Time runs out on a Chrysler dealer
The bad news hit just before 5 p.m. yesterday, amid the deceptively upbeat buzz of bargain hunters and frenzied salesmen inside the vintage showroom of Weathers Dodge, an 87-year-old landmark on Baltimore Pike:
A U.S. bankruptcy judge had approved Chrysler L.L.C.'s request to put 789 of its dealers immediately out of business - 11 in the Philadelphia area.
"So, midnight tonight's it," said 78-year-old Larry G. Weathers Jr., a lanky man with cloudy blue eyes, a devastating sentimental streak, and a life steeped in the bricks and mortar of this place his father had built in Lima.
Last month, the company to which three generations of Weathers men had been so loyal became their executioner - and gave them a three-week death sentence.
Yesterday, as Weathers and others sped toward their mandated demise as new-car dealers under the Chrysler banner, their broken hearts began showing signs of healing, their bad breaks converting to steely determination to survive.
"It's just as well," said Weathers, a Navy veteran, as the last hope disappeared with the judge's ruling. He and his son Larry III already had decided they would open today as Weathers Motors - sellers of pre-owned vehicles and the best repair shop around.
"No sense prolonging things," he said.
Weathers and the hundreds of other men and women who invested millions of their own dollars to buy the land or rent the buildings and build up the showrooms where Chrysler peddled its vehicles will wake up today with little more than hope and, if they are smart, a plan to build something new from something now officially no longer theirs.
Feeding off taxpayer aid for months, Chrysler repackaged itself for sale to the Italian automaker Fiat, and in doing so argued to a bankruptcy judge that it had to get rid of old franchises such as Weathers Dodge.
The argument was that this would make Chrysler more efficient by reducing the number of sales outlets and consolidating operations at the dealerships that remained.
Critics say this logic is yet to be proven sound. It assumes Chrysler customers will be willing to travel an extra distance to shop for a car.
But an indisputable consequence is that independent businessmen and businesswomen in communities across the country, and all the people they employ, are taking a hit.
Dealers are not part of a corporate food chain. Rather, they are franchisees, and what you see on a showroom floor, they've paid for themselves, through loans or the reinvestment of profits through the years.
To force them out of business seemed, even yesterday, even to plain old customers, a cruel injustice - a capitalist byproduct of a system that looks as though it favors big players at all costs.
"He's a friendly, neighborhood dealer," said Weathers Dodge customer John Bury, 73, of Middletown Township, who had his Jeep's oil changed yesterday but didn't leave without first sharing a piece of his mind. Well-wishers such as Bury were abundant.
"They're closing down the little guy," Bury said of the dealership closures, which ostensibly have targeted smaller, older operations. "These big corporations pick on the little people, and I don't think it's fair."
Chrysler had notified dealers on May 14 whether they were staying or going. Those on the hit list had until June 9 - yesterday - to sell off all new cars on their lots and shut down by 12:01 a.m. today.
Since dealers finance their inventory by taking out massive loans, this left them holding a lot of risk. Plus, all the auto parts a dealer's repair shop uses are bought by the franchise owners, too.
Left with little time to find buyers for their cars, dealers sold what they had just above or below break-even. For unsold cars, they faced the prospect of losing up to $2,500 on each one.
"We've been a dealer for almost 80 years, and you get three weeks to go out of business. It just can't be done," said Frank Jarrett, who scrambled yesterday to transfer unsold cars from his Hatboro dealership to surviving ones elsewhere in the area.
Like Weathers, Jarrett's is a third-generation Chrysler dealership. Like Weathers, Jarrett is 78 years old. And like Weathers, Jarrett turned philosophical as the end drew near. He, too, was planning to reopen today as a pre-owned auto dealership and repair business.
"I was thinking earlier, it's been a long, long journey," said Jarrett, whose late father built the Dodge dealership on what used to be a cornfield on York Road. Jarrett had been running it with his son, Jeff. "Eighty years is a long time to be in business with three generations.
"It's not something we looked forward to," Jarrett said, "but we'll handle it."
The dealers did nothing wrong, Jarrett said, and can't be blamed for Chrysler's failure to build cars more attractive to consumers. Aside from feeling betrayed, he said another tough part of shutting down this way was how much it might cost him.
He stands to lose about $100,000 on just the value of special tools he has acquired to service Chrysler vehicles, he said.
Never mind that other dealers are offering fire-sale prices for the leftover new-parts inventory he accumulated from Chrysler and paid for at full price.
Dealer advocates had harshly criticized Chrysler and the government-backed bankruptcy for not doing enough to help keep these independent franchise owners from losing so much of their own money in the three-week wind-down.
But by yesterday, Jarrett and Weathers, at least, seemed at peace with what was to come. Given the fragile and unknown future of Chrysler itself, they seemed even grateful to be getting out.
"It's not worth turning back," said Larry G. Weathers III, 52, who will be running the new Weathers Motors today with his father. "It's not worth turning back. Twelve o'clock tonight is when the flag comes down."
Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or email@example.com.