At 75, Saturn megadealer Don Hudler figures he's going to stick with the brand till the fat lady sings.
"We're diehards. We'll probably go to the bitter end," Hudler, the former chairman of Saturn Corp., said last week after the shocking news that Roger Penske's deal to buy the Saturn brand had collapsed.
Hudler owns three Saturn dealerships in Houston and three in Dallas. The day after the deal collapsed, floor traffic "all but stopped," he said.
Hudler's history is intertwined with the once-promising brand. He was its marketing chief in the early 1990s as Saturn became the industry's leader in customer service and loyalty. Then he became chairman, briefly ran a GM subsidiary that bought more than 20 Saturn dealerships, and then bought the Texas stores in 2001.
Now he's looking at an empty cupboard and a slow death for the brand.
"I never like to admit that I don't have a plan," he said in a phone interview. "But I was stunned by it. It sounded like it [the sale to Penske] was just waiting to close."
Instead, it's Hudler's stores that will be closing. He says he's open to taking on new franchises. "Both Kia and Hyundai are on a roll," he says.
In 1999, Hudler retired from GM and became chairman of Saturn Retail Enterprises, a subsidiary set up to take on Saturn dealerships whose owners wanted to get out. When Texas regulators balked at having a GM entity running car dealerships, Hudler bought the six stores himself.
At the time Automotive News cited industry sources as saying that his investment might have been in the $40 million to $50 million range. Hudler called that estimate "on the high side."
Today he's philosophically wry about the investment in light of GM's own bankruptcy.
"When I retired, I had to sell my GM stock to raise money to buy the deals," he says, "And I was really upset that I had to sell it at 64 - like I was really hosed."
Hudler's stores still practice Saturn's famous no-dicker-sticker pricing, and still have staff rally around the customer when they deliver a new car, practices that he was instrumental in pioneering.
Now he's looking at the value of his real estate, even as he expects to run the stores till GM stops making product for Saturn.
Says Hudler: "I didn't expect to finish this way."