Tom Bickford says he has been waking up in the middle of the night lately, wondering if Chrysler made a mistake. After all, his family's Westminster Dodge dealership scored in the top 15 percent of all U.S. dealers by Chrysler's own assessment last year. Bickford couldn't help but think that maybe - just maybe – someone pressed the wrong button somewhere, and Westminster was accidentally put on the now-infamous franchise termination list.
Tom Bickford says he has been waking up in the middle of the night lately, wondering if Chrysler made a mistake.
After all, his family's Westminster Dodge dealership scored in the top 15 percent of all U.S. dealers by Chrysler's own assessment last year.
Westminster sold 335 new Dodge vehicles in 2008, gets high marks for customer satisfaction, and occupies a hard-to-beat location just off the Southeast Expressway in Dorchester.
Bickford couldn't help but think that maybe - just maybe – someone pressed the wrong button somewhere, and Westminster was accidentally put on the now-infamous franchise termination list.
But then the crew from Saxton Sign Corp. arrived at Chrysler's behest on Wednesday. Working in a shroud of funereal mist, the Saxton crew began disassembling the distinctively red Westminster Dodge panels on the dealership's rooftop. Bickford knew he wouldn't sell a new Dodge there again.
Plenty of signs are coming down this month in Massachusetts and across the country. Chrysler last month filed a list of 789 franchises to be terminated in bankruptcy court, including franchises for Westminster and 11 other Massachusetts dealers. They didn't get much advance notice: The franchises were terminated on June 9.
The swift dissolution of such longstanding business relationships left plenty of bitter feelings among the dealers kicked off the playing field. The businesses were often portrayed collectively in the media as Chrysler's unprofitable dealerships, and yet many were still turning a decent profit.
Bickford's dealership, by his account, was still one of the money-making Chrysler shops - even last year, during the roughest time for the auto industry in decades.
Bickford continues to run an auto repair shop and used-car dealership under the Westminster name at the site, but he is frustrated that he can't sell new Dodges anymore. He received the news through a form letter on May 14, and he says he still hasn't been given an explanation despite his repeated attempts to contact the Auburn Hills, Mich.-based company.
The callousness of Chrysler's dismissal is especially painful, considering the Bickford family's lifelong devotion to the Dodge brand.
His father, Charlie Bickford, started at the dealership as a bookkeeper in 1958 and helped move it from Roxbury to Dorchester in 1964 when the Southeast Expressway opened. Charlie Bickford eventually bought the business in 1977. Tom Bickford's two brothers work at the dealership and his father, now retired, still stops by. In his office, a framed collage celebrating Chrysler's 75th anniversary hangs on one wall; a signed photo of revered former Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca hangs on another.
However, decades of loyalty apparently meant little to the struggling auto manufacturer. Bickford says he learned that Chrysler is mailing letters to his customers, suggesting other dealers that they should consider for their auto repair work.
The way Chrysler handled the dealership terminations contrasts starkly to General Motors' approach. GM gave dealers more than a year to shut down, allowed for an appeals process and left it up to each affected dealership to decide when to disclose publicly that they were targeted for termination.
At least one former Chrysler dealer is still fighting. Jim Tarbox, who owned Chrysler dealerships in Attleboro and North Kingstown, R.I., has appealed the bankruptcy court judge's approval of the franchise terminations. Tarbox says he was unfairly targeted because he opposed Chrysler's decision to allow another Jeep dealership in his franchise area. He says his North Kingstown Jeep dealership was one of the busiest in New England, and he bought the Attleboro shop in 2007 at Chrysler's urging. He says his livelihood is on the line, and he could lose his home if he can't recover the Jeep rights.
Bickford, on the other hand, says he believes he has spent enough money on legal costs and is looking to the future. Bickford says he was forced to lay off a few technicians after the Chrysler warranty work dried up a few weeks ago. But he says he's in the final stages of lining up another new car franchise - one that could enable him to protect the jobs of the nearly 40 people who remain at Westminster.
Still, Bickford wouldn't mind an explanation from Chrysler before he officially switches sides.
Chrysler spokeswoman Kathy Graham says Chrysler acted far more quickly than GM did because Chrysler's dealership termination process began after it filed for Chapter 11 (GM began its process before filing). The bankruptcy, she says, limited Chrysler's options and what it could say to affected dealers.
Graham says she can't go into detail about why a specific dealership was chosen. However, it's no secret that Chrysler has been pursuing its “Project Genesis” effort to put its three remaining brands - Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep - under one roof at as many dealerships as possible.
Graham says solo Jeep and Dodge dealerships - Westminster was one of these - were at a disadvantage in the evaluation process.
That said, the past several weeks provided a series of hard lessons for Tom Bickford.
A trip to bankruptcy court can undo just about any promise in the business world.
A crisis teaches you who your true friends are.
And don't expect that a half-century of loyalty to one of the country's biggest companies can guarantee you a simple return phone call.
Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.