Being able to interact with some of the leading minds in automotive retail is one of the perks of what I do that I probably value the most. About two weeks ago I wrote a column on LinkedIn about one of those people — Steve Anenen, the former CEO and President of CDK Global.
He retired last month after a 40 plus year career at CDK (formerly ADP Dealer Services Group). The response to the column from colleagues and employees was no surprise (You can read the comments on LinkedIn: Steve Anenen Rides into the Sunset. The comments add greatly to what I wrote — and often, much more eloquently). The column includes personal observations about Anenen as a person and a leader and what his departure means for CDK.
Below is the column in its entirety:
Last week, Steve Anenen officially retired as the CEO of CDK Global. The move was announced in December when CDK appointed board member Brian MacDonald to be his replacement.
So last week’s announcement came and went without much fanfare — just another CEO’s retirement. But I didn’t want to let the moment pass without recognizing his long service to CDK and to the automotive retail industry.
Steve, who is in his early 60’s, spent 40 years with the company. He joined ADP in 1975 and after serving in a variety of positions, joined the Dealer Services Group. By 2004, he was running the Dealer Services division, leading its growth to become the top vendor in the automotive retail space, generating nearly $2 billion by the time ADP spun it off into a public company in September 2014. Furthermore, Steve helped lead the division’s expansion into numerous global markets during his time as president.
While editorial director at Ward’s Dealer Business, I had the opportunity to engage with Steve in several off the record conversations about the company and the industry. The truth is, I learned much from him and his team and always looked forward to those times. They were mentally stimulating and fun conversations as we tried to connect dots and play the “what if” game.
It was evident to me he cared passionately about the company and the employees. He wasn’t a rah! rah! CEO and tended to stay away from the limelight, and often would direct my attention to his team. I respected that.
ADP was far from a perfect company, and the team didn’t always like what I wrote. On more than one occasion, the marketing team pulled its advertising from Ward’s to protest my editorial. Still, the relationship was professional and they always returned.
Ultimately, our relationship hit a rough patch and our conversations stopped a few years ago after I broke the story that the Dealer Services Group had acquired web services firm the Cobalt Group. Our perspectives on that event differ, but I understood. I was doing my job, but it did create some pain for those involved. The management teams from both companies expected to be celebrating the deal, but instead, had to deal with questioning about potential leaks due to SEC considerations.
We saw each other at the dealer’s convention last year, and he was quick to point me to several new initiatives CDK was announcing. It was clear his passion still ran deep. But he also took issue with what I had written concerning the effect CDK’s activist investors were having. He continued to defend the company even when it was clear CDK was quickly becoming a different company today than it was a little over a year ago. And Anenen’s retirement will hasten that change. MacDonald has a job to do, and he likely will do it effectively. He will make it a leaner company with fatter margins — which is the task the investors have given him. But it will be a company with a starkly different culture and DNA moving forward.
Anenen is part of a rare group of CEOs in the automotive retail space. I say rare because he was one of the few that had a front seat to the most transformational period in the industry’s history. He played a big role in helping the industry — dealers, automakers and other vendors — move to the digital era. Other equally influential CEOs have since retired — Mitch Golub from Cars.com; John Holt from Cobalt; Chip Perry from AutoTrader, although, he just returned to the industry as the CEO and President of TrueCar.
Meanwhile, Bob Brockman from Reynolds and Reynolds, CDK’s top competitor is still calling the shots there. Mark O’Neil opted to not retire when Cox Communications acquired his company, DealerTrack last year. He was just named as COO of Cox Automotive, reporting to Sandy Schwartz.
Much of their influence is due to their ability to grow huge companies which in turn, were able to dictate much of the direction the industry moved in over the last 15 years.
Not many were able to navigate the tricky political waters while also having a unique ability to see the future of where the industry needed to go. For me, Anenen belongs on that rare list of true influencers in the industry.