The federal government's $17 billion bailout of the U.S. automotive industry came too late for Tony March, if it could have helped at all.
The civic-minded Hartford auto dealer — who donated cars as prizes for Hartford public school students with perfect attendance — has shut down both of his Leibert Road locations, joining a wave of closures in Connecticut and the nation that is accelerating as the recession deepens.
A notice on 8½-by-11 photocopier paper posted at entrances to Tony March Buick-Pontiac-GMC and at Saturn of Hartford, next door, bluntly stated the circumstances: "Sorry, we are closed."
An accompanying letter, dated Dec. 19 and signed by March, said the businesses had "closed their doors" as of that day, and referred customers to a General Motors website for further assistance.
"These dealerships have proudly served this community for many years and the decision to close was not an easy one," the letter said without citing specific reasons for the closure or its timing.
It was unclear Monday whether March's Saturn location in Berlin has been closed. No one there answered calls to several numbers listed for that location.
March bought a Hartford auto dealership in the mid-1980s, his first, after working for General Motors as an electrical engineer and then attending a GM dealership school. In 1998 he formed a holding company with an Atlanta dealer he knew from the school, Ernie Hodge, creating a company with 13 dealerships in four states. By 2001, March and Hodge had 19 in seven states.
More than a dozen out-of-state locations listed on a website for March/Hodge Automotive, reached by telephone Monday, all said they remain in business.
March did not respond Monday to messages left at his businesses and with his wife, Gail, who said she could not discuss the car dealerships. A manager at the Leibert Road businesses referred inquiries to March. Hodge, in Georgia, also did not return a telephone message.
A worker who said he had been laid off estimated that 40 people would lose their jobs.
March was most recently in the news earlier this month, after a former bookkeeper was arrested, accused of embezzling from the dealership.
It is hardly a secret that these are perilous times for car sales, especially for dealers selling brands made by one of Detroit's Big Three, but also for foreign brands. On Monday, Toyota said it expects its first fiscal-year operating loss in 70 years.
New-car dealers in Connecticut had already closed about 30 locations this year a few weeks ago, when the last estimate was available, according to the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association.
"You can expect that there are going to be additional closures," the group's president, James Fleming, said Monday. He would not identify any dealers on the verge of closing.
General Motors and Chrysler have both said they will eventually close or consolidate thousands of dealer locations nationwide as they struggle for survival — even with a federal bailout. On Friday, President Bush announced $13.4 billion in loans, with the possibility of $4 billion more.
On Monday, a half-dozen tractor-trailers were lined up along Leibert Road to receive cars as they were driven off March's partially plowed lots. A worker for Hoffman Towing and Transportation in East Windsor said the cars would be auctioned by Southern Auto Auction.
Larry Tribble, Southern's owner, could not be reached Monday for details.
March, a high-energy businessman who was named The Courant's business leader of the year in 1994, has confidently forecast his ability to overcome reversals. In 1999, he told the paper, "I'm one of those people, you could take all my money away, and in four years, I could be a millionaire."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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