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Wednesday, 31 March 2010 15:01

Auto dealer reinvents to stay alive

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When Daniel Allison III learned last May that General Motors wouldn’t renew his franchise agreement, he couldn’t believe it.

“Shock,” Allison said. “I think you go through being angry and then, once I got through all my feelings, I worried about how it would affect my customers.”

The letter stated that GM would discontinue Allison’s dealership franchise in October 2010. Ever since, Allison has been working hard to fight the decision and to find a backup plan.

He traveled to Washington, D.C., at the invitation of Congressman Heath Shuler to testify about the impact of the recession on small businesses in rural areas. He urged them to help small car dealers, particularly in light of the auto bailout for the big guys.

“It concerns me how this recession has affected small business,” Allison said. “A lot of the small rural dealers are just one group of casualties.”

When Congress ordered that GM grant arbitration hearings to its discontinued dealerships, Allison preserved hope and fought for a reprieve.

But in late March his last chance for survival as a GM dealer evaporated when Allison’s Chevy wasn’t selected by the automaker as one of 600 dealers nationwide to receive reinstatement letters.

“Prior to the arbitration, we’d been pursuing what our Plan Bs would be in order to keep as many employees as possible and keep the operation as similar as it could be,” Allison said. “We’re excited with what we’ve come up with.”

Last Monday, Allison opened a co-branded Meineke Service and EconoLube automotive garage to replace the GM service center once housed at the dealership. Meanwhile, he will sell a wide range of certified used vehicles on his lot, with a focus on offering varying price points.

“This has opened us up to a whole range of makes and models we haven’t serviced before,” Allison said.

The GM label may be gone, but the Allison name will remain a part of Sylva’s automotive landscape. Allison’s grandfather, Dan Allison, Sr., started the business in 1935 and since then, Allison’s has been selling GM cars in Sylva.

When the recession hit, Allison was confident he could weather the storm. But GM’s bankruptcy proceedings led to the auto giant announcing that it would close over 1,000 dealers. Allison’s fate as a GM dealer was out of his hands. In December, he began laying off staff.

“We basically held on as long as we could in case we could be reinstated,” Allison said.

In 2008, Allison’s Chevy had 17 employees. Today the number is down to eight, but Allison said he hopes to grow the business back as the economy strengthens. In the meantime, there’s the process of rebuilding a third-generation family business.

“It’s been a wild adventure trying to reinvent it,” Allison said. “I don’t think there’s any way you can realize ahead of time how many challenges there are.”

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