Sunday, October 5, 2008

Former Bill Heard employees having no trouble finding work

Local dealership owners quickly snatch up workers

Bryan Gunter had worked for the Bill Heard service department for more than four years when he found himself in a line 10 days ago awaiting his final paycheck.

What started as a regular work day was ending in the worst possible way. The 89-year-old Columbus car dealership told its employees on Sept. 24 it was closing without warning.

As Gunter, 36, stood in that line, his cell phone started to ring. He got two calls, both from former bosses, Steve McLendon at Rivertown Ford and Dan Williamson at Jay Pontiac, Buick GMC. They offered encouragement.

Gunter, the lone wage earner in his family, needed a job.

A week later, Gunter was working in the Jay parts department in Bradley Park. He's not alone -- at least six former Bill Heard employees have found jobs in the Jay dealerships. Others are landing at various dealerships throughout the Chattahoochee Valley.

Gunter said he was able to put the sudden loss of a job he had held for more than four years into perspective because of the premature birth of his daughter, Madeline. Born more than six weeks early, Madeline, now 4, spent 25 days in the hospital. Gunter's wife, Rachel, also had an extended hospital stay as a result of the birth.

"That got me through this," Gunter said. "Yes, I lost a job. Yes, it was devastating. But it was nothing compared to what my family went through."

Gunter was one of more than 300 people in Columbus and more than 2,700 across the country at 14 dealerships forced to pick up the pieces when Bill Heard Enterprises closed.

Gunter's search was made easier and quicker because his former bosses reached out to him.

"It was an unfortunate occurrence," Gunter said of the closing. "No one expected it. But despite what happened, you still have to move on. I knew I wanted to stay in sales and I knew this place was a good fit for me."

Looking for good people

McLendon, the service manager at Rivertown Ford, said people at other dealerships across Columbus were not standing around the showroom high-fiving each other as word of Heard Chevrolet's death spread.

"It was somber," McLendon said. "All of us knew there were some really good people over there. We have all developed friendships and we communicate day-to-day on business."

Carl Gregory and Jay Stelzenmuller, who both own large Columbus dealerships, moved quickly to hire some of the top people from Bill Heard, even though they had few jobs available because of the economic troubles hitting the auto industry.

"Absolutely," Stelzenmuller said. "They had some great people, and we wanted to take advantage of their expertise."

Gregory agreed.

"There's always a demand for good techs and good salespeople," Gregory said. "There is always a demand for good people, period."

By week's end, Gregory hired at least five former Heard employees, mostly salespeople and service technicians.

Stelzenmuller was also looking at the business opportunity that was being presented and knew he had to beef up his service department. Jay is certified to repair General Motors products. Because Heard's closing left a hole in the local service market for Chevrolet and Cadillac, Jay added technicians.

"We hired two or three mechanics and would have liked to have hired more," Stelzenmuller said. "Our service business has picked up because now we can work on any GM brand."

Finding a job fast

Brown Brady is a successful salesman who has sold thousands of cars in his 30-year career with Bill Heard. The 67-year-old Brady had a choice: Retire or find another job.

He chose to keep working, and it did not take him long to land at Jay Toyota. Brady has a relationship with Jay Auto Group owner Stelzenmuller.

"I have known him for 40 years," Brady said. "They have always run a good operation."

The day the Heard dealership shut down, Brady called Stelzenmuller. The call wasn't a surprise, as they talked several months ago as a dark cloud was forming over the Heard operation.

Though Brady, one of the best-known car salesmen in the region, was able to quickly land a job, he was saddened to see the Heard empire fall the way it did.

"I am disappointed to see it close -- and close under the circumstances it closed," Brady said. "I was especially disappointed for the guys who were living week to week."

Brady was not the only salesman Jay hired. Tracey Giles and Jeff Jackson, both of Bill Heard Cadillac, found jobs at Jay Maxx Used Car Super Center.

Though the Heard job ended suddenly, Giles said the skills he learned there in two years helped him quickly find other employment.

"Bill Heard gave me my start and I am grateful for that," he said. "Because of the skills I was able to develop, I was able to find another job."

As news of the Heard closure spread, Giles said he heard from a customer in Arizona.

"He called out of concern for me," Giles said. "That made me feel good."

Unique position

Of all of Heard's former Columbus employees, Kris Jessee was in the most unique position.

Three weeks before the store closed, he left Bill Heard after 32 years. At 51, Jessee had been working for Heard since he was 18.

When he left he was the fleet sales manager, a job he had done for more than two decades.

The day Bill Heard Enterprises closed up shop, Jessee was at his office in Manchester, Ga. He and his partner, Ernest Sledge, purchased the Chevrolet, Pontiac and the Ford, Lincoln, Mercury dealerships from the Langdale Group. The businesses are now Sledge Chevrolet Pontiac and Sledge Ford Lincoln Mercury.

Since the Heard dealership closed, Jessee has hired three of his former co-workers. But he admits the process has been difficult because of his long-time association and loyalty to Bill Heard.

"Am I up here laughing?" he said. "No. But am I up here benefiting? Yes."

Not only is he benefiting by getting seasoned sales and service employees, he is also benefiting because his dealership is close enough for many Heard customers to use the service department. He also is selling new Chevrolet's, something no one in Columbus is doing right now.

"I know the big issue locally is who services the cars," Jessee said. "But I want to look at it from the sales side, too. We are representing Chevrolet despite the misfortune of the Heard group. We are selling Chevrolet's here."

(Talk about surviving, looks like the sky isn't falling on some of the Bill Heard employees! Way to go! VN8)


Country Comes To Town said...

Yeah, the good thing about the car business is that if you are any good at all, you can always find a job in the car business. We were always looking for good sales people and service technicians, even in tough economic times. The people that will get hurt the worst are the folks that were in the middle of transactions when Heard filed bankruptcy. Customers will lose deposits, if they made a trade and Heard failed to pay off the trade in, the customer is responsible for the payoff of the trade and the payment on the new vehicle and they will not get the trade back. ...unbelievable but sadly true under the bankruptcy laws. I heard some auto industry insiders discussing the situation today on TV and it's really sad that so many customers will get screwed because they are considered unsecured creditors and will be behind a huge list of secured creditors that will gobble up all the assets first. It's hard to believe that a customer could get caught losing so badly in this situation when they are actually the innocent victims.

VoteNovember2008 said...

Jim, I guess it's the same with any career choice, do a great job and you have some job security. Have a diverse work history and you have even more job security in tough economic times.

As for the innocent victims, yeah that's really tough, but I wish we could come up with another word to describe them. Victim is such an abused word. Sometimes when I hear it I cringe. I think I learned something from this, if I ever trade a car, I'm getting my money before I leave the car in someone's possession! Maybe we should all learn the same lesson before we become "victims" ourselves. VN8