Nathan Shulman knew what it was like to be the underling in a family business – and he also knew he didn’t like it. But what he couldn’t have realized at the time -just after World War II – was that his negative experiences would form the foundation for him to help literally thousands of others who found themselves in the same stressful predicament.
Shulman, now chairman of the board of Best Chevrolet/lsuzu and a 1992 recipient of the Distinguished Service Citation from the Automotive Hall of Fame, joined his brother’s dealership in 1946 upon his discharge from the Navy. “Actually, I was ready to join the regular Navy, but my executive officer told me I’d be foolish not to take my brother up on his offer,” he says. “So I did.”
What followed, says Shulman, were 10 stressful years of trying to combine family and business – a situation that led to his establishing his own dealership in 1957. Not long afterward, Shulman was reading a story about an organization with the intriguing acronym of SOB – sons of bosses and a companion group, SLOB – sons-in-law of bosses. The article hit a sensitive chord with Shulman, and he arranged a meeting with the president of SOB. Shulman came away from the meeting convinced that there were many SOBs and SLOBs in the auto industry, too – and as a director of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), he hoped he was in a position to do something.
“I became aware of boundless failure stories of sons who had tried to go into the family’s car business,” he says. ‘The fathers, typically, wouldn’t let the kids grow. And by the time daddy went to the great dealership in the sky, it was too late for them to learn.” Shulman started slowly, first by holding a workshop for those employed in family-owned businesses. “And what I heard was a common theme of frustration,” he says. “I was told by 55-year-old-men that their fathers were still calling them ‘Sonny’ or ‘Junior.’ One story in particular sticks in my mind: a 60-year-old told me he was criticized by his 85-year-old father for wanting to retire.” Coincidentally, Shulman had an unrelated meeting already scheduled with the vice president of marketing at General Motors. He told him of his concern about family businesses, and the GM executive offered Shulman access to a minority training program to help solve the problem.
‘That was in ’79,” he says. ‘We refined it and it became NADA’s Dealer Candidate Academy, which is just a great place to learn how to run a dealership. ‘We taught sons and daughters how to get out from under their parents who had too much anxiety about letting go,” he says. “And we helped parents get those ingrained pictures of dolls and Little League games out of their minds, and let their children run the business.”
Shulman’s contributions to the industry go far beyond the Dealer Candidate Academy, which in itself has helped hundreds of individuals. He has touched tens of thousands more through his talks, seminars and workshops on the family business, and he has reached masses outside of the industry with his books on running a family business.
It is for his writing, in fact, that Shulman is probably best known. Since 1979, Shulman has been featured in every issue of Auto Age, bringing his lively, down-to-earth humorous advice to its thousands of readers. Shulman himself says that his advice, for the most part, is based on two irreplaceable factors- common sense and experience. “One column I remember writing was entitled, ‘Don’t Call Me Honey!”‘ he says. “It told the story of the reaction of a woman who kept being called ‘honey’ by the salesperson – a man – who was trying to sell her a car. That’s just common sense – and common courtesy – not to be patronizing like that.”
Shulman also admits that he derives the most pleasure from his writing, though he also points with pride to some of the other changes he’s helped bring about during his career. For example, he was the catalyst for establishing the Massachusetts Seat Belt Coalition in cooperation with Traffic Safety Now, which was sponsored by the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association. He has also served as the NADA Convention chairman and has been rated as one of the top five speakers out of 65 workshops at the NADA Convention in both 1990 and 1991.
Shulman says the industry has changed dramatically since his introduction to it at Dickson Buick in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1946. ‘This is the only business I know where dealers buy at retail and sell at wholesale,” he says. “And when I first came into the business, ‘Made in Japan’ meant poor quality; now, the consumer perceives it as meaning superior quality.”
He is proud of his selection as the lay speaker at the ’73, ‘7 4, ’76 and ’77 NADA conventions, where he shared the dais with such noted religious leaders as Oral Roberts, Thomas Haggai and Bishop Fulton Sheen. Though Shulman was once the underling in a family business, his impact on the automotive family has been pervasive – and positive.