July 9, 2020

COVID-19 top concern for N.Y. dealership association's new head of compliance

Thomas Higgins, the incoming director of compliance at the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, acknowledges this is a strange time to switch careers.

Higgins spent nine years at the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, most recently as deputy commissioner of compliance. During his tenure, Higgins was in charge of the Division of Field Investigations, which conducted fraud inquiries; the Title Bureau; and the Office of Vehicle Safety & Clean Air.

Higgins was instrumental in transitioning the 10,000 franchised and independent dealerships in the state over to the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Vehicle Electronic Reassignment and Integrated Facility Inventory registration system. He spoke with Staff Reporter Jackie Charniga about his priorities in his new role, the state’s regulatory environment and his experience working with automotive dealerships.

Q: What was it like convincing New York dealerships to shift to a new system?

A: Very important for the success of the program — communication. Myself and my team traveled all around the state. We met with the dealer associations from Buffalo to Long Island, we met with clerks to tell them what was happening and gave them the ability to ask questions. When I think of my role here as the director of dealer compliance, [I consider] the importance of communication. Then the feedback from dealers as well.

What do you see as the main role of a dealer association?

I would view it as a provider of information, a provider of guidance. We engage with association partners who are experts in a particular subject matter, which includes lawyers in outside firms. That’s really all we can do and we hope that a dealership adjusts their processes to behave accordingly.

New York dealerships often appear in the news for bad behavior. Why do you think that is?

Our attorney general’s [office] has historically been very active in its oversight of dealerships. Then there’s the whole New York City Consumer Affairs Bureau. One of the other challenges for dealerships operating in the five boroughs of New York is the governance of the city of New York. Maybe they generate some newsworthy cases as well. It’s not surprising to me that New York State would be aggressive in its oversight of dealers. In New York State, 18 million residents, 2.5 million vehicle sales a year — there’s certainly ample opportunity there for dealers to be unscrupulous.

What is the first task on your agenda in your new position?

It’s COVID compliance. Interpreting the governor’s guidance. Understanding what is permitted here. There are phased openings here in New York State. Dealers have a lot of questions of what that means for them. In the very short term, that’s clearly uppermost in dealers’ minds right now. How do they comply with the governor’s guidance on reopening and how they can conduct business in their dealerships? What they need, what kind of personal protective equipment, plexiglass, screenings — when I think of my immediate future, that’s where I’ll be most engaged. That’s where we are and that’s where we’re going to be for most of the summer.