MILAN, Mich. -- On May 14, 2009, a UPS courier approached the door of Schultz Motors Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in this southeast Michigan town of 5,000. Tyler Schultz felt a knot gather in his stomach.
He had heard that the only dealers getting UPS envelopes that fateful day would be those whose stores Chrysler was terminating as part of a government-managed bankruptcy.
Schultz couldn't bear to read the letter himself, so he handed it to his service manager, Tom Smith. But the Chrysler letter notified Schultz -- and the dealership's employees, who had gathered around -- that the store had survived the culling that had terminated 789 dealerships. After more than six decades in business, Schultz Motors had lived to fight another day.
Relief was short-lived.
By August, Schultz had run out of inventory after Chrysler shuttered factories during bankruptcy and the federal cash-for-clunkers program triggered a short-term sales spike.
"People thought we were out of business," says Schultz, 50.
After these near-death experiences, the dealership faces a new challenge: how to hang on to its small-town identity and make a profit as part of a new Chrysler that is restructuring its dealer network and its business model. Chrysler is shifting away from the incentive-driven strategy of the past and trying to build its brands.
Tyler Schultz says he's not a political guy. But he gets excited talking about small-town values in a world where everything seems big and impersonal.
"I'm an advocate for small dealers," he says. Schultz Motors, which employs 11 people, sells about 120 new cars a year and an equal number of used vehicles. Schultz manages the store, which is about 50 miles southwest of Detroit, along with his older brother, Todd, and their father, Duane.
Tyler Schultz believes many people still like to shop in a dealership that's sort of like TV's "Cheers," where everybody knows your name.
"Not everyone today who comes in to buy a car wants the corporate pitch," Schultz says. "There's nothing here to remind you of the car business -- no award plaques on the wall."
Instead there are lots of pictures of Great Lakes freighters on the wood-paneled walls -- at least three of them the famously sunken Edmund Fitzgerald. Tyler owns a scuba diving shop and is an avid bicyclist, recently pedaling across the country.