From regional event to ‘global festival,’ MU grad has helped drive Detroit auto show’s growth

DETROIT — In the mid-1970s, Rod Alberts won an arm-wrestling tournament in the University of Missouri’s Memorial Union. After Alberts won his division, doors opened for him.

Sponsors lined up — “Is that not crazy?,” said Alberts — and soon his arm muscles took him to California and across the country for tournaments. His confidence skyrocketed and so did his opportunities.

He even landed a cameo in the Sylvester Stallone movie “Over the Top,” in which Alberts competed in an arm-wrestling match.

Now, the 1980 MU alum directs the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and has been at the helm since moving there in 1990. Alberts serves a dual role as executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association and NAIAS.

The Jefferson City native detailed a roundabout route to his current role — from studying business finance at MU, to being a bank examiner in Kansas City, to stints as a director of smaller auto shows in Arkansas and California before hitting the big stage.

Alberts’ job as a bank examiner bored him quite quickly. A short stint with the Missouri Forest Products Association followed and soon after, Alberts headed to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he oversaw a small auto show. So small, in fact, that he helped blow up the show’s balloons.

While there, he learned a lot about the auto industry and served as the car dealers’ face to the general public.

“I got pretty good at the gig,” Alberts said — so good that a company in California recruited him to run an auto show in Orange County.

His experiences in the middle of America and on the West Coast taught him “the grassroots of it all and (being) really down in the trenches,” he said.

“It was still a stepping stone,” Alberts said of his early auto show experiences. “It’s like being in Hollywood if you’re an actor; if you’re gonna be in the auto business, you’re going to be in Detroit.”

Soon enough, he found himself in the Hollywood of the auto industry when the Detroit Auto Dealers Association called him in 1993 and asked if he’d be interested in making the trek to Michigan for an interview.

He didn’t want to leave the sunny beaches of California, but Alberts agreed to an interview if the company flew him to Missouri for Labor Day weekend ahead of the Detroit trip.

Days later, eight to 10 individuals treated him to dinner, and by the end of the night, a job offer was on the table.

Alberts, then 34, arrived at a transitional period for the city’s auto show. For 80 years, the show had been mostly a regional exhibition, but in 1989, the show was reinvested as an international auto show.

Alberts led the growth from 200 media representatives in 1990 to its current 5,000 from 60 countries who descend upon Detroit for the show, which brought in 800,000 attendees last year.

“I tell everybody, it’s incremental growth,” Alberts said. “You gotta take the time to really create, but you don’t go too fast and build it over time and that was kind of my game plan, which worked extremely well for about 20 years until 2009 when the economy crashed.”

About 30 percent of the auto industry went bust because of the recession, he said. Brands like Saturn were erased from the auto landscape.

“It was a real challenging time,” Alberts said. “And the transformation of the landscape of the industry was completely different.”

About every 10 years, industries experience drastic shifts, as well as ebbs and flows in between, Alberts said. In 2020, the NAIAS will undergo a seismic shift as it moves to a summer format and a “global festival,” one that Alberts compares to the tech and media conference South by Southwest.

He said he gained support of 250 auto show partners to move the show from its blustery January date to summer.

Some companies, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, have abandoned the NAIAS because of the costly investment and newer, cheaper alternative methods of debuting cars and technology. BMW, along with other European automakers, has increased its presence at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Still, Alberts is optimistic that transitioning the show to June will help attract these companies with opportunities for more hands-on demonstrations over traditional, multimillion dollar stages.

“You come in big, or you don’t come in,” Alberts said of the current state of the show. “So what we have to do is get to the point that it’s worth the investment to get here.”

It was inevitable that the show would have to change in order to stay relevant, Alberts said. “You can always kind of ride things out for four or five years, and nobody will pay attention and you’ll buy time,” he said, “but eventually it’ll catch up with you, so it’s better to do it when, as they say, the iron’s hot. So, that’s why right now we’re being very aggressive with our changes.”

Alberts, 62, said the future is an electrified and autonomous auto industry because of evolutions in technology and the market. But getting there isn’t easy.

“I was pretty naive, being from a small town, but the hard knocks kind of put you in a position to take things on,” Alberts said.

Nowadays, 90 percent of his auto show responsibilities is taking on the politics of the global operation that he runs. Whether it’s traveling to Germany or China or Washington, D.C., Alberts is constantly forging relationships and dealing with legislation and regulation in the U.S. through the Detroit Auto Dealers Association. He credits his Midwest roots with his ability to communicate sincerely with those in other countries.

“As long as I come across that I really do care, and that I’m listening,” Alberts said he is able to develop trusting relationships with global partners.

His job is so fast-paced that sometimes he forgets what he has accomplished in the past two-and-a-half decades. “The funny thing is I didn’t really know what I had, I just knew that I had work to do, and you kind of just put your nose to the ground,” Alberts said. “When I look back, I’m like, ‘Whoa, good thing it worked out.'”

His time as a “show guy,” though, is far from over.

“I’m always out there thinking that I’m in an arm-wrestling match going, ‘Oh, I gotta win today,’ because that’s part of it,” he said. “You’ve got to be really competitive.”

Supervising editor is Ruby L. Bailey

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