Franklin McLarty on What Big Auto Manufacturers Must Do to Stay on the Road (Executive Q&A)

Franklin McLarty, 39, has had careers in hotels, automobiles, global business and politics. From 2003 to 2005, he was vice president of McKibbon Hotel Group. In 2005, he joined the family business, RML Automotive of Little Rock, helping manage auto dealership franchises across the country, including in Arkansas, where RML has dealerships in Bentonville, Little Rock and Conway. He also is a senior adviser to the Markham Group of Little Rock, a political affairs and campaign management firm.

McLarty also has served on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and was its youngest chairman. He is currently a board member of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Little Rock Film Festival and Fifty for the Future.

Franklin McLarty last year saw RML Automotive’s biggest acquisition to date, Toyota of Lewisville, a Dallas suburb.

You became CEO in 2013. What’s been the biggest surprise for you about being the chief executive of a company?

I had the benefit of being a part of the team that founded our company, and I spent nearly 10 years with the organization before becoming CEO, and that institutional knowledge has been invaluable. But as any CEO knows, you will encounter unforeseen challenges. The speed with which technology is influencing consumer behavior is having a substantial impact on automotive retail, as one example.

What’s the philosophy that sets RML Automotive apart from other dealer groups?

I think our focus on intensity, which is one of our four core values, is a bit unique. That intense focus on retail volume and market share has been part of our DNA since we began 10 years ago.

You sell automobiles from manufacturers the world over. But how would you characterize the state of the domestic auto industry? What do American manufacturers like GM need to do to win customers and compete globally?

It is a great moment for the industry in the U.S. The recovery has been dramatic and the OEMs’ (Original Equipment Manufacturer) profitability, factory utilization and dealer profits all reflect that. To effectively compete globally, a manufacturer needs to have a truly global footprint so that it can sell into all of the world’s major markets and manage its production based on demand in any given region around the world. If an OEM is overly reliant on one market, it cannot effectively compete when that market experiences a significant downturn. The dynamism of the global economy coupled with supply chain disruptions, labor issues, currency fluctuations, political instability and a host of other issues require that all the major manufacturers be global businesses.

How have sales been at domestic dealerships? To what degree did the recession affect business and how would you characterize consumers’ appetites for new cars these days?

Domestically, we are seeing very encouraging trends. The recession hit our industry hard and dropped sales volumes to their lowest levels in decades, but now, just a few years later, consumers have returned to the market and it shows.

What is RML’s plan for growth?

After completing the largest acquisition in RML’s history last year, my focus is maximizing our existing stores, enhancing our IT infrastructure and completing several significant construction projects that will enhance the service side of our business. Of course, if growth opportunities present themselves in the markets where we already have a presence, we’ll certainly evaluate them.

What has been your biggest mistake in business, and what did you learn from it?

Over the years I have learned that a prior mistake should not disproportionately influence your decision to take future risk or tackle new challenges. As an entrepreneur you have to approach business opportunities recognizing the possibility that certain things will not develop as you planned or expected. Therein lies an important lesson: Learn from your mistakes, but do not be held captive by them.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from your father, Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, who served as President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff and counselor?

Treat people well and fairly, always, no matter what.