Chrysler dealer thrives on no Dodge, no frills

In 2006, suburban Detroit dealer Bob Shuman rejected Chrysler LLC's request to build a new store six miles away. Says Shuman: "We would have been bankrupt before the doors opened." Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
DETROIT — When Chrysler LLC unveiled its Project Genesis consolidation plan for Detroit area dealers this summer, Bob Shuman noticed there was no circle on the map at the tiny suburb of Walled Lake, Mich.

Walled Lake, population 6,700, is the home of his Shuman Chrysler-Jeep store. Shuman, 46, wasn't fazed when he learned that his store does not fit into the carmaker's retail plans in Detroit.

Chrysler is in the midst of Project Genesis, a five-year plan to reduce the company's dealer count by combining its Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brands under one rooftop wherever possible. But Shuman doesn't have a Dodge store, and he says there's no prospect of his getting one.

Shuman, a cheerful spark plug of a man who practiced law for 11 years before taking over the family dealership, says he has always enjoyed cordial relations with the factory. But he thinks Chrysler is getting something wrong with its consolidation plan, which requires dealers combining all three brands to invest big money in stores.

Shuman says he'll survive without Dodge, advertising his store as a no-frills operation that offers better prices than the expensive "Taj Mahal" stores built by other dealers.

Says Shuman: "How are these guys who have bought these big stores going to survive the difficult times? It's guys with low-overhead structures who are going to survive."

When Chrysler announced the plan in February, the company told dealers it would like to see most stores in metro areas consolidated by 2012.

Chrysler co-President Jim Press says the automaker realizes not every dealer can arrange a Genesis deal. But he has repeatedly said Chrysler is trimming redundant products from its brands.

"Based on our product portfolio," Press warns, "if you don't have Genesis, you won't have the full range of Chrysler products."

Shuman, whose family has had a dealership in Walled Lake since 1954, has paid off his store's mortgage and owns his land. When his showroom needed remodeling a couple of years ago, Shuman dipped into savings for the $1 million project.

Shuman Chrysler-Jeep
Owner: Bob Shuman, 46, former lawyer
Where: Walled Lake, Mich., pop. 6,700
Volume: 1,300 new-vehicle sales and leases through August
Slogan: "The biggest Chrysler-Jeep dealer in Walled Lake." (It's a joke. Shuman is the only car dealership in Walled Lake.)
His shtick: No granite countertops, no cappuccino, just car deals
What he has: A sense of humor
What he lacks: A Dodge franchise
Punch line: "This is not a two-bit operation. It's a four-bit operation."
Why he quit lawyering and went back to the family car business: "Although suing people was fun, I just could not resist getting back into the dealership."

No cappuccino

He uses his low overhead as a selling point. The way Shuman figures it, the money he saves by not building a fancy store can go toward giving customers a good deal.

"We'll let the other dealers build new Taj Mahal stores," his Web site, www.shumanjeep.com, tells customers. "We encourage you to visit these indoor football stadiums and get a cappuccino at their coffee bar. Take a look at the granite countertops and ask yourself one question: 'Who the heck is paying for all this fancy stuff?' You are, unless you come to Shuman Chrysler-Jeep in Walled Lake. We are your low-overhead dealer."

Shuman, who reads his own radio advertising scripts at near-auctioneer speed, guarantees he will beat any other dealer's advertised price.

"We have a noncommission system," he says, "so the salesman isn't thinking gross, gross, gross."

Shuman Chrysler-Jeep has been very successful. Through August, the dealership stands near the top 10 in the country among Chrysler-Jeep stores, with about 1,300 new units sold or leased. Shuman often has sold more than 200 new cars a month, including a record month two years ago.

"In March 2006," he says, "we sold 271 new vehicles with 10 salespeople and a one-car showroom."

A big hole: Dodge

But Shuman has one big problem: lack of a Dodge franchise. Dodge is Chrysler LLC's highest-volume brand.

When Chrysler executives unveiled Project Genesis, they said they would eliminate most duplicate models. In the future, Chrysler won't design similar vehicles for two brands — the Jeep Liberty and Dodge Nitro siblings, for example.

"The new small car is going to be a Dodge Hornet," says Shuman. "I'd sure like to have a small car like that, but I won't. I'll try to find a way to make do."

Chrysler wanted to put Shuman into a three-brand Genesis store. But in 2006, Shuman gave thumbs down to Chrysler's offer to move his dealership about six miles southwest to South Lyon, Mich., and incorporate a Dodge franchise.

The location, next to a freeway, would have cost Shuman $500,000 an acre, and that didn't include the cost of putting up a 50,000-square-foot building. Shuman estimates the project would have cost him $14 million.

"We would have been bankrupt before the doors opened," he says. And Shuman thinks he wouldn't have sold as many cars six miles from his core base.

In the Genesis plan, Chrysler wants to see dealers in metro areas 25 miles apart rather than six to eight miles — the current situation in some cities.

Says a Chrysler spokesperson: "We expect that there will be some thriving businesses that are not C-J-D that remain open, and we will support those dealers."

Shuman says Chrysler has "ringed me with dealers that have Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge." But, he adds, "as long as we sell and hit our MSR (minimum sales requirement) and hit our objectives, they can't get rid of us." 

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@autonews.com

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