Small-town America buys American, so it’s hard to understand the rationale behind the move by Chrysler and GM to slash 1,800 dealerships.
The owners of two of those dealerships, Spangler in Oak Harbor, and Eisenhour Motor Sales in Pemberville, expected the news their franchises would be pulled, but still both expressed disbelief when it actually happened. Rick Spangler said he was “sort of shocked” because he had exactly what Chrysler wanted in its reorganization plans—a dealership that carried all three lines—Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep. Many dealers who lost franchise rights carry only one of the three.
Jack Eisenhour was also surprised. He said, “It’s kind of sad for small-town America. When my dad started out, Chevrolet was growing right along with him. He helped make the name Chevrolet, along with some of the other dealers who have since passed.”
Jack’s dad, Walter Eisenhour, along with Fred Smith, opened Smith and Eisenhour Motor Sales in 1924. Jack, now 74, and his son Brian, 48, have both grown up in the business. The family has sold American cars to their neighbors and their children and grandchildren. He finds it ironic that his franchise was eliminated a week before GM’s vice chairman Bob Lutz went on the air to say Chevrolet sales are stronger in rural and small-town America than in large cities where foreign cars have taken away market share.
The Press is delivered to 21 small towns from Oregon to Oak Harbor, Gibsonburg to Pemberville. There are seven dealerships in these towns; none are foreign. While this move may help two of the Big Three auto makers, it won’t help consumers. They will have less leverage to deal and less choice.
The communities of Oak Harbor and Pemberville will also feel the impact. Tom Spangler, Rick’s brother and the dealership’s sales manager, says, “It cuts deep in the community. We have supported little league baseball and kids’ soccer. We got a gal’s bowling team. We support high school basketball and football. When there’s a levy, we support our school. We give back to the community what we can give back.”
The same is true at Eisenhour. The family has provided Eastwood’s vo-ag department with a new Chevy truck every year since 1971, in addition to supporting kids’ recreation programs.
How these two families will continue to support their communities will depend on how their communities support them in their transition to a new business model. Both will keep their dealerships open. They will expand their used car inventory and promote their mechanical services. Both service most models but specialize in their franchise brands. Neither company plans to lay off employees at this time. Spangler employs eight to 10 and Eisenhour eight.
Still, both will feel the economic impact of losing their franchises. During their best days, Spangler and Eisenhour each sold 125 to 150 new cars a year. Lately, the numbers have dropped to about 40 to 75. At an average selling price of $20,000 per car, that’s more than $1 million in sales per dealership.
Both families have weathered many changes in the automobile industry. When Eisenhour opened 85 years ago, it carried Oakland and Pontiac. Few of us remember Oakland, and Pontiac will soon join it in the automotive graveyard. And, when Jim Spangler, Rick and Tom’s father, started his dealership with Paul Nau 49 years ago, one of the brands it carried was Plymouth, which Daimler-Chrysler discontinued in 2001.
So, you see, both families know how to adapt to change. I wouldn’t count them out yet, just because Detroit did.