On March 1, 2011, Century Motor Corporation in Wentzville, MO reopened its doors as a Dodge Chrysler Jeep dealership, nearly two years after being one of the 789 dealers terminated by Chrysler as part of its bankruptcy.
In the top 10% of Chrysler sales nationally before it was terminated, Century’s owners, brothers John and Frank Mock, and Frank’s sons, Brian and Kevin, persisted and fought to regain its right to operate as a Chrysler dealer.
It wasn’t easy or cheap. Two lawsuits and one arbitration later, Century emerged as one of the few dealers to come out on top over the manufacturer.
Century’s General Manager, Kevin Mock, shares with Dealer magazine the emotional rollercoaster of the last two years and how they were able to sell Chrysler products again.
Century reopened as a Dodge Chrysler Jeep store on March 1?
Yes. And that date is significant for us. We took over the franchise the first time on March 1, 1989 – exactly 22 years ago. For us, the timing was very fitting.
Century started as a used car operation.
My father and uncle operate a wholesale automobile company that was started in the early ’80s. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s that business grew into one of the largest used car wholesale operations in the midwest. Our family continues to operate that business today.
In 1989, we purchased what was the local Chrysler Dodge franchise in Wentzville, MO. Immediately we began looking for a site to build a brand new facility. That location was selected, approved by Chrysler and in May 1990 we moved into what is now our current location. We continued to operate it as a Dodge and Chrysler only franchise until 1997 when we acquired Jeep, thus making us the first dealer in the St. Louis market to be what is now called the ‘Genesis’ dealer — having all the brands under one roof.
That’s a key point. The dealer invests millions in facilities, processes, marketing and signage to accommodate the manufacturer’s program. And then a new sales and marketing chief comes in, and often changes the strategy.
Yes, you are 100% correct. We have seen many changes in the direction of Chrysler since we became a dealer in 1989.
Let’s start first on May 14, 2009, when you received the letter from Chrysler. What was that like, learning you were one of the 789 dealers not moving forward with Chrysler?
I was here that morning. Everyone in the dealership knew the package was coming. We just didn’t know if it was going to be congratulatory or negative.
When it came, I went into the office and opened it.
Were you nervous when you went into your office holding that letter?
Well you know, we had just finished a more than $2 million expansion project. We were a top sales performer. Our facility was Genesis compliant. Our CSI and SSI scores were impeccable. We were profitable. We had enough working capital. We didn’t meet any of the criteria Chrysler laid out in the bankruptcy court for dealers to be terminated.
And we’re in the fastest growing city in Missouri. Needless to say, we were shocked.
This is our family business, and it’s not like we’re a big auto group where we have other stores to fall back on. Some of the dealerships that were terminated have been in families for generations. These businesses were just taken from us. To just take something from someone with no compensation – it’s un-American.
Based on the experiences of some other dealers, I’m going to make a guess here. You probably had some sort of legal dispute with Chrysler earlier, or had some sort of run in with the folks running the zone.
You’re right. We have been in litigation with Chrysler twice since 2003.
So obviously there was in our opinion, an issue that had nothing to do with Century’s performance. It had nothing to do with our facility. It had nothing to do with our market. It had everything to do with retaliation and a vendetta that some of the executives at Chrysler had against us. The arbitrator’s decision supported that also.
So it’s just total shock then when you opened the letter.
Obviously words can’t describe the feelings that we had.
The list was online before we had an opportunity to read it, understand it and have a conversation internally before informing our employees. I had the employees coming up to me less than 15 minutes later saying, “Kevin, what are we going to do?”
I’ll never forget the company meeting we held that afternoon with all the employees. Obviously everyone was upset. We were emphatic, “This is wrong. We’re not going to lay down and we’re going to fight this to the end.”
You probably had to lay off several of those employees.
We had 40-plus employees, 14 of them family members, when we were terminated. The layoffs were very tough, but I am proud to say that upon reopening 21 of the employees that were working here at the time of the termination are now back.
As it settles in, you realize there’s very little you can do. Now you have to start thinking about business, how you’re going to survive, employee relationships, vendor relationships, contracts, and inventory. How did you start working through that process?
We immediately began working with our legal team while at the same time managing our business. We still had employees to pay, vendors to pay, customers to service, and many vehicles to sell.
Remember, when we received the letter, Chrysler only gave us 26 days to sell $5 million worth of new vehicle inventory which for us was a several months supply of cars.
