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Makers listen, but it takes time

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Jim Cahillane is a Dodge dealer and a free-lance writer. He lives in Williamsburg, Mass.

In the tradition of long-married men, I know how to get a rise out of my partner. My simple query, "You know how I'm always right?" sparks fits of unbelieving laughter in my better half.

Any new-car dealer who has served, as I did for many years, on dealer-factory advisory boards, has attended a make meeting at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention or bravely spoken up during the brief question-and-answer sessions at regional meetings knows where my wife's attitude comes from.

Factory folks don't always take us all that seriously. The concept of partnership between maker and dealer reappears at sharp downturns in market share.

Making and marketing cars and trucks in the world's largest automobile market demand expertise at every step of the process.

Recent top management changes at DaimlerChrysler, General Motors and Ford Motor Co. have reinforced my position that the one constant in this complex mix is the new-car dealer. I speak as one who went to his first factory show at New York's Astor Hotel as a teen-ager in 1947; thus, my enthusiasm dates to the postwar era of restyled American cars.

My dealer experience is, I confess, confined to DaimlerChrysler and its precursors: Chrysler, American Motors, Jeep and Hudson. Nevertheless, I gratefully acknowledge my debt to the late Ed Mullane, an innovative Ford dealer, who literally invented floor plan assistance.

DCX hears us

Every one of us has endured innumerable annual sermons about the importance of service, customer satisfaction and repeat business. Being entrepreneurs down to our shoes and having invested in every sense of the word, we understand.

We know, too, about business cycles, whether they're caused by a dearth of hot products or the last six recessions.

If durability is any recommendation, and I believe it is, dealer ideas regarding the problem of the moment deserve investigation and serious consideration by senior management.

To its great credit, DaimlerChrysler is showing itself capable of acting on new ideas proposed by its dealers.

For example, more than a year and a half ago, I stuck my neck out at a New England Town Meeting run by John MacDonald, then Chrysler's senior vice president for sales and service, to ask whether the factory was considering a branded credit card a la General Motors.

MacDonald's answer, more of a putdown, was, "Do you think I'm going to give away dollars to people on money that they're going to spend anyway?" He got a laugh, and I shut up.

Eighteen months have gone by. Mr. MacDonald is long gone, but, after a year-long study, Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge Visa cards with expanded consumer benefits will be in the mail soon. Hooray!

If at first ...

Just a few months ago, the New England Dodge Dealer Advisory Board repeated its strong recommendation at this year's Town Meeting that we offer a standard 100,000-mile drivetrain warranty.

Before hundreds of people, Chairman Tom Manzi spoke forcefully about the advisory board meetings held earlier that day and offered the rationale for the proposal.

Tom's presentation was applauded warmly. Gary Dilts, the Chrysler group's senior vice president for sales, listened carefully and promised to carry the dealers' message back to headquarters.

What a difference a year makes. On Nov. l, DaimlerChrysler announced an evocative "Home for the Holidays" sales program that includes a standard seven-year/l00,000-mile drivetrain warranty on all 2001 and 2002 vehicles sold through December.

Goodbye, excuses; hello, increased volume. Is this a great business, or what?

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