Wellington County’s General Motors dealers defiant; planning to stay in business

They have been here for years  – and they have no intention of going anywhere.

Several General Motors dealerships in the Wellington County sales district were struck a blow last week when they received formal notice from General Motors that their franchise agreements would be ending next year – and they would no longer be new car dealers for the troubled com­pany.

The move was part of the restructuring of the automotive giant that had led car sales for decades in North America and then suddenly dropped down to the low 20s in percentage sales for new cars.

“My plan is, I’m going to be here,” said Gary Cooper, of Gary Cooper Chevrolet in Elora. “I’m going forward without the GM logo.”

He said he has been over­whelmed with the support that has poured in since word began leaking that GM had an­nounced that 242 of over 700 dealerships in Canada would be eliminated as of next year. General Motors has also announced it is dropping Pontiacs from its line of vehicles.

Cooper said the gist of most phone calls and emails he receives is, “As long as you’re there, we’re there.”

Cooper said he told his staff the News and said a new employee was actually starting on Monday, bringing his com­plement of mechanics up to ten.

Ken Weeks, of Ken Weeks Pontiac Buick Ltd. on Highway 6 at the north end of Fergus, had the same attitude.

“I’ll be staying here, doing something,” he said. “If some­one wants to buy a new Buick three years from now, I will find one.”

Weeks added he will do whatever he can to protect his staff, and noted one em­ployee has been with him as long as he has owned the busi­ness. He usually has a comple­ment of 12 to 14 people work­ing for him.

Cindy Robinson, of Robin­son Motors, in Guelph, said flatly, “We intend to be here. We just built a new [show­room].”

Her father, Howard, started the dealership in 1965, and she said the current operation con­tains a very large used car division.

“We just won’t be a General Motors dealer any more,” she said.  “We know we’re going to be heavily into used cars.” But, she added, “We’re still reeling from shock.”

She noted that Robinson Motors, which employs 45 peo­ple, recently went through the GM promotion of “imaging,” and spent a large amount of money to meet the company’s requests.

Cooper and Weeks both held off on that, and are now happy they did. Weeks esti­mated it would have cost him close to $500,000 and Cooper suspected even higher costs – double or triple that – would have applied to him.

The GM move of dropping dealerships included Tim Haynes Chevrolet Cadillac Inc., in Listowel.

In a joint press release, Tim and Shirley Haines and  Brad and Joanne Haines stated, “We are very disappointed by GM’s letter of intent not to renew our franchise agreement in October of 2010. For the past 27 years, Tim Haines has continually ex­ceeded GM standards in all areas of evaluation, from building standards, profita­bility, new and used vehicle sales and customer satisfac­tion.”

They also noted the auto maker’s misfortunes had little to do with its dealerships.

“Unfortunately, we cannot control the untimely and costly decisions that GM has made over the past several years.”

They added, “We are very proud of what we and es­pe­ci­ally our 32 employees and their families have accomplished over this period of time.”

The Haines family also plans to stick around.

“We are extremely thankful to the thousands of customers who trust us with their vehicle service and sales and want to make it clear that Tim Haines  is open for business. We are currently entertaining offers from numerous new vehicle franchises. The brand we sell may eventually change, but the same great people and service won’t. We look forward to serving new and past customers for many years to come.”

All of the car dealers are known in the community for their charitable works and sponsorships, and admit that an uncertain future means they will have to re-evaluate what they can do in the community.

Robinson noted that her dealership has been involved in everything from sponsoring Sports teams to charitable events, supported the local hos­pitals, Rotary Club and Big Brothers, to name a few.

Weeks and his staff support the local Lions Clubs, the hospital, and for years brought Teddy Bears to Groves Hospi­tal at Christmas to cheer pati­ents there, as well as holding a bonspiel in Fergus, and “sev­eral other charity things as they come along.”

He said though, given the circumstances, he will have to take a long look at charitable requests until the future is clearer for his business.

Cooper has also supported Sports in the community, and particularly so since he used to play ball in Fergus. He has also been involved with the Elora Festival over the years, and supported many community endeavors.

The Haines family said its community work ranges “from being a gold level sponsor of the Perth County United Way, a corporate sponsor of numerous local Sports teams as well as do­nating approximately $60,000 to our Listowel Memorial Hos­pital fund just to name a few.”

Weeks is the current vice-president of the national Car Dealers Association, and will be moving up to the president’s position in June. He said the association will be looking into the move by GM to see what, if anything, can be done for the 242 dealers who are suddenly without a new car franchise.

Cooper said he foresees problems with the sudden cuts, too. He noted that the fran­chises selected for termination of their contracts seem a little unusual. Both GM dealers in Orangeville retained their af­fili­ations, one of two were kept in Guelph, one of two in Lis­towel, and Centre Wellington, with a population soon expect­ed to reach 44,000, kept none. Yet a smaller community like Lindsay managed to retain its two dealerships.

Cooper predicted it will be logistically impossible for widely scattered dealerships to service all the customers, something echoed by the other dealers.

He also said that while his dealership had great sales, with a record 606 new cars in a single year since he took over the dealership in 1993, one of his younger sales staff has been having difficulties selling GM products to his friends, who have favoured other models.

Cooper said that is ironic because GM has been making very good cars in the past few years.

Last year, when General Motors got out of the leasing business, Cooper noted his com­pany was approached by another company and, “Now, I can lease all I want.”

Now, if another franchise comes along with an offer, he will definitely consider it, as will all the other former deal­ers.

“If somebody doesn’t want you, you slide in with people who do,” Cooper said.

Robinson said she finds it difficult to see where cutting dealerships is going to help General Motors cut its costs. She said the dealers buy the land, build the buildings, buy the cars, and pay the staff. What does GM provide other than the sign and some advertising sup­port?

Cooper suspected that cut­ting 42 per cent of the dealers means GM management is thinking it can cut that amount of its head office staff, but he added that is simply specu­lation. There seems to be no clear cut way to determine how the move will save GM money.

Harriston Motors was also  informed it lost its dealership.

Weeks added that the fallout from the auto industry is not over yet.

“I haven’t heard anything about Chrysler, yet,” he said of another of the troubled North American car companies. “It’s not going to be a one shot deal.”

But, Weeks concluded, “Most of us are going to stay in business somehow … We’ve got employees to look after … “We’re not going anywhere without a fight.”