The Pandemic’s Important Lesson for the Automotive Aftermarket

By Aaron Lowe, AAP, senior vice president, government and regulatory affairs, Auto Care Association

While COVID-19 has clearly placed challenges on the automotive aftermarket industry and its employees, it also has helped many in the industry to realize just how essential it is to the American way of life. Whether it is getting to the store for food, doctor’s office or hospital for giving or receiving medical care, Americans need their vehicles to operate properly. Not only is the aftermarket important to the lives of most Americans, we also are a major factor in the U.S. economy, with over $400 billion in sales, employing just over 4 million people nationwide and representing 2 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.  

Still, at the outset of the pandemic, persuading governments to acknowledge that repair shops and their supply chain should stay open was not an easy task. Members of the auto care industry and their associations were forced to undertake a full court press, educating legislators and local officials that not only is it important to keep the repair shops open, but also all of the distribution and manufacturing facilities that made sure that parts were available for completing the repairs as well. And, while the industry should take pride in how they were able to serve the public during the pandemic, the effort that was necessary to accomplish the task demonstrates why it is important for the industry to become more directly involved in the legislative and political process.  

In short, one of the most important lessons that everyone should take away from the beginning days of COVID-19 is the critical need for auto care companies to develop relationships with local, state and federal officials, educating them on a regular basis, rather than in the middle of the crisis, regarding the importance of their businesses to keeping Americans on the road and to the health of the U.S. economy. This might seem like a big ask, but it really isn’t. There are many actions that a company can undertake that do not require an enormous amount of time or effort, but can place you and your company on the radar screen of the people who are making decisions impacting the ability to serve your customers.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Host your elected officials at your business. You might not think that your business is that interesting, but the best way for an elected official to understand your business is to actually visit your business, meet your employees and see how it operates. Not only will the visit give the legislator a sense of why your company is critical to the economy and the community, but your employees will gain a sense that what they are doing is essential as well.     
  • Clearly, COVID-19 has made in person meetings difficult, but holding a virtual meeting can be the next best thing and are sometimes easier to set up since there is less travel time involved. Make sure you have a clear agenda and good technical platform for the meeting or it can go sideways quickly.  We’ve hosted several of these meetings between our members and their elected officials and they have been very productive. 
  • Attend a real or virtual town hall given by the official. Many Members of Congress and state legislators hold town hall meetings where constituents can ask questions or express views on issues. While these sometimes are large events, in many cases you can find a time during the meeting to ask questions and to introduce yourself. In any case, it is a good first step to holding an in-person meeting. 
  • Give money or donate time to a candidate’s campaign. There is no better way to win the heart of a legislator than to help them either get or keep their job. You can either attend a fundraising event or give some time to work on their campaign. Either way, they will be appreciative and will pay attention when you reach out to them after they are elected.  

These are just a few examples of actions that the industry can easily undertake that can pay big dividends for their business, but also the industry in general.  

Recognizing the importance of member relationships with elected officials to our government affairs agenda and to make the job of connecting with elected officials even easier and more effective, the Auto Care Association has launched a major campaign to increase the number of connections between members of the auto care industry and their elected officials. Before we come together at the virtual AAPEX this fall, I challenge you to take the first step to getting involved in this vital process. Your associations can help take care of the logistical details necessary to make the meeting happen and to ensure that the event is effective in getting your message across to legislators.  To learn how to be an effective advocate, contact Auto Care’s grassroots manager, Tod Moore (tod.moore@autocare.org ).

Aaron Lowe, AAP, is senior vice president of regulatory and government affairs for the Auto Care Association. With the Association for more than 35 years, he currently oversees Auto Care’s federal and state legislative and regulatory efforts, focusing on a wide range of environmental, vehicle safety, workplace-health and safety and international trade issues.