Motor Driven

At the wheel of
a 66-year-old institution

by Heleigh Bostwick

VADA_lead_3816_EDITMarilyn B. Miller has been executive director of the Vermont Automobile Dealers Association (now known as the Vermont Vehicle & Automotive Distributors Association) since 1985, when her boss, John Butler, retired. Since then, the organization’s name and membership have changed to reflect the shifting nature of the business.

In 1981, when Marilyn B. Miller accepted a part-time position as assistant to the executive director at the Vermont Automobile Dealers Association (VADA), as it was then known, she had no idea that she’d stepped into a career perfectly suited to her vivacious, upbeat personality. Nor did she think for one minute that she would be spending the next 30 years there — most of that time as the organization’s executive director.

In ’81, Miller was a new mother who had recently moved with her husband back east from Colorado to be closer to their families — hers in the Adirondacks and his in Massachusetts. After the move, she worked a year or so as assistant to the director of the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission. After her son was born, she intended to be a stay-at-home parent.

“But I had always worked,” she says, “and after a couple of months, when the biggest highlight of the day was pushing a carriage to the mailbox, I said, ‘This is not working for me.’”

Knowing she could count on her mother and sister in Saranac Lake, N.Y., to help with child care, she was open to listening when she received a call out of the blue from John Butler, VADA’s executive director. She chuckles as she recalls the conversation.

“He said, ‘Is this Marilyn Miller? A friend of mine gave me your resumé and said I should interview you.’ John told me that, to be honest, he was about to hire somebody else, but wanted to talk to me first. I said, ‘I have an infant.’ He said, ‘I don’t care, bring it in.’”

Amy Dickinson, the executive assistant, with the organization for 17 years, handles a broad spectrum of duties from accounting to consumer complaints and computer technology. She and Miller serve in the Vermont State Medical Guard.

They clicked, and she was hired. Three short years later, when Butler retired, the board asked Miller to take over. She’s held that position ever since, hiring her own full-time executive assistant, Amy Dickinson. Dickinson has worked for VADA for 17 years, handling everything from accounting to consumer complaints to computer technology.

Ed Foster, president of Foster Motors in Middlebury and now semi-retired, says she’s “still the same Marilyn” who came to work with the association all those years ago. “She’s grown with the job,” he says. “She’s very knowledgeable and does a lot of good work with the Legislature for the group. She’s extremely fiscally responsible and never oversteps her authority. She and Amy make a great team and are always faithful to the members of the association.”

VADA was formed in 1945. The group’s focus was on legislative representation and advocacy for automobile dealers in the state, and it served as a networking opportunity for people in the industry.

The location has changed from downtown Montpelier to leased office space on River Street, but the focus remains pretty much the same, says Miller.

“There are two things we do that are most important,” she says. “The first is advocacy with regulators and legislators — DMV, banking and insurance, DEC, attorney general. We are also an ERISA Trust and provide health, dental, life, and disability insurance to our members. We are one of the best associations at keeping our premiums low.”

That requires strict adherence to policy requirements. “One of the reasons we’ve been successful as an insurance trust is that we have very clear guidelines and criteria and we administer them to the letter. It doesn’t matter if you’re the owner, the detailer, or the car washer. We make sure everyone gets what they are supposed to get.”

She’s had her challenges — most recently in the way the economic turmoil in the industry has affected the organization. “We are definitely on the better side of things now, but the industry in the last couple of years has been completely turned on its head. When GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, many dealerships were eliminated and laws that protected dealers were bypassed.”

VADA’s major services to its membership are advocacy with regulators and legislators, and providing insurance — health, dental, life, and disability — to its members. Kim Gauthier is the insurance specialist.

Just before GM filed for bankruptcy, says Miller, VADA approached the Legislature, which worked with the organization to strengthen dealer franchise laws, and provided a mechanism where dealers could appeal a decision by going before the state transportation board. “The Legislature really stepped up,” she says.

One of the biggest changes resulting from this situation was the organization’s name. Because many of the dealer franchises no longer exist, the board voted several years ago to expand the membership to include all automotive-related services and businesses with five employees or more.

