Dodge dealer John Cullen closes car lot

By JEFF BISHOP jbishop@newnan.com There were three moments in John Cullen's life that were like a shot to the heart. "That's when I lost my mom when I was 18 years old, then when I was diagnosed with cancer at age 32, and then when I received that letter. Man, I was just devastated."
"That letter" was the one sent by Chrysler to 789 of its dealers in mid-May, informing them they would no longer be able to sell Chrysler/Jeep/Dodge vehicles. Tuesday was the Newnan John Cullen Dodge's last official day as a Dodge dealership. "We were part of the appeal, and we are waiting on a final decision from the court right now," said Cullen Tuesday afternoon. "But as of right now, I'm assuming that today is our last day. They might give us a couple of more days, but I'm assuming that this is it." He said that they were down to 12 vehicles on the lot. "Dodge isn't obligated to take them back, but they said they will assist us in moving them to other dealers -- but it would be at a loss," said Cullen. "That's why people are getting some great deals on these things right now." He said people have made some "crazy offers" on the few remaining vehicles. "There have been some where we've just had to say, 'I think I'm going to have to pass on that one, for now,'" he said. "But I guess I can't blame people. They figure you're going out of business, so they might as well give it a shot. The deals we're making may be crazy, but not that crazy." Cullen said it's been heartening to see customers coming by, asking what they can do to reverse the decision. "I've had a lot of customers come to see me. Some have offered to write letters of support. I even had some people come in today. They weren't looking to buy a car, they just wanted to give their support and tell us that they appreciated the service we've given them. They know that now it's going to be gone. "People do appreciate good service, and that's the way we've treated our customers, and that's no baloney," said Cullen. "Ask any of our customers. They are very happy when they leave here." This month would have been the two-year anniversary for his dealership, he said. He selected Newnan after a five-year apprenticeship under his older brother at Terry Cullen Chevrolet in Jonesboro. "My family and I only really know two things -- professional hockey and cars," he said. Cullen's hockey career included 187 goals and 363 assists in 621 career games over 11 seasons with four National Hockey League teams. His father, Barry, and two uncles preceded him in the NHL. His father opened a Chevrolet dealership in Guleph, Ontario, after playing five years with the Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings. "When I retired from the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999, my brother Terry helped me learn all the ins and outs of the car business at his dealership in Jonesboro," said Cullen. "He was a great teacher, but I always hoped to open my own store one day. So two years ago I made a deal for this dealership in Newnan." He said it's "amazing how time flies." "I can remember driving to look at this place for the first time," he said. "And then I think back on all the time and money I've invested. And then, after just two years, to get a letter saying that just because of Chrysler's decision to restructure -- well, it's really sad, that's all." Cullen said he has "exhausted" his investigations into aligning himself with another car company. "Car companies are just not willing to expand right now, even though Newnan is just a fantastic market," said Cullen. "It's just because of the way the economy is. Manufacturers are not willing to put new points out there. So I've had no luck." Cullen said it's been a tough blow to take. "When you put all you have into something, working six days a week, 12 hours a day, that's a lot of hard work," he said. "And we've survived through the worst economy anyone could ever dream of -- worse than anything we've seen during our lifespan. So, yes, we are very, very upset. It's been a tough couple of weeks." Cullen said his employees have been "unbelievable," even in the face of uncertainty. "We've only lost two technicians. Everybody is still here," he said. "Of course, they're looking for jobs, and I told them they need to. But no one's bailed on me. It's a hard thing to look at their faces when I walk in in the morning. There's fear on their faces. This is their livelihood." He said it's not as if the employees can just go to another dealership, "because they aren't hiring either." He's told his 28 employees to have faith, despite the dire circumstances. "We have great people, and great people rise to the top," he said. "I've told them not to worry, that they'll get a job eventually. It will happen for them." Cullen said he's not sure what the next step in his life will be. "I'm in uncharted territory right now," he said. "So I'm not quite sure. My focus during the past couple of weeks has been just on my operation here. When the final days come, I'm just going to have to re-evaluate my situation. It's almost like it's not even believable." Cullen said he's certainly not alone. He's spoken with other dealers, "and there are a lot of horror stories out there." Some dealers are being forced to close despite being in business for "generation after generation." "I know of some dealers who spent two million dollars in improving their buildings just a year ago, to make their buildings nicer, and they got letters, too," he said. "It seems so unfair -- which it is -- but life it not always fair." Cullen said he has "enjoyed so much" coming to Newnan and establishing his Dodge dealership, despite the outcome. He still finds it a bitter pill to swallow. One of the reasons dealerships were given a termination notice was if they did not carry all the Chrysler brands under one roof. In Newnan, SouthTowne carries the Chrysler Jeep brand while Cullen sells the Dodge brand. Cullen said he was never given a chance to correct the situation. "What upsets me is that, if they were so serious about that, then why did they approve me two years ago?" he said. "They shouldn't have let it happen. They didn't even give us the option or tell us, 'You guys need to do something, you guys need to get together.' There was no pressure at all. "I talked to Steve Mader at SouthTowne, and we were both totally shocked that they shut down all of Newnan. We both talked about it, and it makes absolutely no sense. But I know they shut down a lot of single-point Dodge stores, and I'm a single-point Dodge store. "I just can't look back at that," he said. "But it's been tough. Real tough." Cullen said that County Commissioner Paul Poole wrote a letter to Chrysler to vouch for the dealership. It might not do any good, but the gesture is appreciated, Cullen said. "I sold Paul a car, and it was a great experience for him and a great experience for me," said Cullen. "But now people are coming in and wondering where they go to get their vehicle serviced, or who's going to deal with their warranty. We are doing everything we can. "We are getting a lot of support, though. And even though I've only been here two years, some people just want to come in and shake my hand."

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