When Sergio Marchionne sat down for a smoke at the other end of the bar, Jim Casper did a double take.
He saw an irresistible opportunity to talk about his family's closed Chrysler Group dealership. Casper, 35, was nervous as he walked over and introduced himself.
Marchionne was clad in his trademark black sweater and open-necked light shirt. He sat with a security aide on March 17 in the Ocean Prime seafood restaurant in Troy, Mich., just miles from Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills.
Here's Casper's account of the conversation, after he introduced himself:
"Are you a rejected dealer?" Marchionne asked.
"I work for a rejected dealer," Casper replied.
"Do you know why you were rejected?" the CEO asked.
"To be honest, sir, we have absolutely no idea," Casper said.
Casper asked if Marchionne had received the two certified letters sent since August by Richard Mealey, his father-in-law and owner of the canceled dealership, Birmingham Chrysler-Jeep in Troy. Casper is operations director of the used-car store, Troy Auto World, which survives.
One letter asked Chrysler to consider restoring the store's franchises if the company were to open new points in the area. A second letter asked the automaker to refrain from appointing a new dealer in Mealey's territory until Mealey's arbitration was complete.
"Jim, I don't recall," Marchionne said. "But I open everything that's addressed to me."
Casper followed up the next day with an e-mail thanking Marchionne and attaching the two letters in case the CEO couldn't find them. The e-mail also invited Marchionne to call him.
Casper never heard from Marchionne, just as his family never got a response to the two earlier letters.
But Casper's lawyer got a message from a Chrysler lawyer.
"Chrysler Group believes that communications about the case ought to be between counsel," the March 19 e-mail said, according to a copy provided by Casper. "Please ask your clients not to send such communications to Mr. Marchionne or any other Chrysler personnel. Chrysler Group is not in a position at this time to make the call [to Marchionne] that your clients suggest."
A Chrysler spokesman later said that lawyers should handle communication on arbitration. "Chrysler Group is committed to proceeding with the arbitration process," Chrysler said in an e-mail. "As a result, the company has requested that correspondence from dealers who have filed for arbitration occur between counsel."
Said Casper: "I was hopeful after the conversation that Mr. Marchionne would call. I thought it was a big deal that he even talked to me and never brushed me off. But in the end, it was frustrating."