Old Chrysler hand still seethes over dealer cuts

DETROIT — Tom Pappert is nearly two decades removed from the pressures of monthly sales goals and the stress of product meetings.

He picks at a salad and a cup of mushroom barley soup at the corner table at one of metro Detroit's most exclusive country clubs while a string of familiar passers-by wave and smile and say, "Hi, Tom."

Pappert smiles and waves back, of course. But below the surface — out of polite earshot — anger still seethes in the otherwise convivial man who led sales operations and oversaw the dealer network for more than 15 years at what was then a strong and independent Chrysler.

The object of his disgust: a failed mission, undertaken a decade after his 1998 retirement, to save 789 Chrysler dealers whose franchises had been stripped away during the automaker's 2009 bankruptcy.

In 2009, in the middle of the worst crisis in the auto industry's modern history, Pappert joined a large delegation of dealers and experienced industry hands on a pilgrimage to Washington to convince Congress — or really anyone — to stop the culling of dealers from Chrysler's and General Motors' networks.

"It had taken weeks to set up the trip," the 78-year-old retired executive recalled. "There was supposed to be a congressional hearing; there were two congressmen in the room, and some staffers. Otherwise, it was empty. We were supposed to meet with Obama's 'car czar,' Ron Bloom. We got 10 minutes with him, and he spent five of those talking about himself. It was like no one cared, and it still makes me angry."

Pappert had been a favorite of Chrysler's dealers. During his time in the sales department, he had come to the realization that bad dealers tend to get washed out naturally. During his run, he had experimented with eliminating Minimum Sales Responsibilities and other disciplinary tools that the factory has used against dealers.

So why dredge up these bad memories now? Well, Pappert says, Fiat Chrysler's ongoing network expansion project. Automotive News revealed in January that the automaker was adding more than 300 U.S. rooftops, and to Pappert, it seemed like more proof that the dealer culling during the bankruptcy had been wrongheaded.

He had lived through Chrysler's acquisition of American Motors in 1987 and the messy business of absorbing its dealers into Chrysler. And though he retired almost 20 years ago — a lifetime in industry terms — he still has many friends across FCA's dealer network.

"The dealers didn't cause Chrysler's bankruptcy," Pappert said after a sip of iced tea. "This [network expansion] proves that Chrysler didn't have too many dealers. But the [terminated] dealers really got screwed. It's been how long now, and I still don't know why it happened."

Of the 789 dealers originally terminated by Chrysler, hundreds were eventually returned. An exact figure was not available from FCA.

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