Westminster Dodge fights to overturn death sentence

Joe Lawlor has sold thousands of cars in his six years as sales manager at Morrissey Boulevard’s Westminster Dodge. The Bickford family — which has operated the Chrysler dealership since the 1960s — has sold many times that.

This week, though, they are pitching a different kind of sale, one that even they admit has long odds of finding the right buyer.

Westminster Dodge: Sales manager Joe Lawlor vows to fight Chrysler's shut-down orders.Westminster Dodge: Sales manager Joe Lawlor vows to fight Chrysler's shut-down orders.

The dealership is one of 12 in Massachusetts that have been ordered to close next month as part of a sweeping reorganization of the company ordered by a federal task force. Westminster has mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign — targeting President Obama and the state’s Congressional delegation seeking a reversal or at least an extension of the June 9 shut-down date.

The news — which came last Thursday in a form letter from the car giant’s regional offices in New York —left Lawlor, a Lower Mills native, floored.

“We knew that change was in the air, but we never thought it would be us,” Lawlor said from his desk on Monday. “We are clearly not an underperforming dealership and we don’t meet any of the criteria outlined by the task force.”

Like everyone else in the car business these days, Lawlor says that Westminster has been “surviving, not thriving.” Still, he notes that last year they sold 350 new cars and another 200 used — well above the thresholds outlined by the company.

Now, the dealership has been told to liquidate their entire inventory of cars and parts — worth in excess of $3.5 million — within two weeks. It’s 50 employees — many of them local residents — will be out of work within two weeks.

Westminster appealed to elected officials to aide their case last week— and Mayor Tom Menino leaped into the fray first— blasting off letters to Obama and the delegation. Copies of Menino’s letter are plastered throughout the Morrissey showroom this week.

The letter triggered a response from Chrysler: The first and only phone call from company executives, who commiserated with the three Bickford sons who run the business that their father bought more than 40 years ago. (The elder Bickford, who is in his 80s, is devastated by the news, Lawlor says.) Still, beyond expressing regrets, the company execs said their decision was “final.”

“I guess it was kind of unrealistic to expect the same people who arbitrarily put us on the list to come to their senses overnight, admit their mistake, and remove us from the list,” Lawlor said. “I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. I’d say our chances are less then 50-50, but they will be zero if we don’t fight it.”

State Rep. Marty Walsh, in Washington, D.C. this week for a labor conference, pressed the dealership’s case to allies as well.

“I am concerned,” Walsh told the Reporter, “because of the loss of jobs, but also about having another huge empty lot on Morrissey. It’s a dangerous precedent in this bad economy.”

Megahan Maher, a spokesperson for Congressman Steve Lynch, said Wednesday that his office contacted “Chrysler officials in an effort to discover the factors that were used in determining the criteria by which dealerships were assigned to the ‘rejected list’. Based on the initial explanation by Chrysler the criteria seems to be vague.”

Maher said that Lynch’s office also has been in contact with representatives of the dealerships in the 9th Congressional District that will be impacted as a result of Chrysler’s decision as well as the Massachusetts Auto Dealers "to determine what options, if any, are available to the rejected dealers.”

Lawlor suspects that there was a more sinister motive in closing one of the city’s few remaining car dealers.

“We don’t know what the selection criteria was for the termination list, but it certainly is difficult to understand why [some others] would make the cut and we wouldn’t. Apparently, for some reason they don’t want to be in the City of Boston. Could it be our inner city location or our diverse customer base? Who knows.”

Update on May 21: In a letter dated May 18, Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry co-authored a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in which they voice "serious concerns" about Chrysler's plan. While the letter does not specifically mention Westminster Dodge, the senators write, "We're particularly concerned about the potential closing of Chrysler dealerships that are significantly outperforming the criteria used by the company to justify putting them on the termination list." They urge Giethner to "do everything possible to enable these successful dealerships to remain open."



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