Business & Economy
December 2nd, 2009
This spring, when the stock market was at its nadir and the new Obama administration was bailing out GM and Chrysler, I decided to put on my dusty salesman’s hat and help out the cause. I had previous car sales experience, successfully selling cars at LaMarque and Benson dealerships in the 1990’s. (I told some juicy tidbits from those “interesting” experiences here.) Most importantly, I felt that GM was not a lost cause and that in some small way I could help “Government Motors” when they needed it most. In my view, GM had finally started doing the right thing in terms of product-quality, and they had a good chance to get on track after a bankruptcy restructuring (which seemed inevitable) and a generous government bailout.
So I went to work at Mossy Motors, a family-owned Buick Pontiac GMC dealership in the center of New Orleans. Mossy is one of the oldest dealerships in the state, and has sold Oldsmobiles and other GM products for 75 years, employing thousands of New Orleanians over that time. I quickly became one of the top salespeople at the dealership, winning “salesman of the month” honors and selling more new GM cars and trucks from April to July than anyone else there. During that stretch, Mossy Motors was one of the very few dealers in the entire region to repeatedly surpass its GM-designated new car sales goal. And this success occurred during a brutal recession and before* the “Cash for Clunkers” mania (which Mossy Motors didn’t really particpate in). Though I left the dealership, I’m proud of my professional performance at Mossy.
How about them Saints? Did you see them beat up the Patriots on TV, or were you lucky enough to attend the game in person? What a thrilling domination. Did you see Saints owner Tom Benson (who owns several car dealerships) up in his luxury box, enjoying his team’s win? Did you watch the Walker Volkswagen postgame show on WDSU? (If memory serves, I think Susan Walker is Tom Benson’s niece.) Or did you watch the GMC Sierra postgame show on ESPN? Or perhaps you attended the GMC pregame show hosted by WWL 870am over at Julia Street. Or did you see the Crown Buick Pontiac GMC commercial? Or maybe you noticed Ronnie LaMarque on the TV, singing “Who Dat” in front of a computer rendering of the French Quarter, with a billboard advertising his Ford dealership in the background.
As a “car guy”, I always note how local dealerships and automakers try to glom on to the success of the local sports franchise. What must Saints owner Tom Benson think when he sees Ronnie LaMarque doing “Who Dat” commercials during Saints games? It makes me giggle.
It’s also interesting to see how the car business is transforming the way it advertises new vehicles. For example, did you know that this summer was the “Summer of Taurus”? That’s right, Ford came to New Orleans to introduce the new 2010 Ford Taurus. In the 2nd video at this link, you’ll see a Ford executive connect the current struggle of the auto industry and the rebirth of the Ford Taurus to the current struggles and hopeful rebirth of the 9th ward after Katrina. Seems a little forced, but I’ll let you make your own judgments on that one.
In my other blog, I came down hard, perhaps too hard, on some local netizens who got to preview the new Taurus and who had nothing but praise for it. In my opinion they wasted an opportunity to be critical, and use their platform to make helpful suggestions (i.e. beef up the brakes). Then again, I’m critical of all cars, even the ones that I’ve sold. But you wouldn’t believe the influence this feedback can have.
For example, GM literally cancelled a vehicle because of negative reaction in the twitterverse.
General Motors Co. said it canceled plans for a Buick sport-utility vehicle announced Aug. 6 after potential customers said in person and online that the model lacked luxury touches they expect of the brand.
The decision was made Aug. 14, after GM earlier in the week showed the SUV and other future vehicles to consumers, dealers, employees, analysts and news reporters, Vice Chairman Tom Stephens said yesterday on a company blog. One blogger called it “hideous” and users of Twitter dubbed it the “Vuick.”
“We were all struck by the consistency of the criticism,” Stephens wrote. “It didn’t fit the premium characteristics that customers have come to expect from Buick.” He didn’t elaborate on the vehicle’s shortcomings.
Anyway, the aforementioned GMC pre and post- Saints game “shows” were actually deflating for me. See, despite what the media was told back in May, the city of New Orleans did suffer from the last round of GM dealership franchise cuts. Mossy Motors was among the dealerships to lose its (Buick Pontiac GMC) franchise. Thus, they were unable to take advantage of the slick GMC promotions and hoopla during the highly rated Saints Monday Night Football game. As is painfully clear, if you take a look at Mossy dealership on South Broad St., there are hardly any 2010 models on the lot. The only ones in inventory are from the orders they placed prior to receiving the dreaded cancellation letter from GM. There won’t be any more after those are sold.
