Jack Fitzgerald has been selling Dodge and Chrysler vehicles in Maryland for more than four decades. He sees no reason to stop now.
The dealer, who ran three Chrysler dealerships in Montgomery County and one in Frederick, has joined more than 900 car dealers nationwide who plan to fight to win back franchises closed last year by Chrysler Group LLC or that will be shut down this year by General Motors Corp. Those dealers represent about half of those that have been closed or are facing a shutdown.
Dealers have said the companies unfairly took businesses that were in their families for generations, and they persuaded Congress to pass a law requiring binding arbitration. The American Arbitration Association, which will handle the hearings, said more than 30 percent of closed dealers filed appeal paperwork by Friday afternoon. The deadline was midnight Monday.
Fitzgerald's Dodge dealerships in Wheaton, Bethesda, Gaithersburg and Frederick were among the nearly 800 nationwide that Chrysler forced to close last June while it was going through bankruptcy protection.
GM wants to close 2,000 dealers by this October, but 700 of those will remain open because the automaker allowed them to keep selling some of the company's brands while taking away others.
Fitzgerald is among a group of at least nine GM or Chrysler dealers in the state who plan to go to arbitration, the Maryland Automotive Dealers Association estimates. Chrysler shut down 19 Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep dealerships in Maryland, said Peter Kitzmiller, of the association. GM has not disclosed how many dealers it plans to close in Maryland.
"There was no economic reason to dump the dealers," said Fitzgerald, who started selling Dodge cars in 1966 in Bethesda and says he believes Chrysler was looking for a way to avoid covering the repairs on cars. "The dealerships were viable. They were making money. It's Chrysler that went bankrupt, not the dealers. ... By closing dealerships, they're crippling themselves."
Fitzgerald is continuing to sell imports at his former Chrysler dealerships, which also continue to provide non-warranty service and parts for Chryslers. He argues that GM and Chrysler can best succeed by offering better service, through the dealers, to customers driving their cars now. "How can they do that when they reduce their dealer count by 25 to 40 percent?" he said. "My hope is all dealers appeal and all will be successful."
"These people were all dealers, and the next day in bankruptcy court they were no longer dealers, and they didn't know the process or how they came up with the list," Kitzmiller said. With the arbitration, "you have a chance to make your case to an arbitrator. It does give you an opportunity."
Both car companies say the closed dealers weren't performing well, and they need to make the cuts to keep the remaining ones healthy so they can invest in better showrooms and more advertising to boost sales. Many dealers were in locations away from where customers now shop, work or live.
But Kitzmiller and dealers around the state have challenged Chrysler's assertion that the dealer closures would save $1 billion. They point out dealers pay for the cars before they leave the plant as well as portions of marketing.
The arbitration association says it will consider a dealership's profitability, the manufacturer's business plan, the dealership's economic viability, and whether the dealer met objectives outlined by the automaker. The process must be wrapped up by mid-June.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.