Bill Heard Chevrolet Customers 'Freaking Out'
TAMPA - When a car dealer goes under, it can be a nightmare for customers. Everything from new car titles to car loans can end up scrambled, or worse, frozen amid a bankruptcy process - turning a major purchase of a car or truck into a major headache. That's the concern for customers of Bill Heard Chevrolet, the nation's largest Chevrolet dealer, which closed operations in Plant City on Wednesday amid financial problems. The parent company, Bill Heard Enterprises of Columbus, Ga., operated 13 dealerships in Tennessee, Georgia, Arizona and Florida, including locations in Plant City and Sanford. Randy Jackson of Tampa gave the Plant City dealership $2,000 in cash last week as a deposit on a new $16,000 HHR sport wagon. Now he can't get anyone to answer the phone at Bill Heard."How can they just take my money? How can they do this to me?" Jackson said. "I'm freaking out." For now, there's a short list of places customers can call for help other than the dealership. Chevrolet has a hot line for customer issues, but General Motors dealers run their own businesses and financing, so corporate customer service may not be able to help. Customers also can call the state's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which regulates new car dealers in Florida. As of Thursday evening, the Plant City dealership had not filed bankruptcy protection paperwork in Florida or Georgia, where the company is headquartered. Sticky Problems Customers can get caught in the middle when dealerships go under. When Tampa's Bob Wilson Dodge dealership filed for bankruptcy protection in April, some customers found out the dealership never paid off the loan on their trade-ins, leaving them with two loan payments - one for their new car, one for the old car they didn't have anymore. Others found their deposits on new cars had disappeared. That happened to Don Maifeld of Lake Placid, who dreamed of buying a retro-style Dodge Challenger and sent a $5,000 deposit to Bob Wilson. No Challenger ever appeared. "I've sent them lots of e-mails, but never hear back," Maifeld said. "I want answers or my money back." These are tough times for auto dealers. The economic downturn has put a damper on new car sales of any brand, and U.S. car companies are feeling more of the pain. Sales of new cars in the United States could fall 5.4 percent, to 14 million cars, in 2008. On Thursday, the Courtesy GMC, Pontiac, Buick dealership in Orlando closed its sales doors. Executives there could not be reached for comment. Will Some Reopen? Even before the Bill Heard closure, the company faced issues with some of its business practices. In 2007, two of its dealerships in Florida signed a $400,000 settlement with the state Attorney General's Office over what the state called "numerous misrepresentations" in advertisements. Still, the closure came as a surprise to General Motors, said spokeswoman Susan Garontakos. "This is all new to us, too," Garontakos said. "We found out about this [Wednesday] when reporters started calling us saying it was closed." Some of the Bill Heard dealerships could re-open, she said. General Motors has shown interest in the company's Scottsdale, Ariz., location, either by selling it to another dealer or opening it to a pool of dealer candidates. Eventually, GM will look at the Plant City location and review options, such as offering it to other companies that want to open a dealership, she said. For Bill Heard customers, a lot will hinge on whether the company files for bankruptcy protection. If the company does file Chapter 11 reorganization, or worse Chapter 7 liquidation, many recent customers can find themselves in a long line of creditors that are owed money. That bankruptcy process can take months to proceed as federal courts sort out the order of whom to pay and in what portions: taxes, banks, lawyers, owners and car customers. Numbers to call For customers with questions, here are some places to contact. Dealership - www.billheard.com. Click on "Customer Hotline." General Motors/Chevrolet: www.chevrolet.com. Chevrolet Customer Assistance Center. (800) 222-1020. State of Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The agency regulates new car dealers. (850)617-2000 Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This office has no formal jurisdiction over dealers but often advocates for customers. (800) Help-FLA.
Reporter Richard Mullins can be reached at (813) 259-7919 or [email protected]