I personally didn’t like how the management handled (read: buried) this news among its sales associates, and left Mossy several months ago after learning there wouldn’t be any more new cars to sell. But I do understand why they weren’t up front about it. Joe Mossy, the grandson of the original owner, doesn’t plan to close. He feels an obligation to figure out a way to stay in business, in order to keep employing the 80+ families who rely on the dealership. Currently he’s busy transforming Mossy Motors into one of the biggest used car retailers in the city (perhaps until a new car franchise opportunity becomes available). If Mossy had a blast of bad media stories before they were able to reconfigure their business model towards pre-owned vehicles, perhaps there wouldn’t have been time to make the necessary transformations. (And yes, I can’t help but sometimes employ car sales lingo like “pre-owned”. I don’t know exactly when “used” became “pre-owned” in the auto industry. Can’t wait until the day “pre-owned” is exchanged for “gently loved”.)
When my family evacuated to Jackson MS for Katrina, I vividly remember watching the news, and hearing that “Jefferson Parish Officials say flooding in Orleans Parish has worsened ‘exponentially’”. CNN, I think, then showed footage of Mossy Motors under about six feet of water, and that’s when I knew that our house in Broadmoor, only about 1/2 a mile away, was in serious trouble. Then they showed a shot of the old blighted “Bohn Bros” building on Broad Street near Washington, with its shattered windows and devastated appearance. This produced a welcome moment of dark levity: “Hey, that building was like that BEFORE the storm!” I yelled to the TV. Anyway, Joe Mossy’s dealership was totally flooded in 2005. For him, the easy play would’ve been to take the insurance money and retire. Rebuilding a car dealership in the middle of a neighborhood whose survival (at the time) seemed very much in doubt was a risky act of faith. The car business isn’t an easy business even under ideal circumstances, much less in a catastrophe zone. But 80+ people worked at Mossy Motors, so Mr. Mossy decided to stay true to the employees who relied on him, and he chose to rebuild his dealership, and continue selling and servicing cars in the center of New Orleans, just as his family had done for generations.
GM’s decision this summer to pull Mossy’s franchise was a body blow to the citizens of New Orleans. Rubbing salt in the wound is their high profile sponsorship of the Saints Monday Night Football game, including the much-ballyhooed pregame “GMC truck” events. Mossy Motors— which is so accessible, and within easy walking distance of the Dome, and whose last two dealership symbols were the Superdome and the Fleur de lis— couldn’t productively participate in these events. This leaves me bitter, and I view it as an insult to the community. Why parade GMC products around the center of the city, when GM has forced New Orleanians to purchase these high dollar automotive investments in the surrounding municipalities of Metairie and Harvey? What did they do to earn this commercial windfall, other than have the dumb luck not to be flooded by poorly built Federal Floodwalls?
As you might expect, there’s a backstory here, and it’s pretty interesting. Joe Mossy and GM had a somewhat “complicated” relationship over the past two decades or so. Back when it was Mossy Oldsmobile, Joe sold a car to Clarence Barney, a beloved civil rights leader who passed away while Katrina was in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the Oldsmobile he bought was a pure lemon. Joe Mossy wanted to help get Mr Barney a car that worked. He explained the situation to the GM executives, and asked for a favor in this circumstance, but they were totally unhelpful. Again: Mossy, a dealer who had been in business since the 1930’s tried to call in a favor for a civil rights leader who had purchased multiple Oldsmobiles over the years, and who had just invested thousands of dollars in a lemon. But GM balked at providing any assistance, and Joe admitted to losing his temper and using some extremely colorful words to the unhelpful GM executives. I’m not saying this is the only reason GM pulled the franchise, but Joe does believe the bad blood that stemmed from that encounter might’ve been a contributing factor.
I’m proud that Mossy didn’t close his dealership after losing the franchise, and hope that his pre-owned dealership is profitable and that one day another franchise becomes available to him, his employees and the surrounding neighborhoods. I purchased my first car at Mossy, and I proudly display the silver Fleur de Lis that accompany the Mossy name on my Buick.