PORTLAND, OR — Standing along busy Sandy Blvd here, Art Laws, who now owns Timberline Tire Factory, points down the street to a series of structures.
“This had been Timberline Dodge since 1982. I used to own these buildings,” he says with a shrug. “I've had to sell off most of them.”
Laws, 70, began selling Dodges in 1965. “I never drove anything else,” he says of the brand. “I started off as night janitor a few blocks from here at the Dodge Store and slowly made my way up.”
He didn't realize the way down would be so fast when Chrysler Group LLC pulled the plug on his store and nearly 800 like it nationwide as part of the auto maker's post-bankruptcy reorganization plans.
Back when he was a low man on the pole, as he learned more about the car business, he started calling the former Chrysler Corp. with tips on how to better run a dealership.
“One day, they told me if I thought I could run it so much better, then I ought to,” he says.
Twenty years after he first started working at the dealership, Chrysler loaned him money to take over the struggling store. He renamed Timberline Dodge. He made a profit in the first year.
Over the years, Laws would expand his brand representations to Chrysler and Jeep. His facilities were on eight city blocks in downtown Portland. According to Laws, his sprawling store was a top-grossing dealership in the Northwest.
“We had a big showroom I built in 1996 and I had 179 employees.” But one day in 2009, all of that would change. He got the “Dear Dealer” letter telling him he had 21 days to “get out of the Chrysler car business,” Laws says, shaking his head.
The turn of events came as a surprise to the Automotive Hall of Fame inductee and former dealer-council chairman.
As a dealer, Laws took pride in great customer service based upon a distinctive system he developed.
“One day they tried to take everything they could,” he says. “They tried to take chairs, tables, hoists, tools, everything, and sell it at auction. They said I'd signed a personal guarantee.”
Out of the car business, Laws had to downsize his staff and his real-estate holdings. He agonized over firing people he had employed for 25 years.
In the end, he laid off more than 130 people and sold most of his real estate.
He estimates losing his dealer status cost him $3 million to $4 million.
Once prominent in the community, Laws took pride in aiding schools, funding lifeguard programs on the Sandy River, sponsoring rodeos and lending free space in his buildings to social groups. “I can't afford do that anymore,” he says.
After being financially forced to sell his home, Laws and his wife of 51 years moved into the basement of their daughter and son-in-law's home.
He converted one of the two buildings he retained into the tire store and a Napa Auto Parts distributorship.
In the other building, he and his son own and operate a stationary-bicycle aerobics studio. It shares space with a mattress outlet.
After losing the dealership, Laws was asked by Chrysler to remain a parts dealer. Timberline Dodge had been a top Chrysler-parts distributor.
But he says operating within Chrysler's new terms didn't provide enough profit margin to remain in business. In October, he closed his parts warehouse.
Laws wishes he could still sell Chrysler-brand vehicles. If he could, he would like to buy back his dealership. But he knows he can't afford to, and doubts he would be comfortable with the terms. His goal was to pass the dealership on to his son.
“I wish I could have seen this coming sooner,” he says of the dealership termination.
Laws remains dismayed, but not defeated
“I'm an outdoorsman and I have survived avalanches,” he says. “Don't think I won't survive this, too.”