Car dealer Jay Cimino once moved platoons of new Jeeps out of his Denver Chrysler-Jeep showroom. It was a point of particular pride for Cimino because the dealership's namesake and his mentor, Phil Long, had been a World War II hero.
Long did his work over the South Pacific as a Hellcat fighter pilot, rather than traversing the war's Asian theater in an earthbound Jeep. Still, there was a nice historical symmetry between Jeep, the World War II workhorse, and the fighter pilot who flew 120 missions, won a Gold Star for heroic acts in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944 and was shot down twice by the Japanese.
One month after being honorably discharged in 1945, Long opened his first showroom, a Ford store, and began building an auto empire. Thirty years later, Long hired Cimino, an ex-Marine with dark, penetrating eyes and auto experience, to run his thriving group of dealerships. Cimino got Phil Long into the Jeep business by acquiring a Chrysler-Jeep franchise. He built Phil Long Denver Jeep-Chrysler into one of Colorado's top Jeep dealers. For meritorious service, Chrysler awarded him membership in its President's Club, bestowed on dealers with the best sales and customer service.
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All of that history didn't protect Cimino, 77, from becoming collateral damage in Chrysler's bankruptcy. In June 2009, about a month after Chrysler filed Chapter 11, Cimino was informed that his franchise was being terminated. The Obama administration, as a stipulation of giving Chrysler its $12.5 billion bailout, required the automaker to drop a quarter of its dealers to bring its bloated retail network closer to the proportion and profitability of Toyota's.
The president was concerned Chrysler wouldn't survive if it continued to sell its cars through unprofitable, underperforming stores. Obama left it to Chrysler to choose who to dump. Cimino's store was among 789 dealers Chrysler axed.
"What really was painful to me is how un-American I felt all of that was," said Cimino, who went to college on the GI Bill. Cimino was so stunned he refused to close the showroom and lay off his employees. Instead, he kept it operating as a used car showroom he dubbed "ValuCar."
"We kept our Chrysler store open, hoping we'd get our franchise back," said Cimino.
That didn't happen. Cimino appealed in an arbitration process set up by Congress. Chrysler accused the Phil Long Automotive Group of being on the edge of collapse and mistreating customers, which Cimino denies. Ultimately, Cimino prevailed, but it didn't matter. By then, Chrysler had awarded the Chrysler-Jeep franchise to a store across the street owned by AutoNation Inc., the largest publicly traded dealer network in the U.S.
To Cimino, it was more than an attack on his business acumen. Every shot at the Phil Long dealership felt like an attack on someone with as hallowed a history as Jeep itself and someone he considered a father figure. Until Phil Long died in 2001, Cimino always turned to him when times got tough.
Chrysler sees it differently. While spokesman Mike Palese didn't directly address the Phil Long termination, he said Chrysler used "sound business judgment" in deciding which dealers to drop.
Today, the 12 Phil Long dealerships Cimino runs are more profitable than the 15 stores he ran back in 2008. That's thanks to booming sales at his Ford outlets and the Chevrolet showrooms he was awarded by General Motors Co. to replace the Saturn stores he lost. He never had the opportunity to sell the hot new Jeep Grand Cherokee produced by the revived Jefferson North plant. "It's been a challenging journey," he said. "But we are growing again and we are stronger now than we were before."
If Chrysler offered Cimino a Jeep dealership today, would he take it? "No," he said. "We'll stay with people who have integrity and people we can trust."
He paused to compose himself.
"Life's too short."