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Saturn of Clarksville closes

October 26, 2009

Saturn of Clarksville closes

Shutdown shocks customers, employees

By G. Chambers Williams III

For the past nine years, Danny Barger has helped customers finance their car purchases at">Saturn of Clarksville.

But his job as finance manager ended Friday as the dealership closed its doors, the first casualty among the three Nashville-area Saturn stores owned by Bristol, Tenn., car dealer C.M. "Bill" Gatton. The others are in Cool Springs and Rivergate.

Barger and 16 other employees were let go, all because auto-racing great Roger Penske was not able to complete his takeover of the">Saturn brand from financially strapped General Motors.

"I’m not sure what I’m going to do next," Barger said. "I’m kind of in a state of shock. We just found out last week, and it’s still hard to believe. I’m going to sit at home for a while and ponder the future."

Penske pulled the plug on the Saturn acquisition Sept. 30, the day before the deal was to close, saying that a preliminary agreement with another automaker to produce vehicles for his independent Saturn operation had fallen through.

Rather than open the process to further bidding, GM said that same day that it would terminate all 350 Saturn dealers and wind down the business instead.

Nationwide, more than 13,000 Saturn dealership and corporate employees stand to lose their jobs, and the "new kind of car company" GM created in the mid-1980s to fight Japanese imports — with its headquarters and manufacturing plant in Spring Hill — will be relegated to history along with such names as Nash, Studebaker, Packard and Oldsmobile.

"Up until the last minute we thought it was a done deal," said Gatton, who has owned the Nashville-area Saturn stores since 1995. "Personally, I think GM and Penske made a big mistake. There is no automotive brand in America that has as much goodwill among its customers as Saturn, and there is no other domestic brand with this kind of positive image. It’s a sad, sad day."

Gatton said he will keep the Rivergate and Cool Springs locations open at least through October 2010, when their franchise agreements with GM officially expire. And if he can, he said, he will convert them to other new-car franchises, if any are available.

Until then, the dealerships will provide warranty service on Saturn vehicles and will sell the Saturns they have in stock or can get from GM, along with used cars, he said.

But no more new Saturns are being built; GM shut down production of the remaining models — the Aura midsize sedan, Outlook large crossover, Vue compact crossover, and Sky two-seat convertible — this past summer at the end of the 2009 model year.

About 50 vehicles remained in the inventory at the Clarksville location Friday, General Manager Greg Gillman said. Those cars — 20 new and 30 used — will be moved to the other two stores, he said.

"For our employees, it has been an emotional ride to say the least," Gillman said. "But they have kept really good attitudes, and about a third of them say they have already found other jobs."

Options pursued

Gatton said he was optimistic that at least one of the Nashville-area stores would be able to continue with another car brand. He said he is in negotiations with another automaker.

Service customers at the Clarksville store had just one question of the staff: "Where do I take my car now?" said Mary Wright, whose job included greeting customers and serving as cashier for the service department, and who now is looking for other work

She told any who asked that they could take their cars to other GM dealers in Clarksville for warranty work. "I’m sorry to see it closing," said Alma Groves of Clarksville, who brought her 2003 Saturn L300 sedan in for service on Wednesday.

"I’ve been coming here since I got my car in 2005, and I don’t want to take it somewhere else," she said. "But I don’t guess I have any other choice. I’ve always appreciated the way they treat their customers here, and they even held a picnic for us every year until this year."

At">Saturn of Cool Springs, General Manager Bob Miles said he’s hoping Gatton can find another new-car franchise for the dealership before his store suffers the same fate as Clarksville’s.

"I’ve been here since the doors opened in 1995, and we have lots of good, loyal customers," he said. "They’re all rooting for us to keep going."

In the meantime, he said, the dealership will keep up business as usual until Gatton decides what to do.

"Maybe we’ll end up just selling used cars," he said.

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