“Technically we are the Vermont Automobile Dealers Association d/b/a Vermont Vehicle & Automotive Distributors Association. Most people still refer to the association as VADA,” explains Miller.

The membership of 167 includes all the new-car dealers in the state — 88, says Miller — and 41 used-car dealers. The rest is made up of motorcycle, RV, boat, ATV, and tire dealers and automotive glass repair shops.

VADA is funded primarily through membership dues and sponsorships. Sponsorships from insurance carriers pay salaries for outside contractors who provide services such as the on-site safety training that is part of VADA’s workers’ compensation program.

“We’re an information source,” says Miller, whose typical day varies according to what’s being worked on. She might field phone calls about regulations, franchise law, or insurance questions; she might meet with members or legislators or government officials.

She and Dickinson handle consumer complaint mediation through AUTOCAP (Automotive Consumer Action Panel), a partner program Miller started soon after she started.

“A couple of weeks ago, we were working with the Attorney General’s Office to improve the consumer complaint mediation program. We learned after the meeting that there was a redundancy in how complaints were being processed, so we took on more of the responsibility for that.”

A recent priority is development of a wellness program for health insurance, working with employers and their employees on how best to achieve it.

Members are kept up-to-date on federal and state laws, receive monthly newsletters, and can participate in webinars to keep current on new federal regulations. The association hires an outside company to prepare for members and legislators a comprehensive monthly report on the new-vehicle market called “Vermont Auto Outlook.”

She is very proud of her members, who, she says, are of a “let’s-get-it-done-now” mind-set and, contrary to popular thinking, “a very civic-minded and socially responsible group.”

Miller recalls that in the mid-1980s, as the auto industry changed over to electronic diagnostics and components, there were not enough competent automotive technicians to work on the new cars.

“We sat down with dealers to figure out a solution,” Miller says. “We approached VTC [Vermont Technical College] and offered to help them develop an associate degree program in automotive technology.”

VTC agreed to the plan. Within four years the dealers had put up a new building on campus and provided tools and equipment. Ford also chipped in to equip the facility. “Today there’s a $200,000 endowment to assist students with scholarships,” Miller says.

“Then we learned there was a disparity between the curriculum at the high school vo-tech programs around the state and the program on the college level at VTC, so we hired someone to work with vo-tech instructors in the high schools to develop a curriculum based on technical changes in the industry, replaced textbooks, and provide in-service and training for instructors. VTC has now agreed to give some high school vo-tech students credit toward a degree.

Keeping up on technology is one of the biggest challenges Miller faces. “Technology has been a gift to us,” says Miller. “We do probably five times more than we did when I started here, but it’s a new information world out there.”

Miller adds, “We are a very small association and we do a lot with a very small staff. We try to keep up with industry-related advancements, regulatory requirements, education needs, benefits, and services for our members and employees — but sometimes it’s difficult.”

After graduation from high school in Saranac Lake, Miller briefly attended SUNY Geneseo before switching to North Country Community College, where she landed a job working as assistant to the dean of instruction.

She met her future husband, Conrad Miller, a student at Paul Smith’s College, who became smitten after seeing her in a production of Godspell.

Miller was dating someone else at the time, but less than three months later, the two were married and heading to Colorado Springs. “We married 34 years ago on the day he graduated from the forestry surveying program,” says Miller.

They have two children: Matthew, 30, who works in Nashville, Tenn., and Lindsay, 26, a speech pathologist at Spaulding High in Barre.

Miller spends much of her free time puttering around their 100-year-old farmhouse. She was a board member at Union 32 high school for five years, and served on the Berlin Planning Commission for five years, two of them as chair. She loves children and spent several years as a foster parent.

As president of the Vermont Society of Association Executives, she collaborates on legislative issues of concern to associations like hers. She and Dickinson also serve in the Vermont State Medical Guard, where she has earned the title of major. The group was established after the September 11 attacks to coordinate transportation throughout the state in case of medical emergency.

“She’s just one of those people you can’t help but like,” says Foster. “It’s been great working with her.” •