Agonies trickle down Family-owned car dealership ponders closing.

Posted: December 10, 2008

In a remarkable show of staying power, Weed Chevrolet has survived the Great Depression, a temporary shutdown during World War II when car assembly lines were being used to make tanks and other military vehicles, and the tricky interpersonal dynamics endemic of family-run businesses.

But Weed's endurance, it appears, is no match for this economic siege.

The sale of new and used automobiles has trickled to as few as 10 a month. General Motors Corp., Weed's supplier, is in its own battle to survive. Painfully tight credit is making it hard to keep the showroom stocked and for buyers to buy.

Thus, the Bristol Township dealership established in 1926 is closing in on an alternative its owners never thought they would confront: shutting down.

Agreements have been reached to sell the franchise and its eight-acre property to separate buyers. Because those deals are awaiting final approval in an unpredictable economic climate, Weed's manager, who is also one of three cousins who own the struggling dealership, is not ready to speak in terms of a closing date.

What Bruce Weed is conceding is that "it will be difficult to continue operation into the spring under current conditions."

He has been laying off employees since September, paring a workforce that was once a robust 70 in the late 1980s to just 20.

"There's a feeling in your stomach when you're laying off people that have worked for you for 30 years," said Weed, during a two-hour interview earlier this week that brought the 51-year-old Washington Crossing resident to tears. "It's awful."

Said Scott Weed, another of the owners: "It's like having your dog die every day."

Framed pictures of founders Ellis Vaughan Weed Sr. - known as "Unk" - and his brother Henry, were on the floor behind a cabinet in Bruce Weed's office, a decorating oversight, perhaps, but one that seemed fitting. Their grandsons are having a tough-enough time with the decision to likely shutter the business without having to stare each day into the faces of the two men who started it all.

Weed Chevrolet spent its early years in Bristol Borough's 1.9 square miles, at a time when America's small towns were thriving. New cars would arrive by train on tracks that cut through the borough. Weed mechanics would first take them out of crates, then complete their assembly by putting on the wheels and tires.

Bristol's residents rewarded the Weeds by being loyal to the local business.

"Back then," said Bruce Weed, "you sold to your community."

As small towns started to empty out, their residents lured to the bigger homes and lawns of the emerging suburbs, Weed Chevrolet followed the trend. It moved in 1966 to a new showroom the Weed brothers had built on a 4.2-acre chicken farm along what is now one of Lower Bucks County's busiest commercial corridors - Route 413. That facility remains Weed's home today.

Throughout the years and the changes, there was at least one constant at the dealership - a Weed family tie. Given that Henry Weed had no children and died in the 1960s, it was "Unk" who left the biggest genetic impression on the business. He had three sons - Vaughan, Frank (Bruce's father) and Henry (Scott's father).

Over time, the pull of the family business would entice three generations of Weeds.

Ellis Vaughan Weed Jr., now 84, was 22 when he got out of the service in 1946 and "sort of naturally" went into the car business.

Initially, "it was a challenge," he said. As factories transitioned from wartime manufacturing back to standard automobiles, "you couldn't get cars" for a while.

So Vaughan Weed started his career in the parts department. He moved into car sales in 1955. Foreign competition was not yet a threat. General Motors, he said, had 50 percent of the market share. Life as a salesman over the next few decades was grand. Corporate-sponsored sales contests enabled Vaughan and his wife, Ruth, to visit Australia, Ireland, Switzerland and Italy.

By the 1980s, "Unk" had passed away, but another generation of Weeds was a presence in the showroom. David Weed, Vaughan's son, came first, followed by Bruce and later Scott.

With a bachelor's degree in business administration from Gettysburg College and a master's degree in finance from Pennsylvania State University, Bruce flirted with the idea of a job in financial services, possibly on Wall Street. He would instead choose Route 413. His father had been the last of his siblings to join the dealership business, having spent years prior as an insurance broker.

"I had to come in and establish my family's position" in the Weed family's dealership interest, Bruce said. He would assume his father's piece of the ownership, partnering with his uncles for more than 20 years before they turned over their shares to his cousins.

"It was a fun business for a long time," Bruce said, especially the last day of the month.

"Back in the old days, the last day of the month, you'd sell 20 cars, and the top salesman would buy beers for everyone," Bruce recalled. "The last day of the month isn't anything anymore."

Scott, now 46, first started selling cars the summer between his junior and senior years at Millersville University, where he majored in management and finance. He would put the degree to use, becoming the dealership's finance manager in 1989. Among the perks: He hosted his daughter's Sweet Sixteen party in the showroom, an extravaganza that still makes him smile thinking about it two years later.

Cousin David, Vaughan's son, would oversee used-car sales.

By October of this year, the three had come to the unanimous decision it would be difficult to sustain the business. That was when GM's financing arm, GMAC Financial Services, sent a letter to dealers announcing it was tightening its policies. GMAC, the primary source to which GM dealers steer customers for loans, was restricting financing to buyers with a credit score of 700 or above - the upper echelon - and requiring bigger down payments.

Just as punishing to the dealers, if not more so, was GMAC's new policies on providing financing to dealers to enable them to buy cars to put in their showrooms and on their sales lots - known in the industry as floor planning. While once willing to finance as much as 95 percent of a dealer's inventory, GMAC was cutting back to about 70 percent, Bruce said. It also was requiring faster payoff of its dealer loans.

The Weed cousins first took out personal loans to meet GMAC's tougher financing demands. There wasn't enough capital on hand, Bruce said, because it had been their business strategy to buy property as it came available around the dealership to establish a bigger presence. At eight acres, the Weed Chevrolet property is now twice its original size.

The agonies of the domestic automakers are pressuring many dealerships. Historically, about 20 dealerships have been lost each year in Pennsylvania. This year, that number is likely to be three times that. The national picture is equally grim.

Vaughan Weed has anger about this ending. He blames the U.S. government for allowing foreign automakers "to come in and decimate" the domestic auto industry.

But regarding their decision to sell the franchise, Vaughan Weed said he has only support for his son and nephews.

"I would have probably made the same decision under the circumstances," he said. "All things have to come to an end. You just have to accept it."

Some remaining employees declined to be interviewed, saying they were so angry about GM and GMAC, they feared what they might say and the trouble that might cause.

Ken Keiffer was willing to talk. He can't say enough about a family that gave him work when he needed something to keep him busy after he retired as a mechanic 13 years ago and his wife died five years ago. As a "lot man," his job was to move cars around the dealership. When the layoffs started earlier this fall, the 75-year-old widower insisted the Weeds stop paying him.

But he continues to show up every day, not so much to move displays, but "because I like the people," he said. "I just can't see why the government doesn't bail these people out."

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.

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