HOLLY HILL — Al Bilton received a plaque from General Motors in April congratulating him on being in the car business for 25 years. A month later, GM informed him it would not renew his contract to sell its products after October 2010.
The Bilton-Behr Chevrolet president saw it as a slap in the face, so much so his dealership now sports a banner across a fence on his car lot that originally read, "GM — total confidence." The sign has since been changed to read, "GM — No confidence."
"That pretty much sums it up," Bilton said.
Bilton-Behr Chevrolet was among 1,100 dealerships put on notice in May as GM prepared to file for bankruptcy protection. And it's one of the few to publicly acknowledge it's losing its franchise. GM informed federal lawmakers last week it is cutting loose 24 South Carolina dealerships, but the locations have not been disclosed.
The automaker said the dealership cuts were meant to increase its ability to compete by getting rid of what it called too many GM lots competing with each other. That's not how Bilton sees it.
"It's a sad day when the best way to salvage a company is to get rid of the dealerships," Bilton lamented as he looked over the thinning lot where he has sold GM vehicles for a quarter of a century.
Bilton said his business didn't cost GM anything and he can't understand why the company is severing ties with loyal franchises that market and sell its products.
"I do not receive one dime from GM to keep my dealership open," he said. "I pay for every car, truck and part I order. I do not think that closing my Chevrolet dealership and putting good, hardworking people out of work relieves our national economic crisis."
Bilton employs about two dozen people who work jointly for his side-by-side Ford and Chevrolet dealerships on the outskirts of this tiny Orangeburg County hamlet.
He doesn't know what effect the Chevrolet dealership's loss will have on his employees, some who have been with him since 1971, when he first started selling Ford vehicles.
He continues to sell Ford cars next door and is toying with the idea of bringing in late-model imports to replace GM autos.
A smattering of new Chevrolets remained on his lot this week, including an $18,000 Cobalt, a $25,000 Colorado crew cab truck and a $37,500 fully loaded Traverse SUV.
"Our biggest sales were trucks, Tahoes and Suburbans," he said. "When gas went to $4 a gallon, you couldn't get rid of them. Now, with the cutbacks on people's work hours and everything going on in the economy, people aren't buying $50,000 vehicles anymore."
Son Ken Bilton has noticed a pullback in customer interest now that gas prices are creeping back up. "You see it's slowing down again already," he said.
The elder Bilton said he was informed in January in person by a local GMAC representative that GM was going to cut off his floor-plan financing, which dealerships rely on to replace inventory. He was given until April 15 to find a replacement.
While he found another funding source, he said GM still "cut us off out of the blue."
"They won't even let us order a new vehicle even for a new customer," he said. "We can't even figure a new vehicle. They took that from us too."
Bilton predicts GM's strategy will backfire and drive customers to competing dealers.
"They are shooting themselves in the foot," Bilton said. "What they are doing in the rural areas just ain't going to work. If a guy has to drive 30 or 40 miles to get to a GM store, he might decide to stop by a Toyota store instead."