By Jenny WhalenFeb. 12, 2014
Bob Shuman, '86, says he won't miss the exhausting travel schedule that comes with being chairman of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), but does lament the inevitable loss of a truly impressive collection of frequent flier miles.
"While there are certain perks to being chairman, namely world travel, there are also drawbacks," the lawyer-turned-car dealer admitted. "You spend a lot of time away from your store and family, and as the show approaches, life becomes even more exhausting. I lived at Cobo Center during the auto show."
Still, planning and marketing Detroit's premier event and one of the world's top auto shows was an opportunity the Michigan Law alumnus and third-generation owner of Shuman Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Walled Lake, Mich. never imagined would come his way.
"Anytime you can be involved in something that is the top of anything you should jump at that chance," Shuman said. "Detroit has its challenges, but also great opportunities."
And Shuman has never been one to shy away from new experiences. As an accounting major at Michigan State University, he was prepared to accept a position in that field upon graduation, despite having always wanted to study law. As Shuman tells it, he chose to let fate decide his future and applied to just one law school—Michigan. After admission, "I never looked back," he said.
He actively practiced law for 11 years before assuming ownership of the car dealership his grandfather and father started in 1955. The change took some getting used to.
"There was an attitude adjustment going from lawyer to dealer. 'You don't want to buy the car? Fine. I'll see you in court,' isn’t the way to respond to a customer," he joked.
But jesting aside, Shuman said he sees many parallels between his past and present careers, from resolving conflicts and reviewing contracts, to customer service and, as a Chrysler dealer, understanding bankruptcy law. "You become the dealership's attorney," he added.
As for becoming NAIAS chairman, that was a five-year process that began with Shuman's membership in the Detroit Auto Dealer's Association (DADA), which produces the auto show. The position is volunteer, but charged with helping plan and market NAIAS on a global scale.
"The last three years have meant tremendous travel to all of the influential auto shows around the world," Shuman said. "I'm a lifetime Detroiter, but until I started traveling with NAIAS, I didn't realize that our show is one of the best in the world."
That realization was reinforced during a trip to Seoul, South Korea. Joining a group of VIPs representing shows around the world, Shuman remembers one breakthrough moment when a foreign reporter asked which show he was representing.
"I told her I was with NAIAS and her eyes got real big," he said. "She knew the prestige of that show. I think we have a chip on our shoulder here in Detroit. The rest of the world doesn't ask about our political issues in relation to the show. They only ask, 'Is it going to snow this year?' I tell them, 'Absolutely not!'"
Upon assuming his role as chairman, Shuman set two goals for the show: raise more than $4 million from Charity Preview and exceed attendance over the previous year. He achieved both, raising $4.8 million for nine local children's charities and closing the show with a total attendance of 803,451. Getting to show Vice President Joe Biden personally around the show floor was an added bonus.
"That was a whole other level of planning," Shuman said. "You don't want anyone to trip and fall at your event, but you especially don't want the VP to trip and fall at your show. It was really something to host the vice president. There were interesting experiences all around."
With the close of the show last month, Shuman has resumed his daily duties at the dealership and life in general has regained a sense of normalcy. Well, as normal as life can be for a man who also enjoys flying planes when he's not cruising in his 2000 Woodward Edition Plymouth Prowler.
Even without the frequent flier miles, life remains far from dull for the torts-loving auto dealer.
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