AutoNation chairman, president and CEO Mike Jackson, right, with Carl Liebert, incoming CEO.

For 20 years, outgoing AutoNation chairman, president and CEO Mike Jackson has been one of the most outspoken corporate leaders in America. He has famously called for a gas tax to wean America off oil (especially the foreign variety), warned that auto sales would eventually plateau and renounced his Republican party affiliation upon Donald Trump’s ascendance.

On Friday, Fort Lauderdale-based AutoNation, launched in 1996 by legendary South Florida businessman H. Wayne Huizenga and now the nation’s largest auto-dealership group, announced Jackson’s replacement: Carl Liebert, 53, most recently executive vice president and COO of finance group USAA. The company also reported year-end results Friday, showing flat revenues for 2018 and a slight decrease in net profit. 

Jackson, 70, will relinquish the president and CEO roles March 11 but remains chairman. He was paid $12.2 million last year in total compensation. Liebert will be paid $1 million plus stock options.

In an interview with the Miami Herald Friday, Liebert said his two top priorities are surveying AutoNation’s 26,000 employees around the country, and making sure the company’s technology is providing customers with an “end-to-end” experience.

Meanwhile, Jackson showed he was not done speaking his mind. In that same interview, Jackson said he sees sweeping changes coming to the auto industry — and believes the economy will be able to handle them just fine.

Jackson’s other thoughts:

On Americans’ car preferences: “They want to be in an SUV or a pickup truck. That’s 70 percent of what’s sold. We don’t see this preference from consumers changing.”

On whether millennials want to own cars: “Millennials came of age in ‘08 and ‘09, with high education debt, which many then doubled and tripled down. So they sort of had to push out many decisions about life until they were able to pay down a lot of student loans.

“Now they’re working their way through that — now they do want to own a car, have two kids and a dog, so I think that bodes well for the economy. We’re not completely there yet, but we’re a long way through that education burden, and they’re now well into their careers.”

On the future of electric and autonomous vehicles:

“There’s an exciting future in electric vehicles. Companies are investing billions, and I think we’ll see them begin to arrive in a meaningful way in 2020 and 2021. We’re very excited to be in electrification, as our partnership with [Google parent Alphabet’s] Waymo shows..

“Autonomous is going to be further out. It’s extremely complex to remove the driver from the system. True autonomy is still four, five, or six years away from today.”

In separate comments to CNBC Friday, Jackson criticized Tesla CEO Elon Musk, accusing him of misleading consumers.

“I think he is overpromising on autonomous vehicles in an almost unethical way,” he said, alleging Tesla has been building cars different from the ones it said it planned to build. “There’s not another retailer in America that could get away with that bait and switch,” Jackson said.

On rising auto payment delinquencies, which have reached a record 7 million

“It’s only affecting a small part of the economy. These are among extreme subprime [borrowers] — everyone else is very current.” 

On tariffs:

In a separate interview with Bloomberg, Jackson said he was more concerned about talk of tariffs of automobiles, which he said would make steel tariffs “look like a picnic.”

“It’s almost so unthinkably, draconianly disruptive to everything [Trump]’s trying to do with the economy that, at the end of the day, I don’t believe it will happen,” Jackson told Bloomberg. Higher car duties, he said, would be “the nuclear tariff option.”

Rob Wile covers business, tech, and the economy in South Florida. He is a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. He grew up in Chicago.
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