AutoNation, the country's largest auto dealership chain, went outside the auto industry to find its new chief executive, appointing a top leader from the USAA financial services company.
The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, chain announced Friday that Carl Liebert will take over for the retiring Mike Jackson on March 11.
Liebert is now USAA's chief operating officer, but he has retailing experience from working at The Home Depot, where he was executive vice president of stores for the home supply and lumber chain with more than 2,000 outlets. Liebert also worked for General Electric, and was responsible for USAA's business strategy and customer experience operations, AutoNation said in a statement.
He led USAA's property and casualty insurance unit, as well as its federal savings bank and investment companies, the statement said. And he's the son of a drag racer and has been a lifelong car enthusiast, according to the statement.
"The opportunities that lie ahead for AutoNation are massive, and the ability to lead this next chapter is deeply humbling and exciting," Liebert said in the statement.
Liebert will lead the 325-store chain as the auto industry faces slowing U.S. sales, a massive shift from sedans to trucks and SUVs and the potential for lost business if autonomous vehicles and ride-hailing services replace personal car ownership.
AutoNation was wise to go outside the company to get financial and retail expertise due to the challenges faced by auto dealers, said Autotrader.com analyst Michelle Krebs.
"The financial part of the operations, the costs, the fixed operations, all of that is going to be extremely important to pay attention to because we know car sales are not going up, at least not for a while," she said. "The business is changing. We are moving toward a period of time where it's into mobility services."
Jackson, a prominent figure in the industry who often speaks and moderates panels at conferences, has led AutoNation for the past 20 years. He will remain as executive chairman until 2021.
AutoNation said Liebert's appointment was unanimously approved by its board as well as the company's two largest investors.
Jackson announced his retirement in September, and the company began a search that included internal and external candidates.
He earned a reputation as an innovator and in 2017, entered a multiyear partnership with Google to provide maintenance for its self-driving auto division, Waymo.
He took over the struggling business in 1999 at a time when many doubted that a centralized chain could supplant local dealers that had deep ties to their communities. Under his leadership, the chain continued to acquire dealers, and in 2013 it scrapped the local names and rebranded most of them as AutoNation.
As new vehicle sales peaked in 2016, Jackson shifted the chain toward used vehicles, opening several stand-alone used vehicle showrooms and selling its own brand of replacement parts.
AutoNation Inc. shares fell just over 6 percent in morning trading Friday after the company reported that fourth-quarter net income fell nearly 40 percent from a year ago to $92.7 million, or $1.02 per share.
Earnings, adjusted for restructuring costs and to account for discontinued operations, were $1.10 per share.
The results fell short of Wall Street expectations. The average estimate of 12 analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was for earnings of $1.14 per share.