Don Thornton, a dealer who led the troubled Tulsa Auto Collection, has resigned.
Thornton stepped down as CEO of the Auto Collection Aug. 31. COO Bill Knight temporarily is leading the consolidation of Ford Motor Co. dealerships until a CEO is chosen, said Ford spokesman John Ochs.
Thornton, 65, had been a car dealer for 27 years when he gave up his independence and threw his experience behind the Auto Collection, a new retailing idea created by Ford.
In April 1998, Thornton, five other Oklahoma dealers and Ford pooled their resources to create a single sales and service entity covering the entire Tulsa market.
Ford's radical retailing approach angers many dealers. They oppose Ford's intrusion into local retailing and decry the loss of entrepreneurial leadership at dealerships. Some also object to the Auto Collection formula, which requires one-price selling and salaried sales personnel.
But Thornton became an early believer, arguing that nonnegotiable selling and salaried employees were the right way to conduct business. He frequently promoted Ford's philosophy by inviting other dealers to Tulsa.
Thornton's conviction wasn't enough. Sales suffered as Thornton tried to meld more than 800 employees into a cohesive unit doing business a new way. Competitors hammered the enterprise's nonnegotiable pricing policy. Losses incurred selling unneeded stores forced the company to raise more capital.
'We have been through the briar patch. We tried to gobble up too much of the concept too fast,' Thornton said last week. 'We expected it to take six to eight months to do a merger of this size. It has taken about a year. The hardest thing was the mechanics of getting everything together, the centralized office, the 401(k) plans, the insurance plans, the sales codes and the parts and service codes.'
Thornton said he remains a believer in the Auto Collection. However, the business model will not work in every market, particularly in large metropolitan areas where competing dealers easily can undercut a nonnegotiable price, he said.
Asked about the Tulsa Auto Collection's sales and market share, Thornton said, 'It is better. We have been hurt the last couple of months because the market is better than we thought and we didn't have enough inventory. Our used-car sales are good.'
The Tulsa Auto Collection operates a corporate office; five dealerships selling Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda and Jaguar vehicles; and two used-car stores.
'I wasn't forced out,' Thornton said. 'I thought it was time to step aside. I turn 66 on Sept. 29. I began in the car business in 1963 as a salesperson. Nothing lasts forever. I am walking away with a good feeling.'
Ford is looking for a CEO who has 'demonstrated success in the car business' and the ability to manage a large organization, Ford spokesman Ochs said.
In the United States, Auto Collections also operate in Salt Lake City; Rochester, N.Y.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; and San Diego.
Ford says the new retailing approach will please customers, reduce distribution costs, compete with publicly owned chains and safeguard its brands from large retail chains.