TULSA, Okla. - James Hodge did not think it could happen to him.
Sure, Ford Motor Co. was talking about consolidating dealerships - but he assumed it would happen in the Northeast or in towns with shrinking sales.
Now, Hodge says, he knows better. He owns a Ford dealership just outside the area controlled by the Tulsa group, and competes every day with the Tulsa Auto Collection. He feels frustrated and uneasy about the changes under way.
The Tulsa Auto Collection has turned Ford from a partner to a competitor, Hodge said.
'Our sales rep calls on us less now than he ever did. He spends more time at the Ford Retail Network,' Hodge said, using the early working name of the consolidated dealerships. 'We have less service help from the factory than ever before. I think they are trying to help run the FRN on a daily basis.'
Hodge worries that a competitor partially owned by the factory will be given preferential treatment. For evidence he cites a Ford Crown Victoria state police car brought into James Hodge Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Muskogee, Okla., for a paint repair.
'We had the factory rep look at it. He said, 'We'll paint it, but you'll have to pay 50 percent',' Hodge said. When the police unit was taken to the Ford Auto Collection, another factory representative agreed to pay 100 percent, Hodge said. 'That is not right. It really upset me,' he said.
Don Thornton, CEO of the Tulsa Auto Collection, is adamant that the new venture receives no break from the factory. In fact, the new venture may be a victim of reverse discrimination, he said. 'There has been no special treatment,' Thornton said.
Like Hodge, Jim Warner, owner of North Point Ford-Lincoln-Mercury, has logged new-vehicle sales increases in the last year. But he does not credit the Auto Collection. Both dealers operate stores about 35 miles from the nearest Auto Collection outlet.
Said Hodge: 'Our new vehicle sales last year were up 12 percent. We were advertising more aggressively.'
Hodge boosted his ad budget 10 percent in 1998 to fight the Auto Collection and to say on TV that at James Hodge Ford, 'You have a say in the price.'
In response, the Auto Collection is advertising: 'Every vehicle is hassle-free priced. No games. No gimmicks.'
Neither side likes the rap to their reputation.
Says Hodge: 'They say one-price selling is the morally right way to sell, and that negotiated selling is hassling the customer and unethical. I put our customer satisfaction up against anybody's. Our owner loyalty rate is as high as it is in the region. Negotiation is what has made Ford Motor Co. what they are today.
'I would not try one-price for any amount of money because the people in rural Oklahoma don't feel like they have gotten a good deal until you give them something or throw something in on the deal,' said Hodge, who owns six dealerships in Oklahoma and Texas and has General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Toyota franchises.
He retailed 1,550 new and used vehicles in the Tulsa-area store in 1998.
Mike Quinn, owner of Mike Quinn Dodge Inc. in Tulsa, considers his name on the store a competitive advantage.
'It gives a personification to the dealership,' he said. 'I'm here. I answer the phone. I talk to customers. There is no way to duplicate that in a Ford Retail Network.'