Veteran auto dealers siding with president

Posted March 30, 2009, at 9:17 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11 a.m.

LINCOLN, Maine — When the recession hit Clay GMC Chevrolet of Lincoln, everyone at the dealership made sacrifices to get the company through the downturn.

For dealership sales manager Sean Conlogue, that meant working 12-hour days, instead of 9½-hour days, for the same paycheck. Hourly wage workers cut back on their overtime, and other sales and management workers, like Conlogue, worked more hours for the same pay, he said Monday.

That’s why Conlogue and Tom Wheeler, a sales manager at Morrison’s Chevrolet of Ellsworth, said they think President Obama is right to seek further concessions from unions, creditors and management before allowing further long-term federal bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler.

If this country’s domestic automakers are going to survive the recession, everybody from unionized retirees receiving legacy benefits to executives getting million-dollar bonuses and perks needs to make concessions, Conlogue and Wheeler said.

“No plan is a good plan unless both sides are satisfied, and in this case the corporations and the unions have to be satisfied,” Conlogue said Monday.

The bloated auto industry must cut its costs — particularly with its unions — or sink, Wheeler said.

“I don’t want to say that I don’t want there to be a bailout, but if a bailout stops the problems, then that’s fine,” Wheeler said. “But if it doesn’t stop the problems or alter the current conditions with our unions, then I think the only alternative is a structured bankruptcy where the government backs our warranties and we get out of these large legacy costs.”

Those legacy costs, Wheeler said, include union retiree medical care that pays as much as 85 percent of a retiree’s benefits.

It’s wrong to call the federal aid Obama is considering a bailout, said Walter Hight, owner of Hight Chevrolet Buick Pontiac and GMC of Skowhegan.

Automakers, he said, would be “borrowing the money and paying interest on it. That’s not a bailout,” Hight said. “And I just think if they let them fold, you will be taking away millions of jobs. Is it cheaper to loan them money or to put that many people on the street?”

And today the quality of the vehicles produced domestically trumps that of most foreign automakers, Hight said.

“It wasn’t true 10 years ago, but it’s true now,” Hight said. “Cars now are going 150,000 miles. When I started out, they would get a valve job at 25,000 miles.”

Jim Bodwell, a second-generation owner of Bodwell Chrysler Dodge of Brunswick, sees the banking industry, not automakers, as the culprit.

“It’s not our fault that the banks went south. It’s Wall Street that’s scared everybody, and the price of gas hitting $4 a gallon that scared everybody” in 2008, Bodwell said. “If gas had been $2 a gallon last summer, we wouldn’t have had these problems.”

Banks advertise record-low interest rates, but dealerships haven’t seen the benefits yet, he said.

“We have good repeat customers come in and we can’t get them the loans we could a year ago,” Bodwell said. “I believe that is the biggest thing the car companies are hollering about. We tell people, ‘You don’t see too many people walking. Everybody’s driving something.’”

Another needed improvement, Conlogue said, is vehicles with higher per-gallon mileage standards.

Those customers who do get financing “will find some fantastic deals out there,” Conlogue said. “I have never seen rebates out there like this in my 37 years here.”

Efforts to obtain comments from three auto dealers in the Bangor area were unsuccessful Monday.

nsambides@bangordailynews.net

794-8215

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