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Done Deal

Part II: Race to 1,000 Letters

March 31, 2009

Tired of seeing dealership after dealership falling under the weight of the current economic crisis, Finance Director Holly Cason described how she moved her family from Northern California to Tennessee in hopes of a better scene. “I thought maybe [the crisis] was more isolated to where I was living,” she wrote. “So after deep consideration, my husband and I moved our family to the Tennessee area. Sadly, there’s no difference.”

Jacques Salinas, an F&I professional in Bayside, N.Y., described his failed attempts to sign up with a new lender after being dropped by AmeriCredit. “I’ve never cancelled more deals …,” he said. “We were dropped by AmeriCredit during [its] recent financial distress. I’ve been trying to sign up Cap One, but they’re not signing new dealers as of now. BOA isn’t touching anything with hair on it.”

Bob Cockerham boarded a plane headed for Washington, D.C., on March 18 armed with more than 400 similar stories in a bid to tell the story of “Main Street” to Washington, D.C., lawmakers.

“It was the toughest sales job I ever performed,” he said. “There was some confusion about what the bailout for GM and Chrysler did. They really thought things would be better. So we had to explain the difference between working capital and inventory financing.”

As I described in my March 17 blog, Cockerham and his wife Mary traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify on March 19 before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. And with lending as his battle cry, Cockerham — surrounded by lawmakers and bank representatives — joined another businessman in telling committee members that lending needs to open up.

“We approached it two different ways,” he said. “We asked that Small Business Administration (SBA) guidelines be expanded. The SBA could provide working capital loans, which is like throwing out a life preserver. The second would be the boat itself, and that’s SBA guaranteeing floorplans.”

And it appears lawmakers were listening, as Senators Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) submitted yesterday a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner requesting that he consider a program that would allow the federal government to use TARP funds to guarantee lines of credit for qualifying businesses.

“I got the feeling that they wanted to hear this, and Landrieu, she really does care,” said Cockerham. “I really believe we’re going to see some movement on this in the next five to 10 days, I really do.”

Cockerham’s world-wind tour of Washington, D.C., didn’t end with the hearing, as he and his wife spent the rest of Thursday, as well as Friday and Saturday, visiting senators at their offices. Their plight didn’t stop there, as Cockerham has been talking to anyone who will listen, including his state SBA.

“It was amazing how quickly all of this happened,” said Cockerham, who thanked the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) and the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association (NIADA) for coordinating his trip. “We just want to be treated fairly. Main Street didn’t deserve the deal it got from Wall Street.”

The battle to loosen the credit markets is being fought on several fronts. Aside from the NADA and the NIADA, the American Financial Services Association (AFSA) is lobbying the Fed Reserve’s Ben Bernanke to expand eligibility for the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) beyond AAA rating.

Cockerham said he’s already heard from several finance companies, which account for more than 40 percent of all non-mortgage-related consumer loans, that they’d return to the market if TALF is opened up.

“It is our belief that the biggest problem is consumer lending,” said Cockerham. “Floorplanners would calm down, and it would fix the factories and the suppliers. We’ve got to start selling cars again.”

By the end of our discussion yesterday, it was clear the support Cockerham received continues to fuel his plight.

“We’re so grateful. I can’t even tell you in words. We’re just so touched by how many people took the time to call and e-mail us. The stories were unbelievable, they really were,” he said. “Mary and I have taken this on as our fight and we’re going to keep battling until something gets done. We’re fighting to keep dealers alive.”

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