Former Huntington Chevrolet owner Greg Williams — a casualty of the dealership reduction movement — has been fighting for survival at a political and personal level.
He has been urging Congress to restore dealership rights that he says were stripped away when General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC declared bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, he has been fighting his own battle against GM and its financial arms, GMAC and Motors Holding, GM's investment arm.
He's asking for mercy to relieve him of what he believes are unfair debts that piled up after he lost his dealership as part of GM's plan to reduce retail outlets.
“GMAC says I owe them owe them (millions of dollars) including inventory and the loan balance used to pay off Motors Holding,” Williams says, disputing the claim, even though he did sign a guarantee against the inventory. He heard in late October the lending arm had made no decisions yet in his case.
He felt betrayed when he closed his Long Island, NY, store in late May after feeling “forced” to sign a wind-down letter sent to dealers GM targeted for closing. Like many dealers being axed by the domestics, he is vowing not to go without a fight.
Ironically, Williams, a prominent African-American Chevrolet dealer, thought he was safe. But being a single-brand store made him vulnerable.
He says he had built the dealership into a success story since 1999 when he took over a failing point suffering from a bad location a rundown facility.
He invested more than $500,000 of his own money and borrowed millions to upgrade and build inventory.
By many accounts, Williams was an exemplary dealer. He won GM's Dealer of the Year award in 2003, given to only 100 of 7,000 total GM dealers at the time. He is also former chairman of the GM Minority Dealers Advisory Assoc.
He claims he exceeded all GM metrics, posting high customer satisfaction scores and sales for years.
He had been paying his $20,000 monthly debt to Motors Holding, financed by GMAC. For five years, his profits were plowed back into the business.
Now, he says, all he has to show for it is a big debt.
“How do I pay that when my store is closed? I can't do that with my dealership gone,” he says. “I'm waiting for the next shoe to drop. I did not expect to be out of business. I'm living off my savings and will fight it with everything I've got.”
Not only was he asked to close the store and pay off his debt, he also learned GMAC wanted money for parts and inventory and “personal guarantees.” The total bill is $8.1 million.
Because GM filed bankruptcy June 1, he says the auto maker is not honoring an obligation to buy back unsold inventory and parts he estimates at $5.8 million.
“How can I be left with nothing, when just some months ago we had a GM-approved deal to sell the dealership for $1.5 million ‘blue sky,’ plus the inventory parts and assets,” he says.
“I'm just asking that I be relieved from the personal guarantees and that I be personally compensated for my dealership, so that I might move on with my life.”
But how do you start over at age 60?
GM and GMAC Financial Services say they can't comment on Williams' situation, or any individual dealer's case.
GM spokesperson Ryndee Carney says that, since GM is not disclosing information on the dealerships that received wind-down agreements, she could not comment on any specific case, but would look into Williams' case.
Mike Stoller, GMAC Financial Services spokesperson, says the firm treats each relationship and customer independently.
“Any changes to credit lines or inventory and parts negotiations involves a lengthy process,” he says. “We have had people dedicated to working with him, so there's been no lack of communication.”
GMAC also says it can't divulge client personnel file information without a “signed release” from the client.
Like Williams, many minority dealers feel betrayed, hurt and without hope.
“We rode with GM through their deepest, darkest days,” says one minority dealer who asked not to be identified. “Now, I'm told I owe GM millions that I don't have. I'm laughing because I want to cry.”
GM is seeking to trim its dealer body from 6,250 to 4,100. Many minority-owned dealerships are the most vulnerable because they tend to be smaller operations representing only one or two brands.
Currently, there are 296 ethnic-minority-owned GM dealerships in the U.S.
In the current economy, dealers likely to survive are the ones who run multi-brand operations that are well-capitalized, at prime locations and in strong markets, says Marjorie Staten of the General Motors Minority Dealers Assn.
“Their potential to succeed is much greater,” she says of those dealerships. “Many have generational or inherited wealth going back six or so generations.”
Williams has become active among dealers taking their fight to Washington. Recently, he addressed a special committee headed by Congressman John Conyers (D-MI), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Williams also is part of the dealer-driven group called Committee to Restore Dealer Rights.
“Washington may be our last shot,” says one minority dealer, who asks not to be identified because he doesn't want to be branded an activist in a traditionally conservative dealer body.
“We need dealer support from government and the auto task force to make GM and Chrysler do the right thing,” Staten says.