Dealers Say They Were Led Astray in Chrysler's Final Days

Chrysler's president Jim Press says cutting ties with dealers was very difficult.
Chrysler's president Jim Press says cutting ties with dealers was very difficult. (Susan Walsh - AP)
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By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Jim Press, Chrysler's charismatic deputy chief executive, went to Capitol Hill last week and spoke solemnly about the "very difficult decision" of terminating 789 of the automaker's dealers across the country.

He assured members of a House committee that the company's executives had "taken every step to make this a soft landing for the dealers involved" and promised to help them as much as possible.

But many jilted dealers have described it more as a crash landing. After all, they still remember the Call.

It came on Thursday, Feb. 5. Thousands of Chrysler dealers across the country dialed in to hear another in a string of pitches from Press and Steven Landry, Chrysler's executive vice president.

With the passion of a street preacher, Press implored the dealers to order as many cars as possible to help the company as a deadline loomed to prove its viability to the U.S. government.

"You have two choices," Press told the group, according to reports. "You can either help us or burn us all down."

Many dealers would long remember the warning that followed to those who refused to order their whole allotment of cars: "If you decide not to do that, we've got a good memory."

"Our jaws dropped," said Alan Spitzer, who appeared before Congress on Friday and until last week owned eight Chrysler-brand franchises in Ohio. "It was clearly a threat. There was no other way to take it."

Chrysler officials dispute that view, saying executives were simply working to save the company and had no plans to go into bankruptcy at the time.

But the Call has become part symbol, part rallying cry for the hundreds of Chrysler dealers who say they have endured a litany of indignities at the hands of the struggling automaker. Referenced by dealers in numerous interviews and during Chrysler's recent bankruptcy proceedings, it offers a window into the carmaker's increasingly frantic final months, as it sought to bolster its bottom line by pressuring dealers to buy more inventory, even as their showrooms overflowed with cars they couldn't sell.

More important, it highlights how the best-laid plans of government -- a quick, "surgical" bankruptcy of an American company -- can unfold slowly and messily on the ground.

Shunned dealers have continued to air their frustrations, including during Friday's hearing on Capitol Hill alongside top executives at GM and Chrysler. In addition, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has introduced legislation to allow rejected dealers more time to unwind their businesses and force the carmakers to reimburse them for leftover inventory.

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