DETROIT -- When Fiat Chrysler reports its March sales on Wednesday, April 1, its impressive streak of monthly year-over-year U.S. sales increases will reach five full years -- or fall one month short.
The streak has transformed the automaker and its dealers. They believe it has erased the stain of Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcy and restored the company's rightful market share.
Yet for FCA US' roughly 2,600 dealerships, the pressure to sell ever more vehicles has been daunting. It has turned some FCA dealers into high-stakes gamblers.
Dealers with medium-sized stores say it's common for $100,000 or more in monthly net profit to hang on whether they chase and achieve the factory's aggressive monthly sales goals.
"It is by no means for the faint of heart, but I'm looking to continue to grow," said Reid Big-land, FCA's head of U.S. sales. "Growth is nonnegotiable from my perspective."
At the beginning of each month, dealers must decide whether to chase the goal of the Volume Growth Program. If they do, they tend to accept lower offers to close deals, hurting profits. And they often spend extra advertising dollars to bring in customers.
If they reach the goal and get a big check from the factory, all is well. But if they fall short, they are stuck with a month of profit-eroding discounts and wasted advertising.
"It's a nightmare," said one Great Lakes area dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some dealers happily chase the bonus, which can climb to $1,000 or more per vehicle. Others see their monthly goals as unobtainable and instead try to ensure that each deal is profitable, even if it puts them at a competitive disadvantage with other FCA retailers.
Bigland said: "The dealers that have been able to grow along with me and with us, I think have done very well. It's not easy. It's tough. But we've been able to do it, and I think it's proven to be mutually beneficial for not only FCA but also for our dealer body as a whole."
The automaker is very eager to reach 60 months. Late last week, dealers were told that FCA would make a "one-time exception" for March and allow dealers to report as sold 2015 Jeep Renegades that consumers had committed to buy but for which funding had not been finalized.
A deal usually has to be delivered to be counted as a sale. FCA told dealers that the Renegade deals "do not need to be funded at the time they are reported" and would count toward monthly sales goals as long as the person who receives the vehicle is the same the person who signed the order.
Bigland says monthly bonuses are the best way to align the priorities of the factory and its dealers. He points to FCA's sales streak as proof.
"I believe in alignment," the burly Canadian said. "My boss expects me to grow. I expect to grow. I expect my people to grow, and I expect the dealers to grow. That's just a fundamental expectation I have every single month -- hence the streak."
Through February, the streak was at 59 months. Reaching 60 has been a particular challenge this March with one fewer selling day and one fewer weekend than March 2014.
FCA also is starting in a hole because dealers have to make up the 8,756 sales in March 2014 of the now-departed Dodge Avenger. The Avenger was replaced in the lineup by the redesigned Chrysler 200, which was up 31 percent through the first two months of this year.
The company also is limiting fleet sales of its two minivans while its Windsor Assembly plant in Ontario is shut down from mid-February to late May for an extended retooling.
"We're going to give it everything we've got to make it 60 consecutive months of year-over-year sales growth," Bigland said. "We're going to try and muscle this one out."
Here's how the Volume Growth Program has been working during March at one FCA dealership. The numbers have been altered slightly to protect the dealer's identity.
In March 2014, the dealer sold 124 vehicles. This March, the dealer's goal to receive a bonus has been 135 sales, despite this March having one fewer selling day, one fewer weekend, and the dealer no longer having Dodge Avengers to sell, as he had last year.
"These are stupid numbers," the dealer said, adding that, as of last week, he was projecting to miss his monthly goal -- and its attached payout -- by 15 percent, or the equivalent of 20 cars, making him reconsider his aggressive hunt for the month.
"We're being asked to just sell more in less time. At some point, you have to decide when to jump off the merry-go-round before you do something stupid."
Jim Arrigo, chairman of the FCA US Dealer Council, said he's OK with FCA's monthly bonus strategy. Arrigo owns five FCA dealerships in south Florida.
"It's a stretch, but to have the number out there, I like that I have the ability to get [the payment] if I hit it. I also know that the number has been given to me fairly," Arrigo said.
"There's going to be dealers that buy into it and dealers that don't."