Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics!

David Ruggles
See also Cliff Banks article in Wards
As I watched the Senate hearings today on CSPAN my blood boiled. When asked about the money they would save by cutting their dealer count these guys, Henderson (GM) and Press (Chrysler), engaged in some serious obfuscation. They asserted that by swapping an "under performing" dealer for a "performing dealer" they would pick up the gross profit of the additional sales of the new "performing" dealer. These calculations of the difference between what they got and what they felt they were entitled to makes up the bulk of what they claim the rejected dealers "cost" their companies.
I have a little experience in this area. I have operated dealerships in a number of markets. As a consultant I have visited hundreds of dealerships and worked closely with them. The best dealers are those who have structured their business in such a way as to be less vulnerable to the inevitable downturn in either the new vehicle market or the times when the offerings of their manufacturer weren't well accepted in the market. These successful dealers learned to develop their pre-owned business and other profit centers, and they probably brought in other manufacturer makes to help cover their fixed costs in the event of a market downturn.
These dealers are typically still profitable, despite our difficult sales environment. These are precisely the type of dealers targeted by Chrysler and GM.
Markets are not created equal. To understand the concept, think in terms of MSR, which stands for Minimum Sales Responsibility in the Chrysler business. GM has its own terminology, but the same meaning. MSR is where a manufacturer's national market share percentage is applied to the total new vehicle volume in a specific dealer's market. Any deficiency – shortfall from the target – is what a manufacturer views as lost sales. They can calculate the gross profit they would have made had the dealer hit its MSR. But now they appear to count it as a cost in justifying the arbitrary termination of dealers and their employees. There are additional assumptions. The gross profit they calculate is the margin they make when they sell the a new vehicle to the dealer. The dealer has to sell it at retail to make money themselves, which isn't always possible. MSR also varies by locality; it is certainly possible that a dealer who exceeds MSR in one market would underperform in another.
The fact is, Chrysler and GM resent dealers who have managed their business in such a way as to not be overly dependent on selling their products. Many rejected dealers have been targeted as a result of their business acumen. In addition, Chrysler and GM are moving to force more expense onto their retained dealers. GM has sent out "participation agreements" that any dealer wanting to go forward must sign. It effectively replaces the franchise agreement, forcing dealers to agree to do anything and everything, or else. Don't sign, and the dealer is terminated. GM and Chrysler want more elaborate and expensive facilities. The also want exclusivity in those expanded facilities, meaning the manufacturers won't allow competitive makes in these facilities, even though they are purchased or leased by the dealer, NOT the manufacturer.
Normally, dealers would be protected from these types of unreasonable demands by state and federal franchise laws. But GM and Chrysler are taking advantage of their bankruptcies to avoid these restraints. They are showing why these laws existed in the first place - there is a long history of franchisors abusing franchisees, once the franchisee has money in the business that they can't extract. The auto industry isn't unique, but each store represents a far larger investment than in fast food or most other franchising. Congress and the states had made such blackmail illegal; now Chapter 11 is being manipulated to allow it.
I have a friend who had a Chrysler-Jeep operation yanked from one store, and a Dodge operation from another. Now Chrysler can give them to a competitor. These yanked franchises didn't fall out of the sky, good money was paid for them. Chrysler wants to exact a 3 million dollar building from the other dealer in return for being granting it the franchises. The dealer who was NOT terminated was not selling near their MSR, so there must be other motivations. It will be poetic justice if the yanked Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge franchises languish for lack of a party willing to invest that much for a new facility. Time will tell.
According to Chrysler's Press the distribution costs per vehicle amount to about $1000. Of course, each vehicle bears its proportion of these costs regardless of which dealer they were shipped to. In Press' argument this cost would be less if they could replace under performing dealers with (fewer) performing dealers. But these costs aren't related to the number of dealers – they represent the money spent to develop and maintain the software in the first place.
Furthermore, neither executive mentioned the costs their companies have transferred to the dealer. While claiming there were substantial costs associated with the software and hardware related to their dealer communication IT package, Press neglected to mention that each dealer is charged about $2600 a month for this. He failed to mention that there really are very few, if any, field people these days, as dealer contacts are made by email and telephone instead of actual in-store visits. There was a concerted effort to overstate costs and avoid altogether any mention of how much of these costs are actually reimbursed by dealers. In fact, studies show that each dealer represents POSITIVE cash flow BEFORE they buy a vehicle or a part!
I've been frustrated by previously not being able to determine who made the decision to cut dealers, rather than to allow natural attrition to thin out dealer ranks. (That attrition rate is high at present!) It is hard to believe that Henderson and Press have that little understanding of the auto business. I have to conclude that the initiative to lower the dealer count is driven by the Task Force, who think Toyota's business model is what everyone should emulate. The Task Force may be made up of restructuring geniuses, but they have little understanding of the auto business. Their profession means they are mostly North Easterners who may not even own a vehicle, and are not oriented to the issues of smaller businesses. But when a dealer closes, it likely results in a bankruptcy in which a family's life savings are wiped out. It's not just a job loss. The Task Force doesn't seem to understand this. Closing dealerships will cost sales for Chrysler and GM, something they can ill afford. And the ill-will it generates will cost them a lot more than any potential savings.
Imagine Gillette volunteering to give up shelf space space at the super market to Schick! It's the same principle. Foreign competitors looking to expand their dealer base will scan the ranks of rejected GM and Chrysler dealers. If not for the recession, that would save many of the terminated dealers.
In the meantime the "task force" is driving the bus while all parties deny any micro managing by the government.
But remember: as bad is it is, it's better than liquidation! Those who think Chapter 11 for GM and Chrysler should have been declared last summer have forgotten the financial crisis. To operate in Chapter 11 still requires financing, and for almost a year now that has only been available from the US Treasury. The Task Force is necessary, but the specialized nature of their skill set is apparent. The faster these two firms exit Chapter 11 and the Task Force stops calling the shots, the better.