Selling Dodges in a Downturn: Upbeat in Kansas

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Kristoffer Tripplaar / Sipa

Dodge makes a popular muscle car, the Challenger, that comes in Tora Red and Hemi Orange. (Hemi is car-speak for a type of engine that accelerates like a rocket). There's a shiny red one, with a big green bow on the hood, on the showroom floor in Overland Park, Kan., and sales manager Mike Sullivan is confident it will be sold — and soon.

The week between Christmas and New Year's Day is traditionally the busiest of the year for car dealers, and Sullivan predicts it will be as good as ever. In fact, the folks at Overland Park Jeep Dodge are feeling so bullish that 50 extra cars were ordered for the early months of 2009. "We've already bottomed out," he said with the upbeat attitude of a true salesman. "Each month has been building back to normalcy." See photos of the 50 Worst Cars of All Time

Dodge's parent company, Chrysler, isn't quite so optimistic. On Dec. 19, the Big Three automaker closed all of its factories for a month — twice as long as the usual year-end shutdown. Chrysler's sales were down 47% in November, even worse than the 37% decline for the industry over all. And all the grim headlines about Detroit's uncertain future aren't helping local salesman. At this sprawling dealership in suburban Kansas City, the biggest problem facing auto salesmen is squeamish buyers spooked by too much talk about bailouts and bankruptcies. "Our problem is getting them in the door," Sullivan said of his nervous customers. So Friday's announced $13 billion rescue package for GM and Chrysler was good news, not so much because this Kansas dealer needed a lifeline, but because it might reassure buyers the company will survive (along with the companies that make replacement parts for its cars).

Sullivan wears a big ring studded with diamonds — one for every year he has ranked among the top Dodge salesmen in the country — and he has enough years behind him to remember tougher times. When his salesmen complain, he recalls trying to sell cars when interest rates were 17 and 18% back in the early 1980s. "I say, 'Guys, you've got no idea what it was like,'" Sullivan said. "If there weren't a few people paying cash, we would have been out of business."

His boss has been around even longer. Owner Frank Thompson, 77, who has been selling cars for 57 years, still brown-bags his lunch every day and puts in 40-45 hours a week, remembers even darker days for dealers: the oil embargo in 1973. Having lived through tough times before, Thompson was ready this time. In July, when he began to notice "For Sale" signs seemingly reproducing on neighborhood lawns overnight and hearing new horror stories every day about people who were upside-down on their mortgages, Thompson put his Dodge salesmen on salary, so they wouldn't have to rely solely on commissions.

"It didn't take a genius to see a bumpy road ahead," he explained. He wanted his salesmen to be confident and unburdened. "That's the first person customers see when they walk in the door," he said. "I wanted to take the unknown out of it. This relieved the stress, which gave me productivity."

Then in September, Thompson cut his own salary 30% and slashed the rent the dealership pays him for the land he owns underneath the cars. "The sacrifice starts at the top," he said.

October was bleak: the dealership sold only 30 cars for the month compared with a normal 15-18 a week. But December's numbers are solid, he said, thanks in part to his deep roots in the community and solid ties to bankers. Compared to many dealers, Overland Park Jeep Dodge hasn't been troubled by lack of consumer credit. All of his 70 employees have safe jobs, Thompson declared.

An admitted car nut, he proudly shows off the vintage cars he keeps in a special area inside the dealership. There, 15 mint-condition cars gleam amid old Skelly gas signs and an antique manual pump frozen at 19 cents a gallon. A juke box features Sinatra, the Ink Spots and Peggy Lee. The colors are spectacular. There's the two-toned gray and salmon '55 Bel Air and the silky green '57 Thunderbird convertible. How could a country look at cars like that and not fall in love?

Thompson has faith in that flame. "I love this business even in the worst of times — it's still fun for me," he said, with confidence.