Northwood University Honors Automobile Dealers with Dealer Education Awards

Recipients from Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Idaho, Tennessee and Florida to receive honor January 28 at NADA convention in New Orleans, Louisiana

MIDLAND, MICHIGAN – Northwood University will honor seven automobile dealers—including five graduates of the university’s Automotive Marketing and Management program—from across the United States with its annual Dealer Education Award at the National Automotive Dealers Association (NADA) convention in New Orleans, Louisiana. This year’s honorees include:

  • Russell D. Banks, Dealer Principal, R.D. Banks Chevrolet, Warren, Ohio;
  • Eve L. Knudtsen, President, Knudtsen Chevrolet, Post Falls, Idaho;
  • Ryan A. LaFontaine, CEO, Lafontaine Cadillac Buick GMC, Highland, Michigan;
  • Lawrence E. Mullinax, Owner, Mulllinax Ford, New Smyrna Beach, Florida;
  • Robert B. Ourisman, Dealer Principal, Ourisman Automotive Group, Rockville, Maryland;
  • George A. Sharpe, President, The Sharpe Collection, Grand Rapids, Michigan; and
  • Steven “Mitch” Walters, President & CEO, Friendship Enterprises, Bristol, Tennessee.

Since 1972, Northwood has recognized owners and dealer principals in the automotive marketing field who have made noteworthy, individual contributions to public or private education inside or outside of the industry.

“This marks our 46th year of recognizing outstanding dealers and community leaders who have made outstanding sacrifices of time and resources,” said Keith Pretty, President and CEO of Northwood University. “We are proud of this year’s exceptional Dealer Education Award winners and commend them for their leadership.”

The awards will be presented at a special breakfast on Saturday, January 28, at 8 a.m. in the Blaine & Kern Room at the Marriott New Orleans Convention Center. Breakfast attendees will include students, alumni and friends of Northwood University.

The university will host more than 30 students enrolled in its Automotive Marketing and Management degree program at the convention, including several gaining valuable speaking experience at the awards presentation ceremony. Students attending the convention and the Northwood breakfast will be exposed to some of the most successful dealers in the automotive industry while networking and learning about internships and career opportunities.

Further biographical information for the recipients can be found below:

Russell D. Banks is the third-generation executive of his family business, R.D. Banks Chevrolet of Warren, Ohio. After graduating from Northwood University with degrees in Automotive Marketing and Business Management in 1985, Banks returned to his family dealership ready to carry on the philosophy of his father; to treat your employees like your family and give back to your community through leadership and active involvement. Banks serves the Champion Schools Board of Education as member of its Finance Advisory Board, Superintendent Advisory Council, Business Advisory Council, and a member of its Levy Committee. As a founding member and president of the Champion Educational Enrichment Foundation, Banks helped guide and raise funds for this non-profit fund. He actively serves as the past president of the Kappa Lambda Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Psi professional business fraternity, and was the 2016 recipient of the Rotarian of the Year Award for Community Service. Banks was also awarded the Ohio Educational Service Center Association’s Outstanding Leadership and Community Service Award. He also served as the Champion Rotary Club’s president, and is as a past president and treasurer of the Automobile Dealers Association of Eastern Ohio.

Eve L. Knudtsen, President of Knudtsen Chevrolet Company in Post Falls, Idaho, is the third generation to lead a family business that has served Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington for nearly 80 years. She is a graduate of both Northwood University and Gonzaga University. Knudtsen provides title funding for the Post Falls Distinguished Young Woman of the Year scholarship, part of a national scholarship program that promotes and rewards scholarship, leadership and talent in young women. Knudtsen Chevrolet Company also helped to purchase and donate land for a professional technical high school serving three local school districts. Knudtsen also helped to create the Education Resource Center. Her philanthropic support includes scholarship funding for several local colleges and educational centers, including North Idaho College where she provides a named scholarship for women considering business careers in automotive through the GM Women’s Retail Network. She received the 2005 Coeur d’Alene Soroptimist Woman of Distinction in Business Award and was the 2006 TIME Magazine Idaho Dealer of the Year. She also currently serves as the chair of the Coeur d’Alene Area Economic Development Corporation.

