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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Car dealership closures carry human component

Jan Quintrall

Several years ago I wrote in this space about a small-town car dealer who was a very good corporate citizen. He supported Little League, the local business associations, local schools, you name it, and he was someone you could count on to make a donation.

But privately, he told me he’d begun questioning whether his dedication to his community was reciprocal. The tipping point was the most recent visit from the Little League coach who came to him each year for sponsorship. The coach drove up in his new car, purchased in a larger city from a competing dealer. The small-town dealer’s civic-mindedness had not mattered when the coach bought his new car.

In the wake of the Chrysler Corp.’s closure of local franchises, the BBB is already hearing from people concerned that they’ll have to drive 60 miles to get warranty work. I wonder just how many of them bought their cars in larger cities to save a few hundred dollars. There are consequences to actions, and the loss of hometown business is one of them.

Our local car dealers have been people we could count on. Often they are leaders in our communities. Take a look at just about any Chamber of Commerce board of directors, and the car dealers are there. State Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, came from the dealership world.

Of course, there also are car dealers the staff at the BBB would not be sorry to see go. They are the ones who get all sorts of complaints on a regular basis, who do not answer complaints and who advertise in ways that mislead.

This is also not the first time we have seen trouble in auto manufacturing. Remember American Motors, maker of the Rambler, the Gremlin and the Matador (considered by some to be the ugliest car in America)? It was acquired by Chrysler in 1987.

Consolidation can be a good thing. When we combine support systems, tremendous efficiencies can be achieved. These efficiencies are so attractive that our Spokane city and county services are considering such consolidation. In the BBB system we have seen that combining two BBB operations results in a win for everyone. As the number of business offices declines, service is improving.

When the news of the Chrysler reductions hit, I began wondering what kind of cost savings one brand under GM or Chrysler would achieve? Would buyers see lower pricing? What other benefits would consolidation bring? Is there a lesson to be learned from Toyota and Honda, who limit their area saturation when it comes to dealer placement? In my accountant’s mind, it mostly comes down to numbers in making the best decisions.

But the human side of this story is difficult. I had just returned home from a business trip to Yakima when my husband reported that the Chrysler dealer hit list had been released. He told me that no Spokane or Coeur d’Alene dealers were on that list. Well, our BBB world is a bit larger than that, so I went to find the full 40-page list.

As I read the list and noted the dealers in the tri-state area we serve, I saw names of people I have worked with for a decade. Dealers I know. Human beings with children and spouses and relationships with me. It was really hard to look at the cold reality when I pictured the faces that went with the names on that list.

The Internet has changed the face of business in every industry, including automobile dealers. The Inland Northwest holds one of the largest dealerships in the country, thanks to the Internet. But folks who buy over the Internet used to purchase from their local smaller-city dealer – yes, the one on the closure list.

As the number of local franchised car dealers shrinks, we will all miss their community leadership. Thanks for all you have done, and we wish you the best as you move into your next endeavor.

Jan Quintrall is president and CEO of the local Better Business Bureau. She can be reached at jquintrall@spokane. bbb.org or (509) 232-0530.
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