Three weeks ago, the Ford factory rep visited Brent Butterfield at his Ford dealership in Sandy, Utah, near Salt Lake City. Ford had just proposed a monumental change in U.S. auto retailing - acquiring control of all its independent dealerships in that market.
The rep left Butterfield a questionnaire about the proposal and asked him to return it.
Late last week, the questionnaire was still sitting untouched on Butterfield's desk.
'I have a great loyalty to Ford,' said the 58-year-old dealer. 'Even a reverence. But I have no interest whatsoever in selling this business. I can't even imagine the circumstances under which I would have any interest in selling this dealership. There's nowhere else I want to go. I'm prepared to die behind this desk.'
That, in a nutshell, characterizes the challenge to Ford Motor Co. as it plans the revolutionary restructuring of its retail network.
Ford not only must find the right markets in which to take control of its retailing. It must also come to terms with independent businessmen and women whose lives, families and family histories are intertwined in their stores.
At least in Butterfield's case, there is another subtle issue at play: As a Mormon, he says he has a great attachment to living in Salt Lake City, the church's capital city.
'People say everything's for sale,' Butterfield said. 'My dealership's not for sale.'
A FAMILY GATHERING
Ford officials unveiled the Salt Lake City plan in June in a meeting with the owners of the market's 17 dealerships that sell Fords, Lincolns or Mercurys.
Nearly half of the dealers present were accompanied by sons or daughters. Butterfield's own store, a 60-year-old business started by his father and uncle, now employs two of his brothers as well as Butterfield's two sons.
'I'm not entirely sure they know what they're getting into here,' Butterfield said of the factory. 'You find in this community a real sense of family and of ethical standards that I think grew out of the Mormon history. It's not a community where you see a lot of change.
'We might live in two houses in our entire life. With Ford, you're talking about people who are subject to a job transfer every three years.'
Butterfield praised Ford for its bold idea, but he had this suggestion: 'It's a wonderful idea. It's a brilliant idea. But do it some place other than Salt Lake City.'
Ford first proposed the idea of taking over dealerships in the Indianapolis market. There, 20 Ford Motor stores are battling for a market share that is less than half that of General Motors.
In Indianapolis and Salt Lake City, Ford is asking the owners of dealerships that retail Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles to sell out to a corporate venture controlled by the company. The new entity - jointly owned by Ford and the dealers - would oversee sales and service in the market.
Ford does not characterize its plan as a buyout. The company describes its strategy as a joint venture with substantial participation by dealers. It is considering some variation of the plan for up to six other unnamed markets.
The new dealership venture holds no interest for Butterfield. Having controlled his family's destiny for a generation, he cannot see taking a corporate job now.
The Indianapolis dealers have been generally open to the idea, and last week five audit teams from Plante & Moran, a Southfield, Mich., accounting firm, were going over the books at dealerships to assess their values.
Those audits, which one dealer said were scheduled to be completed in about two weeks, were also probing the stores' environmental conditions and real-estate values, which also affect the dealerships' net worth.
But even in Indianapolis, dealers are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Ford's proposal. Many of the Ford dealers are relatively young - 45 to 55. And as in Salt Lake City, many are grooming their children to carry on the family businesses.
'I had every intention of bringing my kids into this business,' said an Indianapolis dealer, even as Ford's auditors went over his books. 'For me to go back now and tell them that this isn't their life's calling after all would be a very emotional proposition.
'There is only one thing that will make this deal work,' he added, 'and that's money.'
Dealers across the country readily agree with Ford's reasoning. Ford sees the industry consolidating into the hands of fewer dealers, including new publicly traded outlets. This year alone, Wall Street-backed Republic Industries Inc. has erupted from zero presence in the business to the largest auto retailer in America.
At the same time, factories are experimenting with greater market control. Since 1990, GM's Saturn Corp. has succeeded in part by giving single dealers exclusive franchises in their markets.
Nissan Motor Co. U.S.A. Inc. is also experimenting with the idea. Industry trends like no-haggle pricing, employed by Saturn, are easier to implement when there are fewer dealers competing for the same customer. But proposing a dealer buyout and getting dealers to sell are vastly different.
Salt Lake City retailers believe Ford is attracted to their market by its geography. The city is neatly contained by mountains to the east and the Great Salt Lake to the west, making it relatively free of competition from dealers in adjacent markets.
The dealers say it is also a profitable market for Ford.
But those are the very reasons Brent Butterfield wants to keep the business in his family. When Butterfield thinks about a hypothetical agreement with the factory to cash out and leave, he wonders where he would move to start another auto dealership.
'I don't know of any place I'd rather be. What's better than here?'
The more he ruminates, the more problems he envisions. 'There is also the issue of my employees,' he said. 'What would happen to them? I have a responsibility to these people.'
In the end, he admits, it will all come down to money. But he can't imagine a dollar figure that would assuage his misgivings.
'Because this is Ford, I will probably go as far with them as to listen to a number.'