So we were scrambling, trying to come to grips with the fact that we were losing our 20-year family business and we turned to the local media for some help. We got on TV immediately, we call the local newspapers, etc…
At the time we were all over the St. Louis media – and they were just incredible to work with. We got down to the last day and sold it all in 26 days — $5 million worth of inventory. Not only did we sell our new inventory, we sold our parts inventory, at a fraction of their value.
So when this whole thing is done on June 10,we’re sitting here with no new inventory and no parts. I am still to this day amazed that we able to make all of it happen in such a short period of time. Winding down a 20 year business in 26 days.
How were the vendors?
Our vendors were great to work with. Obviously we had multiple long- term contracts that needed to be addressed. Most of them worked with us towards a positive resolution. For example, our DMS provider worked hand in hand with us and I am proud to say we are back with Reynolds & Reynolds today.
Throughout this whole process, we didn’t sell any of our equipment, special tools, the lifts in the shop, our telephone system, our computer system, etc., we didn’t sell or get rid of anything. It was all here. Even the flat panel TVs in our customer lounge were left in place.
It was like one day we turned the lights off and the next day we turned them back on and everything was as it was the day we left.
Did you stay open as a used car dealership?
No. As I said before, our family operates a large wholesale automobile company here in the St. Louis area. So we wound down our retail operations at the dealership and focused our attention on the wholesale business.
But leading up to our termination, we had taken out a loan on the renovation that Chrysler insisted upon. We were paying for a renovation and improvements to a Chrysler facility, and we didn’t have a Chrysler franchise anymore.
Our losses to date are into the seven digit category.
So then Congress starts getting involved at the urging of Tammy Darvish, Jack Fitzgerald and Alan Spitzer.
Yes. The three of them founded the CRDR (Committee to Restore Dealer Rights) in summer of 2009.
The terminated GM and Chrysler dealers banded together and lobbied our congressional leaders in Washington. Their efforts were unwavering, especially Tammy and Jack and Alan. They were so dedicated to this. They spent much of their own money also. Century was a supporter and contributor to the CRDR. As a group they spent countless hours putting this whole thing together, and without their efforts, the arbitration process would have never happened. We are forever grateful to them and their efforts, and what they were able to achieve in Congress. In December of 2009, President Obama signed the bill (legislation giving terminated General Motors and Chrysler dealers the opportunity to file for arbitration to regain their franchises). And the very next day Century filed its request for federal arbitration.
Who is your attorney?
Our legal team is headed up by Allen Press of Green Jacobson, located in St. Louis. He is our lead counsel. And he is supported by Chet Pleban of Pleban and Associates, also in St. Louis.
Mr. Press had represented us in our previous issues with Chrysler dating back to 2003.
Walk me through how the arbitration worked.
Terminated dealers were given 30 days in which to file for their intention to enter binding arbitration. And all these arbitrations were to take place by June of 2010. We filed ours immediately, we were granted it, and our hearing took place in May 2010, almost a year to the date of when we received the original termination letter.
Was the arbitration acrimonious? How did it go down?
It was held here in St. Louis and we just told our story.
Chrysler spent a considerable amount of time and money defending their position. They brought in an entire legal team with four attorneys present the entire time.
You receive the decision on May 26.
Yes, and we won. At the time, only a few other dealers had won, so the media attention was pretty overwhelming. Words can’t describe how excited we were when the decision was made. We felt vindicated, but as it turns out our feelings of excitement were short lived.
It’s almost an empty win.
You’re right. After winning arbitration, we received what Chrysler called its usual and customary letter of intent. This letter would make it almost impossible for us to reopen. We tried to negotiate this letter of intent, telling Chrysler, that this wasn’t what Congress intended. Through binding arbitration Congress intended for dealers to be put back in business — not to have to jump through hoops to get their franchises back. We tried to negotiate fairly with them but Chrysler stonewalled us. We responded with another lawsuit against them in June 2010.
Finally, in late 2010 we reached a confidential agreement with Chrysler and the case was dismissed.
Which makes sense, I suppose. I’ll refrain from asking any questions about that. But nevertheless, you are back in business.
We are back in business in our current facility, and we are excited to be selling Chrysler products once again. We’ve always believed in Chrysler products and the Chrysler brands that we sell.
Obviously we did it for 20 years. And I can tell you that the new management at Chrysler has been good to work with thus far. And we’re looking forward to working with them in the future.
I was going to ask about the relationship now.
Everyone has asked that question. With all this bad blood in the past, how can you work with these people? They’re business people, we’re business people, and we have to find a way to work through our differences. But the bottom line is it only benefits us both to sell cars here in this market.
I would imagine that there are new people at the Business Center, right?
