No matter how their spin doctors push us to find a bright side to the havoc, I predict Chrysler's plan to eliminate dealers will not make them stronger.
True, some dealers have passed their prime. But the way we treat yesterday's veterans says a lot about who we are and what we're likely to become.
So I'm not shocked when I read headlines like: “Chrysler warns weak dealers may be shut down,” “Group 1 charges Chrysler with coercion,” or even “Chrysler pulls ad of dog being electrocuted after urinating on a Dodge Nitro SUV.”
And I'm not kidding about the last one.
These days it seems impossible to turn around a losing market plan and even more difficult to negotiate the minefield of public opinion.
It's easy to understand during such times that desperation can cause creativity to run amuck and ethics to take a back seat to the demand for volume.
I can only suspect that bathroom humor and electrocuted dogs are not unlikely results when such pressure goes unchecked. What I don't know is what our leaders were thinking.
Toyota is for “smart people,” the Ford guys have “a better idea,” and Mazda goes “zoom zoom.” Eureka! Chrysler is the choice for those who electrocute you if you pee on them. Hey, it's a small niche but Chrysler could own it.
As a battle-weary dealer responding to a third year of push for sales volume with neither good product nor adequate support, I fully understand where “bizarre” comes from.
I've witnessed decades of outsourcing replace personal effort in the way factories get things done. During those times, scapegoats and delegation have become more common than hard work, with the sacrificing of dealers and factory workers becoming a way to try to get out of trouble.
So it's not hard to understand why we're now seeing the firing of a few managers and a scathing attack on a few hundred dealers. Close behind will be a group of “other dealers” pledging allegiance.
National dealer councils often allow themselves to be quoted in favor of pinning tomorrow's successes and yesterday's failures on the elimination of some other group of dealers or dealer opportunity.
What is it that makes it so easy for some dealers to cut the throats of other dealers?
I'd love to hear from someone who can explain how the depletion of dealer's money is not directly related to the terrible inventory schemes of the past two years. How did so many good dealers suddenly become bums?
We've all heard factory penance from one guy saying, “I hope we never do that again.” I'm waiting for the guy who will say, “I'm not going to let my dealers or public suffer for what we have done.”
Today's problems are too big for a quick fix. They've burned through much of the Big Three's capital and most of their dealer's money.
So what are General Motors, Ford and Chrysler to do to stop the erosion of their dealer base and the continuing slide of their market share?
In the absence of a credible solution, finger pointing buys time. When your dealers are starving, it's easier to call it a downsizing strategy. Ineffective dealers, edgy ad agencies and terrible unions are great covers.
When will the simplicity of popular cars at popular prices become the answer?
Seven out of ten people in my market buy an import and, if you take loss leaders and trucks out of the picture, that percentage rises dramatically. The simple truth is, the public is not responding to edgy schemes that hide the fact that our products and prices have to change, not the names of our dealers.
The time has come for credible leadership. We need car people with passion for great vehicles, trustworthy car people. The signal of their return will be talk about cars, not cheap tricks or zapped dogs.
Peter Brandow is a veteran dealer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.