Hitting Home: Family auto dealership struggles in bad economy

02/13/09 5:33PM By Steve Zind
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Part of the special VPR Series "Hitting Home: The Recession and Vermont"

(Host) Here's an example of how the worldwide recession is hitting home in Vermont...

Tough times for Detroit's automakers mean tough times for Vermont's auto dealers.

While they pace their showrooms waiting for customers, dealers are also casting an anxious eye toward Washington, hoping for additional relief for the auto industry.

Some Vermont dealerships say they may not make it.

As part of our series on the economy, VPR's Steve Zind visited one longtime family dealership worried about staying in business.

Click here to see the Bean Chevrolet photo gallery

(Matthew Bean) "This is where the barn used to be, right there..."

(Zind) Eighty years ago the Bean family farmed this land in Northfield. But Matthew Bean - people called him Babe - didn't much care for milking cows. So he opened a Texaco station right there on the farm. In 1950 he went from servicing cars to selling them and Bean Chevrolet was born.

Babe Bean's three boys grew up in the family business. Son Mark says he never considered making his living any other way.

(Bean) "Ate breathed and slept the automobile business since I was a kid. I've been here ever since, right out of high school...worked with my brothers and father and mother and now my son."

(Zind) Bean remembers how it was a big event in town when the new models arrived each year. The cars were brought in by train under the cover of darkness and people flocked to the dealership the next morning to see them.

(Bean) "It was a surprise for people and it was a big thing for people to see the new models that came out. And that's when they were changing them almost every year. There were big fins and little fins."

(Chevrolet jingle)"See the USA in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call. Drive your Chevrolet through the USA. America's the greatest land of all..."

(Zind) Back when Dinah Shore was singing its praises, a new Chevy was a prized symbol of upward mobility and middle class status.
Generations passed. Tastes and styles changed. But Chevy remained an American icon.

(Snoop Dogg) "Ridin' in my Chevy and I'm sitting at the light..."

(Zind) After nearly 60 years in the business, Bean's son, who's also named Mark, says his family bleeds Chevy blue.

He sells cars to the children of the people who were his father's customers.

Bean says they often call him at home when they have questions or problems.

(Bean) "Everybody knows everybody and if they don't they pretend they do!"

(laughs)

(Zind) Bean says no one's gotten rich, but the auto business has been good to his family. And they've tried to give back to the community - supporting a long list of local groups and causes.

But business took a downturn about three years ago when gas prices jumped and buying habits changed. Then the credit crisis hit and the economy ground to a halt.

Now sales have gone from a few cars a day to a couple of vehicles a week. Bean says his family is struggling to stay in business and protect its 13 employees, some of whom have worked there for more than twenty years.

(Bean) "As a family dealership, you start with yourself. We've been making less and taking less. Without getting into detail, we're all taking some pretty heavy pay cuts."

(Zind) Bean says it's true that American auto manufacturers have been too slow to respond, but he says no one could have anticipated that gas prices and the economy would change so dramatically.

The Beans don't like to dwell on their problems, but somehow the conversation always seems to circle back to how difficult times are - and how uncertain the future is.

Mark Bean has three school aged children. I ask him if he imagines them taking over the business someday.

(Bean) "I'd like to be optimistic, but I've got to say that's probably not going to happen. That's probably not going to happen. I don't know if we can weather this storm."

(Zind) Without a hometown dealership, people would still be able to travel out of town to buy their cars.

But the loss of this long time locally owned business would serve as yet another sign that hard times are changing communities.

For VPR News, I'm Steve Zind.

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