There are some new individuals at the Business Center. We have a new business center director. We have a new dealer network manager at the business center level. Our dealer operations manager has remained the same, a gentleman whom we have always got along with quite well. Everyone has just been good to work with so far.
So you settle, and now you get back into business. There’s inventory, parts, contracts, people.
Once the agreement was reached with Chrysler, we immediately began working towards reopening.
One of the first major tasks was obtaining the floor plan financing to purchase inventory. Not an easy task in this economic environment. We were able to find a new partner with Ally, and I can tell you they have been nothing short of excellent to work with.
Our new vehicle inventory is arriving daily, a bit slower than anticipated. My brother has been traveling all over the Midwest purchasing pre-owned inventory. Obviously with our wholesale connections we have been able to acquire additional pre-owned inventory as well.
What was the first vehicle you sold at the grand opening?
It felt so good to sell that first new vehicle, and it was fitting that it was to a previous customer the morning of our grand opening on March 1. We had previously sold several pre-owned vehicles the weekend before the grand opening, the first being a Dodge Ram.
Prior to the grand opening, we wanted to make sure all departments were up and running so actually our soft opening was February 21.
So you feel pretty confident and comfortable where the business is at, the projections, working with the new management team at Chrysler?
Yes, and we’re extremely excited to get back in business. We had a great first week in sales and in service, ahead of projections.
We’re just happy to have our family business back, and to be able to sell Chrysler products again. The new products say a lot about the direction of the company and where it’s headed in the future. The new products are good and that is something that we’ve been lacking.
The product development just was – it was lacking. The direction of the new management has been on product, which the dealers have been saying for years. It’s finally coming.
What do you attribute your success to? Because like you said, I mean most of the other dealers, weren’t able to get it done.
I attribute our success to the fact that we never stopped believing. We never stopped believing that someday justice would prevail, we never stopped believing in Century, we never stopped believing in the Chrysler products we sell, we never stopped believing in our people, and we never stopped believing in our customers.
What type of advice are you giving these other dealers who are still engaged in litigation?
Unfortunately we are not able to share information with the other dealers about our case, but I can tell you we wish them the very best of luck in their efforts. There are many dealers still actively pursuing their franchises around the country. There are several lawsuits still active and each dealer has a little different situation.
This is a great story, Kevin.
This is definitely a story that needs to be told. The story begins with an American business tragedy, but our outcome is definitely a feel good story for once. For the past two years we have seen nothing but doom and gloom in our industry and it’s great to hear a good story for once about the underdog winning. We’ve lived a nightmare that I would not wish on my worst enemy. I mean it really was. We fought the big corporate giant and won. We’re back!
Our community leaders have been very supportive throughout this whole process. Our city mayor has spent countless hours personally dedicated to helping us reopen our business. On our grand reopening, our city was behind us as we ‘cut the ribbon’ along with about 200 friends, family, and customers.
Our customer support has also been unbelievable. Like us, Chrysler deserted these people and many of them had a lot of angst towards Chrysler. I can remember the hundreds of letters of support we received, letting us know they would be here when we reopened. Over the past 20 years we built our business around our customers and I can tell you that is a great feeling.
Again, we’re excited. We have a big family. A lot of people walk into the dealership and say, “How does your family work together the way you do?” They don’t realize how close our family is. But we’ve always been able to separate work from our personal relationships.
My whole immediate family is involved in our dealership, my father, mother, brother, and two sisters. So the six of us, and our significant others and kids go out to dinner often, and people just don’t understand. They say, “How can you work together all day, the retail hours that you work, and then want to go spend time after work with each other? We don’t understand that.” The answer is we enjoy each other’s company. We enjoy working together. It’s very gratifying to go home at the end of the day and be able to say, “Hey, we did the best job that we could.” And we did it with people that we want to be with. So it’s great.
As you and Brian get older and I imagine start being responsible for more of the business, do you have ideas of wanting to grow the business, adding franchises?
Yes. Our goal certainly is to grow beyond just this dealership.
After our first week of operations, we’ve already begun talking about hiring additional staff. But we’re moving intelligently. The last thing we want to do is hire people and then have to turn around and lay them off because we overestimated.
What kind of response have you received after reopening?
I’ve been fielding calls from other dealers congratulating us. As we said in our press release, it feels good to be vindicated, but it’s also bittersweet because there are about 780 other Chrysler dealers and hundreds of thousands of employees and vendors that have had their lives completely taken apart through all of this.
The media asked us during the press conference we held the day before the grand opening, “What makes you so special?”
The truth is, nothing makes us special. Our situation was unique and our perseverance was unwavering. And fortunately we were able to come out on top.