Heidi Pehl, dealer principal for I-5 Auto Group based in Chehalis, has been nominated for the prestigious TIME Dealer of the Year award for her community service and industry accomplishments, according to a National Automobile Dealers Association news release.
She is one for 48 dealer nominees from across the country who will be honored at the 106th annual National Automobile Dealers Association Show in Dallas, Texas, on Jan. 27, 2023.
“The TIME Dealer of the Year award is one of the automobile industry’s most prestigious and highly coveted honors,” according to the release. “The award recognizes the nation’s most successful auto dealers who also demonstrate a long-standing commitment to community service.”
Pehl was chosen to represent the Washington State Auto Dealers Association in the national competition as one of only 48 auto dealers nominated for the 54th annual award from more than 16,000 dealers nationwide.
“The most rewarding part of my job is providing 285 people with a good living to support their families,” Pehl stated in the release. “In addition, being able to give back to my hometown is such a gift to me. It is a dream come true to be in a position to impact people’s lives in a meaningful way. That is wealth to me.”
Pehl is a 1986 graduate of the University of Washington, where she received a bachelor’s degree in political science. She went on to earn an associate’s degree in civil engineering from North Seattle Community College in 1989 and a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Washington in 1996.
She did not set out to be a car dealer and, in fact, was working in construction management and civil engineering in Seattle before returning to her hometown of Chehalis to get married, according to the release. She became the first employee of the newly formed Port of Chehalis, where she became executive director, overseeing the building of the Chehalis Industrial Park.
“My father was a civil engineer who was passionate about his job, and I loved going to job sites with him and hanging out with his crews,” Pehl said. “He taught his girls to never be afraid of taking on challenges in a ‘man’s world’ and beating them.”
She spent 10 years at the Port of Chehalis, where she managed infrastructure and road projects, marketing and sales, and financing and grants.
Pehl credits her parents with instilling in her a passion for education and for working hard to achieve a goal.
“I started my first business with my sister at age 12 cleaning houses,” she said. “Since then, I have been working nonstop and have taken on new challenges all along the way.”
One of those challenges began when she purchased a holding company with car dealerships as a real estate investment in 2002, according to the release.
“When the purchase was made, I did not realize that the normal course of purchasing an automotive franchise required prior approval from the manufacturers,” Pehl said. “The first order of business was convincing Toyota and Ford, after the fact, to approve me as a dealer.”
Pehl left the Port of Chehalis and embarked on a 20-year journey into the retail automotive business.
“It was the biggest challenge I have ever taken on and also rewarding in ways I could have never imagined,” she said. “We have built our business from the original failing dealerships to six successful stores, and I remain active in our daily operations.”
Today, the I-5 Auto Group encompasses five new-car dealerships in Washington, representing Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Jeep, Ram, Toyota and Volkswagen, plus an RV store. Her son, Robert Pehl, is general manager and vice president of the dealership group.
“My son started his career in our dealership at the age of 12 as a lot attendant, and he has already surpassed me in both level of experience and passion for our business,” Pehl said. “Having him working with me daily makes this time in my career truly the most fun and rewarding.”
Pehl said she is also thankful to the automotive industry mentors she relied on when launching her business and for the educational resources provided by the National Automobile Dealers Association and the Washington State Auto Dealers Association, where she has been a member since 2017 and currently serves as first vice president.
“I have been heavily involved with our association’s efforts to further the agenda important to auto dealers with the state legislature and government,” she said. “This includes testifying at legislative hearings, writing to and meeting with various legislators, and encouraging employees to participate and make their voices heard.”
A board member for the Economic Alliance of Lewis County and a mentor for students at W.F. West High School, her alma mater, in Chehalis, Pehl focuses her community activities on regional business development and education.
“I was fortunate to have parents that believed that education was the great equalizer and the first step in pursuing the American dream,” she said.
To that end, she awards several I-5 Toyota Scholarships annually to graduating seniors from Lewis and Thurston County high schools.
The dealership’s annual Back to School Dash 5K run/walk and I-5 Car Raffle Giveaway raise money to support the scholarship fund.
“Our many charitable donations have made a big impact in the community,” Pehl said. “We are proud to support area youth through a variety of ways with a focus on scholarship and youth activities.”
Dealers are nominated by the executives of state and metro dealer associations around the country. A panel of faculty members from the Tauber Institute for Global Operations at the University of Michigan will select one finalist from each of the four National Automobile Dealers Association regions and one national Dealer of the Year. Three finalists will receive $5,000 for their favorite charities and the winner will receive $10,000 to give to charity, donated by Ally.
In its 12th year as exclusive sponsor, Ally also will recognize dealer nominees and their community efforts by contributing $1,000 to each nominee’s charity of choice. Nominees will be recognized on AllyDealerHeroes.com, which highlights the philanthropic contributions and achievements of TIME Dealer of the Year nominees.
“For over 50 years, TIME has been committed to recognizing the impact of automotive dealers on their communities with the TIME Dealer of the Year award,” said Edward Felsenthal, editor in chief and CEO, TIME. “We are proud to continue the legacy of honoring these works of service with our partners at Ally.”
Doug Timmerman, president of dealer financial services, Ally, said, “Auto dealers across the country who are nominated for this award each year are committed to not only doing it right and leading in a rapidly changing automotive industry but to strengthening their communities through giving back. The TIME Dealer of the Year program celebrates dealers who are the role models of the retail auto industry for their continuous efforts to lift up and support their employees, customers and communities.”
Pehl was nominated for the TIME Dealer of the Year award by Vicki Giles Fabré, executive vice president of the Washington State Auto Dealers Association.