Ryan A. LaFontaine is Chief Executive Officer of LaFontaine Cadillac, Buick, GMC. His family life extends beyond his immediate family to include virtually all employees of the LaFontaine Automotive Group, which numbers over 1,400 employees. After facing—and defeating— life-threating cancer, LaFontaine’s outlook on life changed dramatically. With his sister, Kelly, LaFontaine founded the charity “U CAN-CER VIVE.”  In the past six years, the charity has raised more than $1 million to support the fight against cancer. LaFontaine also supports the Mott Children’s Hospital and Imerman’s Angels, an organization to provide personalized connections that the enable one-on-one support among cancer fighters, survivors, and caregivers. Also among organizations he supports are Relay for Life and Caden’s Car Show. He is a recipient of the Oakland Press “Best of Best” award, Crain’s Automotive News’ “40 under 40,” the Jack Smith Leadership Award and numerous other personal and business related awards.Having served the Detroit Auto Dealers Association as its immediate past and president, co-chair of the 2017 North American International Auto Show, LaFontaine is active with a number of manufacturer’s councils and committees. He will be the chair of the 2018 North American International Auto Show.

Lawrence E. Mullinax, owner of Mullinax Automotive in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and his brother Jerry have carried on the leadership and tradition set by their father, Ed, who in 1975 established the revolutionary “one-price” sales philosophy. The company has sold over 500,000 vehicles in its 46 years and in 2016 Mullinax Automotive was recognized in Wards Auto as a top MEGADEALER100, which ranks the top dealerships by total revenue. Mullinax graduated from Northwood University as salutatorian of his class for his Associate’s Degree in Automotive Marketing, and in 1983 received his Bachelor’s Degree in Management and Marketing from Northwood. Partnering with the Central Florida Automobile Dealers Association, Mullinax Ford joined several other dealers to help construct the CFADA Professional Automotive Training Center at Seminole State College, to provide technical and professional automotive education for students to advance in the automotive industry. Mullinax continues to support annual fund raisers to help with the educational needs at Catholic schools in the Orlando area. He is a member of the Southeast Volusia Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Port Orange-South Daytona Chamber of Commerce, a lifetime honorary member of the Florida Sheriffs Association, and a member of Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church.

Robert B. Ourisman is Dealer Principal of Ourisman Automotive Group in Rockville, Maryland. Ourisman has practiced this approach to his organizations staffing throughout his career, and when it came to serving the industry he confidently chose one of his employees to help lead the creation of the Automobile Dealer Education Institute (ADEI). Ourisman serves his industry as a member of Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, National Automobile Dealers Association, and the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association.

George A. Sharpe is President of The Sharpe Collection in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Sharpe Collection supports many Grand Rapids area organizations, including the Van Andel Institute, Children’s Healing Center, and “My Team Triumph—West Michigan Chapter,” an athletic ride-along program for children, teens, adults and veterans with disabilities. Sharpe co-chaired the “Edge of Excellence” campaign from which more than $10 million were raised to support the financial needs of students seeking a quality, Catholic-based education in the Diocese of Grand Rapids. In addition to serving as the campaign co-chair, Sharpe provided 10 years of service to the Catholic Secondary School Board, and was its president from 1995-1997. He served as a member of the Finance Council for the Diocese for eight years. Additionally, Sharpe lent his expertise as a member of the Saint Mary’s Hospital Board and served a term as chairman. Professionally, Sharpe served on the National Dealer Council for BMW North America, including a term as its council president. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association and was a 2001 Time Magazine Dealer of Year Nominee, which recognized his business acumen and commitment to improving his community.

Steven “Mitch” Walters, President and Chief Executive Officer of Friendship Enterprises in Bristol, Tennessee, knew at an early age he wanted to be a car dealer. After attending Ohio State University, Walters attended Northwood University and earned his Bachelor of Business Administration in 1976, graduating Summa Cum Laude. Additionally, he has attended the Chevrolet School of Merchandising and Management, the Cadillac Harvard Business School Seminar, and most recently, the BB&T Leadership Institute. In 1993, Walters purchased a distressed Ford dealership in Bristol and renamed it Friendship Ford, sparking the birth of the Friendship Family of Dealerships which has grown to include more than a dozen businesses. Through the Friendship Foundation, which has provided in excess of $1 million in local support, Walters has lent support to a variety of organizations including the Boys and Girls Club of the Mountain Empire, and scholarships to local high school students to attend and study automotive technology at Northeast State Community College. Walters and his wife Danea are deeply involved in their community, serving on numerous boards and professional organizations.


About Northwood University

Northwood University is committed to the most personal attention to prepare students for success in their careers and in their communities; it promotes critical thinking skills, personal effectiveness, and the importance of ethics, individual freedom and responsibility.

Private, nonprofit, and accredited, Northwood University specializes in managerial and entrepreneurial education at a full-service, residential campus located in mid-Michigan. Adult Degree Programs are available in multiple states and online. The DeVos Graduate School offers accelerated, evening and weekend programming in Michigan and Texas. The Alden B. Dow Center for Creativity and Enterprise provides system-wide expertise in family enterprise, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and new business development. International education is offered through study abroad and in Program Centers in China (Changchun and Wuxi), Malaysia and Sri Lanka.